Beyond the Tourist Traps

Notes on where to dine updated from the 2002 APA National Conference in Chicago

Renown the world over for its fine dining, Chicago offers a veritable panoply of great restaurants downtown, but especially in city and suburban neighborhoods. Be savvy and go beyond the restaurants the tourist guides offer to enjoy the real Chicago at venues like those recommended here by “real” Chicagoans.

Avoid the tourist traps — like the famous Uno’s and Due’s where the pizza, truth be told, is relatively flavorless — when you attended the APA National Conference in Chicago April 13 –17, 2002. Chicagoans can get pretty passionate about their food. So be prepared for some opinionated opinions on some places where Chicagoans (hopefully with taste) dine, downtown and beyond. Add your two cents worth.

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Russian Tea Time — Join celebrities like John Mahoney and B. B. King who dine here. Enjoy remarkable Russian–Jewish cuisine complete with a special ceremony for downing your vodka (about 12 different blends), pumpernickel, and pickle.  One-half block south of APA's Chicago office and 1/4 block west of the Art Institute at 77 E. Adams, Chicago. Do not confuse it with Russian Palace at 24 E. Adams where the food will not give your taste buds much pleasure. (DL)

 Italian Beef

Italian beef sandwiches are unique to Chicago. You can't get them in New York or Boston — heck you can't even get them in Italy! If you watch the Tonight Show you've heard Jay Leno rave about "Mr. Beef" on North Orleans. Well, we watch Letterman and can tell you unequivocally that Mr. Beef's Italian Beef is a lot like Jay Len….

Want to have a really delicious, juicy Italian Beef? Saunter on over to Little Italy on Taylor Street just west of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus and enjoy the food and sociological experience of Al's #1 Italian Beef and, if it's open, across the street, Mario's Italian Ice.

Al’s # 1 Italian Beef — It doesn't get any better than this. I've brought many an out-of-town friend here and they've all been thrilled — I still can't figure out how Joe Flynn, Jr. ever managed to eat two sandwiches in one sitting, well actually one “standing,” there are no chairs here. Be sure to order the fries “well done” with your succulent beef sandwich, dripping with flavorful "sauce" as they call the beef juice. It's hard to tell if it's the fries or the beef that brings people back again. Enjoy the mix of neighborhood folk, college kids and faculty, and suburbanites who make the trek for what may be the city's tastiest Italian Beef. Now this is not to deny the wonders of Johnny's in Elmwood Park, Bueno Beef, or even Mr. Beef which appeals to many — it's just Al's #1 Italian Beef offers a bit more flavor in the taste and experience category. And it's got Mario's Italian Ice across the street starting sometime in the spring. Al’s is located at 1079 W Taylor, 312-226-4017, closed Sunday. Open Sunday is Al's #1 at 169 W Ontario, kitty corner from Ed Debevic's and south of Gino's East's new home. Somehow, it's not the same on West Ontario.(DL)

And Beyond

 Near Southwest Side

Mi Tierra Restaurante Mexicano — Really experience "Mexico in Chicago" at this one of a kind dining and entertainment venue. Live music punctuates the air on the weekends as you dine on very authentic Mexican cuisine in the hacienda–like atmosphere. The vittles are delicious, bursting with flavors you don’t find in Americanized Mexican food. Complete with its own parking lot just north of the restaurant, you get a genuine Mexican dining experience here. Take home a personalized sombrero. 2528 S Kedzie, Chicago, 60623; 773-254-7722. Sister restaurants include Mi Tierra North at 1039 W Belmont; 773-929-7955, open late, with al fresco dining whether permitting. I can't vouch for the sister restaurant, but if it's anything like the one on Kedzie, you will have a wonderful time. (DL)

 West — in and near Oak Park La Piazza's main dining room

La Piazza — One of the finest discovered restaurants in Chicagoland! “The Crown Jewel of Sicilian Dining in America,” La Piazza offers a rare combination of incredibly delicious adventurous dining with beautiful decor. Painted by a Spanish muralist, the beauty of the exterior and interior of this gem match the beauty of the flavor of the food. Former APA and AICP President Sam Casella who visits his relatives in Sicily every few years says that eating a La Piazza is like dining in Sicily … but more adventurous. Words really are not adequate to describe the food and the dining experience at La Piazza. Visit the website to see the structure and menus: 410 Circle Avenue, Forest Park, IL; 708-366-4010. Closed Sundays. La Piazza will close any day now thanks to a bitter dispute between its owners. Chef Gaetano will open a new restaurant (same food) in spring 2008 about one mile west of the current site on Madison Street in Forest Park. It will be called Gaetano’s. (DL)

Sparacino RistoranteOne of the finest undiscovered restaurants in Chicagoland! An affordable feast for the most discriminating palette! You can't go wrong with the incredibly tasteful northern Italian dishes here (nary a red sauce in sight). The only problem is choosing which exquisite main course to enjoy after the mouthwatering salads and appetizers. They’re so nice here that if you can't decide between two dishes, they'll often prepare half portions of each. The big challenge in this beautiful venue is saving room for the tantalizing deserts. Guaranteed to enjoy! Just north of central Oak Park at 6969 W. North Avenue, Chicago, 60607, 773-836-2089 (closed Sunday and Monday) (DL)

Gelato Uno — Incredible Italia–quality gelato at this tasteful new gelateria in Berwyn (opened August 2007). Located in the small shopping center just west of the famed Fitzgerald’s “nightclub,” this little island of Italia offers a huge selection of real gelato, make with imported gear and flavors from Italia. They’ll let you taste flavors to your heart’s content. You can split two flavors in a single scoop. And your tastebuds will think you died and awoke in Gelato Heaven. It is very hard to overstate how incredibly tasty the gelato is here. You must try it to believe it. Just do spoil your evening with any food from the pizza parlor next door. 6625 W Roosevelt Rd. Berwyn, IL 60402; 708-749-8866 (DL)

Old World Pizza — Forget the tourist traps like Gino's East or Uno or Due just north of the Loop. This tiny Elmwood Park venue is overflowing when the weather is good ever since the Chicago Tribune declared its pan pizza to be the third best pan pizza in the metro area. But that's not even Old World's tastiest pizza. Now the pan pizza really is a treat; plenty of red sauce gives it a really zesty flavor. Old World also offers a wonderful stuffed pizza and a tasty thin pizza. But perhaps its most delicious may be the one-of-a-kind Double Deck, which has much less red sauce and more chewy cheese. This distinctive dish is almost like two thin pizzas on top of each other — it really locks in the flavor. It must be eaten fresh; the owners readily admit that this unique pizza is terrible reheated. All four styles have distinctive tastes you can't beat. 7230 North Avenue (one block west of Harlem, 2/3 of a block north of North Avenue in the Blockbuster Video shopping center), 708-456-3000. (DL)

 North of the City

Chef’s Station — This really is “fine dining at the train station.” Owned and operated by the former owner of a North Carolina railroad line, this hard-to-find treasure under the tracks in downtown Evanston offers a delightful spread of tasty, tantalizing dishes that leave you satisfied, but not stuffed. The moderately–casual atmosphere (placemats are made of blue jeans material) belies the creativity and top–notch ingredients chef Peter Mills employs. 915 Davis Street (on the west side of the tracks), Evanston 60201; 847-578-9821. (DL)


See there really is life outside APA — now go have some fun and check out the songs for our  “Music to Plan By” virtual CD.


DL = Daniel Lauber