Food road trips are one of my passions. When my best old friend Greg said that Julie (his wife) was going to Sanibel with her friend LuAnn for a week and did I want to do something while she was gone the words "Chicago road trip" flew out of my mouth, seemingly without thinking.
I have had a Chicago road trip, foraging for deep dish pizza, Italian beef and Chicago style hot dogs, planned for several years. Had the time finally arrived? I think it had.
We left Friday afternoon and except for two quick pit stops drove straight through from Minneapolis to Chicago. Four hundred miles and 7 hours later we stopped at our first port of call... Mr. Beef for Italian beef sandwiches... at midnight.
Our host, Caesar, told us that he will serve 150-200 sandwiches on a Friday night, late, to the after bar crowd. On Saturday nights upwards of 300 sandwiches.
Mr. Beef makes their own giardinera, a hot, marinated vegetable mixture, and it was delicious. One bite told me that we had chosen wisely. This was a really good sandwich.
Partially eaten Italian beef from Mr. Beef's
We were batting 1000.
Saturday morning, 11 am. We just had brunch, which consisted of deep dish pizza and a Lou's salad at Lou Malnati's on State Street, in the South Loop. I have three words for our experience at Lou's...really, really good pizza.
Honestly, I'm a thin crust pizza guy and I was expecting a thick heavy pizza over loaded with cheese and sauce. What was delivered to our table was completely different. What arrived was a pizza that struck a good balance between sauce, crust and toppings, that tasted fresh, light and not overcooked.
Our waiter, Esteban, was positively delightful and "took care of us" in that way that a only a really good waiter can." He started us out with Lou's salad, a tasty but not extraordinary salad with a sweet dressing, diced tomato and cooked crispy salami. Esteban also brought us a cup of house made Minestrone soup.
Deep dish at Lou Malnati's.
Then came the pizza, which Esteban had ordered for us, a spinach, tomato, pepperoni combination with some small amount of cheddar cheese. Absolutely spectacular, and to make things interesting he served giardinera and red wine vinegar as condiments. A great innovative touch.
Both Greg and I found the giardinera delightful as a substitute for red pepper flakes. As suggested, we dipped our crust ends in the red wine vinegar, not life changing, but certainly intriguing.
I have to say, this was one of those food experiences that was greatly enhanced by the interaction with the waiter. Once we shared with him that we had driven from Minneapolis in search of Deep Dish pizza, Italian Beef and Chicago hot dogs, he immediately stepped in, took control and made our experience quite memorable.
Later in the afternoon using foot power and the El we made our way to the Portillo's on West Ontario. Trying very hard to look the part of the urban, Italian neighborhood (trying too hard in my opinion) the decor featured drying laundry strung between buildings, visible fire escapes and old paraphernalia hung on the walls.
This place came very highly recommended and neither Greg nor I thought much of the hot dogs. Primarily because they wrap their hot dogs in wax paper, as if it was a take out order, and it smushs all the ingredients together. We were not very impressed and we both commented that there is a place in south Minneapolis run by a couple of Chicago transplants that is better than Portilla's.
Sunday morning, 11 am. We now find ourselves at Bacino's, a small mom and pop establishment. David, our waiter, assisted us in ordering their spinach and cheese pizza. I inadvertently ordered giardiniera mixed in with the spinach, a misunderstanding. The combination works very well, the spiciness of the giardiniera and the blandness of the spinach play together nicely. I'm told that if you ask for David you can order a Chef Jimmy deep dish pizza, spinach and cheese plus giardiniera.
Bacino's spinach and cheese (with my addition of giardenera)
We also, based on the strong recommendation of our waiter, ordered an Italian beef. We didn't like it as well as Mr. Beef's for two reasons. First, there was too much beef and second, the beef was layered rather than crumpled randomly. This created a thick bite of roast beef rather than an airy bite.
On the drive home Greg and I agreed that we were winding down another successful food road trip. We experienced no major glitches and as always we had some seriously good food, plus we got to hang out together and talk smart.
We think our next outing may be to Mississippi for fried chicken, grits, greens and biscuits.