Originally opened as the Top Hat Drive-In in 1953, Sonic has grown into a burger-franchise mecca that today operates out of 3,500 locations across the country, making it the nation’s largest chain of drive-in restaurants. Sonic specializes in made-to-order American classics—including burgers, hot dogs, milk shakes, and marshmallow Ford Thunderbolts—which customers order and receive without ever having to leave their cars. Unique menu items include toaster sandwiches stacked on thick slices of texas toast, as well as the brand’s signature tots and fresh limeades.
Sonic’s numerous awards include a 2011 Zagat survey ranking it among the top five fast-food restaurants in three categories: Best Value Menu, Best Milk Shake, and Best Drive-Thru. The benevolent eatery has also donated more than $2 million to public schools throughout the country through their program Limeades for Learning, which helps to fund educational projects and retirement plans for classroom guinea pigs.
A stay-at-home mom founded Chelsea TreeHouse, a 9,000-square-foot indoor ?unplugged? play space free of any distracting video games or other electronics. The play area is outfitted with slides, swings, bridges, and a multilevel climbing structure, and basketball hoops allows aspiring players to practice slam dunks within eyesight of parents or guardians lounging in leather seating. During birthday parties, groups of kids can take advantage of amenities such as pizza, balloons, and lemonade. For everyday nourishment, TreeHouse?s full-service cafe replenishes energy with healthy bites such as veggies, yogurt, and cheese while parents enjoy more adult fare, such as sandwiches, salads, soups, and Zingerman?s Coffee.
Family recipes from across Italy make every spoonful of sauce and melty morsel of mozzarella at Gianni's Cafe remind you of a happy home. Start your evening with ricotta-stuffed baked eggplant rolls ($9.95). Then, trail teasers with a trinity of customizable pasta: Choose your own noodle, sauce, and ingredients with a Romanesque thumbs up or down. Options include pesto and spicy diablo sauce ($13.95 each), with add-ons such as pine nuts ($2.50) and meatballs ($3.50). For those who would rather not choose what they chews, a house specialty eliminates decision-making. Garlic, white wine, herbs, peas, and potatoes erupt from unpredictable veal vesuvio ($21.95); pollo (most dishes are $17.95) and pesce ($18.95–$31.95) are other protein-packed options. In addition to its post-meridian menu, Gianni's also serves lunch at the Kildeer location (open seven days a week), and Sunday brunch in Palatine (open Tuesday through Sunday).
At The Waffle Gourmet, a waffle isn't just a breakfast item. It's the foundation for creatively topped desserts, sandwiches made with Boar's Head meats, and ice-cream sundaes made with more than 30 flavors. After devouring crispy chicken with a waffle or another savory option, guests can pick from sweet waffles coated in toppings such as peanut butter, Nutella, and cream-cheese frosting, or choose waffle ice-cream sandwiches or sundaes tucked in waffle bowls. The wafflesmiths also use dedicated equipment to craft their special gluten-free vegan waffle, made without wheat, dairy, soy, corn, or yeast. As diners linger to chat or use the free WiFi to check in on their virtual pet rocks, they can also sip smoothies, french-pressed coffee, and organic milk.
Dan Beelow culls his Mundelein-raised cuts of beef and pork from his brother Duane's prized stock, ensuring that the meat that takes center stage at Beelow's Steakhouse's best USDA-graded quality. The succulent cuts of slow-roasted prime rib and steaks are aged a minimum of 45 days and fired over mesquite wood or a single match before joining fresh seafood and locally sourced produce atop white-cloth-covered tables. The passion for all things local extends to the bar, where mixologists assemble Snowshoe martinis with locally crafted Few white whiskey and regional musicians strum away until the late hours of Friday night.
Smashburger isn't just the name—it's the way chefs grill every burger. First, they form never-frozen, 100% Angus beef into a giant meatball. Then they season it, place it on a butter-glazed grill, and smash it into a patty. The process caramelizes the beef, locking in flavor while keeping the meat juicy and tender. The chefs then sandwich each slab in an artisan bun and turn it into one of an array of standard burgers or locally inspired specialties unique to each market. This handcrafting approach typifies everything else the chefs do, from blending handspun Häagen-Dazs shakes to hand painting Smashburger's logo onto every beverage cup. Letting its food stand for itself and relying mostly on word of mouth for advertising, the Smashburger franchise expanded to 160 restaurants in five years, with its swift growth from zero to 100 stores making it one of the nation's fastest-growing restaurant companies. This rapid development even caught the attention of Forbes and Inc. along the way.