“I miss everything about Chicago, except January and February.”
Chicago is my twice-a-year food mistress, and I love her for it.
I am an Illinois girl in a California world. Having grown up outside of Chicago, I have a great appreciation for wonderful food (see my previous post). But not highfalutin food with words I can’t pronounce—No, I love the simple yet delicious foods. I relish foods that inspire a good conversation with good friends over a long meal. It’s a part of our culture, our lifestyle. The food that you eat super fast or it feels that way because it is gone before you know it. That’s why our pizza (read: the best pizza in the States) is deep dish. It’s not supposed to be eaten on the run without interaction with anyone else; it is supposed to be enjoyed, savored. It is supposed to fill you and those around you up, both literally and figuratively.
Most people write about the excellent restaurants in the city proper. But I grew up in the burbs. So over those many years, I have some of my own local favorites that top the list of options whenever I make the trek home.
Portillo’s Hot Dogs & Barnelli’s Pasta Bowl
Portillo’s has so many magical Chicago-centric menu items, it’s hard to keep track. The Chicago-style hotdogs. The Italian beef sandwiches. The cheese fries and milkshakes. The addictingly decadent chocolate cake.
For open campus lunch in high school, we used to race over to Portillo’s for lunch, quickly eat and race back to campus in time for classes the next period. It made me a true lover of Portillo’s especially the location on Route 59. I even love the salads, but my favorite Portillo’s are the locations with Barnelli’s Pasta Bowl. This is because my all time favorite food item is the Chicken Parmesan Sandwich on Focaccia. The chicken is breaded perfectly and the focaccia has tomatoes on top. I have been getting it for at least 15 years.
Chicago Style Pizza
I. Love. Good. Chicago. Style. Pizza. I grew up on it. So when I go home, I try to get some deep dish. Everyone has their own preference on chain, and there are some great one-off restaurants in the city with some excellent pies. But my easily-accessible favorites are Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s, both of which have a number of locations in the western suburbs. But even if I can’t manage some deep dish on a visit, I at least grab some Home Run Inn “thin” crust, usually every visit, which is my fave thin crust option.
Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant
This is relatively new discovery for me. On a visit home a couple of years ago, I was introduced to this gem. I was interested in the concept of a Midwest winery, living in California and all. And the wine and wine-based cocktails did not disappoint. I am a lover of sweet wines, and I enjoyed the Moscato and the Riesling.
But the food took it to another level. I went with another foodie (shout-out Dawn) who introduced me to a number of her menu favorites. There are so many menu items you can’t go wrong with. So much so that I try to get by there whenever I am in Chicago for a visit.
So let’s start with the appies. The Mexican Drunken Shrimp were a visual and edible feast featuring bacon, shrimp and guacamole. Yummers. And anyone who knows me knows I love a good southwestern eggroll, and the Over the Border Eggrolls did not disappoint.
Dawn’s favorite is the Caprese Flatbread, and as a pesto lover, I can now add that to my favorites list. We paired that with the Caesar Pesto Salad for an interesting (and moderately more healthy) twist on the lunch combo. It was so delish, I only had two spoonfuls of the Crab and Lobster Bisque that we shared and I was completely full.
As to entrees, well I honestly couldn’t tell you because I have never made it that far into the menu or meal. But if I ever do, I’ll do an update and let you know.
Heaven on Seven
For New Orleans creole and a good time, I love Heaven on Seven in downtown Naperville (or Chicago). Everything was great, from the shrimp to the gumbo to the crawfish tails to the cocktail concoctions. Their Hurricane cocktail is mesmerizing. I haven’t had a bad dish there once.
Big Apple Bagel
I don’t eat bagels often, but when I do, I prefer Big Apple Bagels in Naperville. Their cream cheeses are made from scratch and their bagels come out all day fresh. I love the cheddar herb bagel with the bacon cheddar cream cheese (did I mention how much I like cheese?). Savory and dense. Note: Big Apple only takes cash or check so make sure you have more than just plastic.
Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse
This is another new love for me (thanks, Amanda). I have been to the Oakbrook and Downtown Chicago locations of this Chicago steakhouse. I, personally, am not a steak eater, so I was a bit skeptical about a steakhouse at first. But then I experienced the Spicy Lobster Cobb Salad, and that changed, well, everything. It has everything from asparagus to artichoke hearts to a plentiful helping of the spicy lobster. The picture above is basically a half order. A half order! I couldn’t even finish it.
The lobster cobb was super yummy, but then, I indulged in the masterpiece that was the Crab Mac and Four Cheese. This photo doesn’t even do it justice. It has not only lump crabmeat and four cheeses (remember how much I love cheese), but also bacon and—wait for it—Andouille sausage. Rich was an understatement. It was heaven. I highly recommend Gibson’s, the Spicy Lobster Cobb and the Crab Mac. The cocktails are great, and I hear the steaks are excellent, too.
The Oberweis family has been in the dairy business for 100 years. They do milk delivery and sell products at various Chicagoland grocery stores. But at their retail stores and ice cream parlors, their ice cream cones and sundaes are enjoyed by many. I used to love getting their milkshakes and sundaes, even though I am not a huge ice cream eater. But whenever I make in home, there are always at least a few quarts of Oberweis are in the freezer.
Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
This is a re-discovered old favorite. Pappadeaux is actually Texas-based, with only one location in Westmont. Before this year, I hadn’t been in so long I had forgotten about this gem. But I returned last year and, of course, I was not disappointed. The specialties are the Cajun and creole inspired seafood dishes, and they are not to be missed. And the New Orleans-styled cocktails aren’t half bad either. It is always, always, always packed, so get a reservation early. My favorites: Stuffed Shrimp, Stuffed Crab.
I have to admit, I miss the food from home (along with, of course, the people and the culture). Out here, it just isn’t the same but I guess that makes me appreciate my visits even more. And I know there are many, many more, including new spots I haven’t tried, so please sound off with ideas for new options for my next trip. So even though I can’t hit all my spots on each visit (or they would have to roll me onto the plane), I guess Dorothy had it right when she said, “There’s no place like home.”
All photographs copyright of Tyra Hughley Smith, except Pappadeaux photo courtesy of Pappas Restaurants, Heaven on Seven courtesy of Heaven on Seven, Portillo’s food photo courtesy of Leah Frazier, and pizza photo is credited to Shutterstock/Brent Hofacker.