In 1966, taxi drivers Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli finally became fed up with their stop-and-go lives full of honking horns and rush-hour traffic. So they shut off their engines, handed in their keys, and took root. Along with pal George Loverde, they invested in property just off the bustling Magnificent Mile, but then didn’t know what to do with it. According to a 2004 profile in the Chicago Tribune, they got their direction when someone finally said, “Put pizza in it.”
Though the rest is history, it wasn’t quite easy. Bartoli and Loverde came from Italian and Sicilian backgrounds, but neither knew the key to a good pizza. It wasn’t until they hired Alice Mae Redmond, the woman responsible for the dough at Pizzeria Uno, that the Gino's East Chicagoans know and love was truly born. Although Alice Mae retired back in 1989, the recipe for her flaky, golden deep-dish pizza crust lives on.
Today, Gino’s still stands at its original spot on Michigan and Superior but has also stretched to 10 other city and suburban locations. Whether dining downtown or in St. Charles, customers find Alice Mae’s signature crust piled with mounds of cheese, sauce made from vine-ripened tomatoes, and plenty of fresh toppings—from sausage and pepperoni to jalapeños and ground beef. Hot from the oven, pizzas arrive at tables snuggled inside seasoned deep-dish pans, ready to welcome a fork and knife. Thin-crust varieties are also available for those who don’t know how to work silverware, as is a bounty of sandwiches.
At Ed Debevic's, every house burger, hot dog, and diner entree shares a not-so-secret ingredient: sass. The servers welcome guests to the vintage venue with tongue-in-cheek remarks and paper deli hats, seating them next to vibrant examples of what Centerstage calls "smart-aleck decor": fake autographs, old-timey ads, and signs that carry proverbs such as "Eat Now…Pay Waiter." The mischievously retro tone is cultivated in homage to one of the owner's favorite restaurants, Lill's Homesick Diner. Back in the '50s and '60s, Lill acquainted Ed with the classic flavors of comfort food cooked from scratch, showcasing the spirited moxie that made her a standout in the short-order world.
Ed chose to emulate both her classic cooking and feistiness at his own diner. Many of his menu items are housemade, including the meatloaf, mashed potatoes, the desserts, and the blue-cheese sauce on top of the Ed's Blue Moon burger. Milk shakes and malts pair well with a variety of hot dogs and sandwiches, especially when counterbalancing the effects of Atomic Mix: a blend of diced jalapeños, onions, and tomatoes that garnishes certain plates. The staff stays in comically impudent character throughout these meals. And every now and then, the servers pause to put on countertop dance numbers that are almost as exciting as the time your grandpa turned the lazy Susan into a zoetrope.
Antonio and Rosa DeRosa came from a long line of merchants who sold Italian staples such as pasta, olive oil, and wine in Montedecoro, Italy. The family was well known around Naples for these provisions, and when Antonio and Rosa immigrated to America in 1926, they stocked their business, DeRosa Imports, with these same Old World staples.
Today, grandson Anthony DeRosa runs the shop, where he upholds tradition by importing extra-virgin Sicilian olive oil, Italian espresso, and pastas ranging from rigatoni to gnocchi. Over time, the family has expanded their selection to include products from countries such as Croatia and Serbia. Artisanal pickles, sauces, and jams infused with rose hips or sour cherries line the shelves, along with bottles of wine to pair with dinner or pour on thirsty houseplants.
For more than 50 years, the staff at Arnie's Dog House has steamed classic Vienna beef hot dogs, Polishes, Italian beef, and other sandwiches and their focus on what's on top of the bun is just as important as what's inside of it. Toppings crown any meal choice, and include ladles full of chili cheese or the Chicago-style treatment for a hot dog, with sport peppers, dill pickle spears, and tomatoes on top. Arnie's toppings are so popular, they even come as a standard part of many menu items: cheese fries get more interesting with a sprinkling of bacon, and tamales come with gooey chili. Side items including fried pickles, cheese sticks, and funnel-cake fries help round out the menu. The team cooks up these favorites in addition to other items such as loose hamburgers, corn dogs, Italian sausages, and pizza puffs for meals to be eaten in house or delivered to your door still sizzling, cooking meals quicker than even the competitors of the Lunch Lady World Championship Games.
Giuseppe "Joe" Scalzo had to turn down his first opportunity to manage a restaurant, a small trattoria in Calabria he'd been working in as he attended school. He had spent his entire professional career working in Tuscan eateries and wanted the job, but his educational path led him to Chicago's Loyola University in pursuit of a business degree. It didn't take him long to realize that the thing he missed most about home was working in a restaurant. With his newly acquired business acumen, he began his foray into opening Italian restaurants: first Piazza Bella, then Via Carducci, and finally his most recent labor of love, Ciao Bella Ristorante.
The kitchen is nestled behind a black-and-white photographic mural, which hints at the sunshine that sparkles along the Mediterranean coastline. Greenery flanks the piece, providing contrast along with the warm, saturated red walls painted with real marinara sauce. As guests revel under dim lighting amid the elegant atmosphere, plates of carefully crafted Italian cuisine arrive at tables alongside traditional thin-crust pizza. The restaurant recently expanded its bar and lounge areas and added a new banquet area for private parties that can seat up to 70. Joe's personal favorite pie is the quattro stagioni, for its savory blend of prosciutto, artichokes, and black olives.
For more than 30 years, Pop's Italian Beef & Sausage has served up a Chicago-centric menu of beef sandwiches, burgers, and hot dogs. Silence empty-belly rumblings with one of Pop's delectable beef sandwiches ($4.19–$6.35), such as the italian beef, heaped with mounds of succulent, thin-sliced beef soaked in special spices and natural gravy. Windy-city visitors can delight in the classic Chicago hot dog and the savory polish sausage (each around $2.29–$2.99, depending on location), each nestled underneath mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and the looming shadow of oscillating skyscrapers. Other handheld fare includes the meatball and corned-beef sandwiches, which can be upgraded with a variety of extras, including red sauce, sweet peppers, hot mix (all free on sandwiches, extra as a side), feta cheese, and bacon. A fleet of made-from-scratch soups and salads is also available, and includes such options as the hearty cream-of-chicken rice soup and the large garden salad ($2.09–$3.99).
The burger artisans at Smashmouth Burgers & Pizza fire a fresh array of American fare from their fully stocked menu and carefully craft a selection of recipes each week. Celebrate the right to bear burgers with a plethora of 2-ounce Smash burgers, each bolstering a bouquet of caramelized onions, pickles, and bistro sauce ($0.99), or with a Monster Smash cheeseburger meal, which balances lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, pickles, and bistro sauce on a precarious half-pound patty of seasoned ground beef ($8.99). In addition to harvesting fresh burgers from its private orchard each morning, Smashmouth’s staff also designs submarine sandwiches and signature pizzas. Patrons can sink incisors into the chorizo-and-jalapeño-laden South of the Border pizza ($14.99–$17.99), or the Alfredo pie, which orchestrates a meeting of the minds among spinach, mushroom, and alfredo ($14.99–$17.99), wherein the ingredients discuss creating an edible replica of Michelangelo's Last Judgment.