When it comes to Italian food, almost everyone can find something they’d like to eat. Chicago is no exception.
Even with the influx of infusions that has diversified the culinary cuisine here – elevating Asian fusion most recently with restaurants such as Parachute, Fat Rice and Saucy Porka – Italian fare continues to be a strong staple.
Balena's potato gnocchi with mushrooms and brown butter — Photo courtesy of Eric Kleinberg Photography
From classic steakhouses to modern trattorias, the Second City has always been a great place to eat from anywhere in the boot. Traditionally, Taylor Street with its annual Festa Italiana and the city’s northwest side with its mom-and-pop Italian delis have been strongholds.
To find out the best places to eat Italian food in Chicago, we polled some of the best chefs in the city (along with other locals and notable foodies) during Chicago Gourmet, an annual food festival held in Millennium Park.
More than 200 chefs were at the 2015 Chicago Gourmet in Millennium Park — Photo courtesy of Dawn Reiss
With more than 200 chefs, including James Beard award-winners such as The Purple Pig’s Jimmy Bannos, Jr. and Spiaggia’s Tony Mantuano demonstrating their mad cooking skills, here’s the 411 on where to go.
Bannos jokes that the “cherished Sunday dinner” is pure “madness” at his family’s Greek-Italian home and includes a ritual of eating with both sides of the family, including his cousins and 88-year-old grandmother.
“I should be paying royalties to her for her pork neck bone gravy,” Bannos says. "It’s a one pot dish where you caramelize the pork neck bone for great flavor, build your sauce, meatballs, sausage, sometimes throwing in something else like pigs feet.”
Despite winning James Beard’s Rising Chef Award in 2014, Bannos still bemoans the fact that The Purple Pig doesn’t offer one of his favorite foods. “We don’t do pasta, but we will someday,” he says. “A simple Italian restaurant. Stay tuned. That’s the dream, that’s the plan.”
Jimmy Bannos, Jr. prepares gnudi, his naked pasta at Chicago Gourmet — Photo courtesy of Dawn Reiss
When he’s not eating at his restaurant or with his family, Bannos says his go-to spots are Spiaggia and Freddy’s Pizza in suburban Cicero – a place he’s been going to since he was kid, where a husband-and-wife team make their own gelato, pastas and more.
For executive chef and owner Tony Priolo, his Italian favorites outside of his signature restaurants – Piccolo Sogno and Piccolo Sogno Due – are Spiaggia, Balena and Nico Osteria. “You can’t go wrong at any of them,” he says.
James Beard award-winning Chef Tony Mantuano (middle) shares a laugh with River Roast Executive Chef John Hogan (left) and radio personality, Lin Brehmer, at Chicago Gourmet — Photo courtesy of Dawn Reiss
For Mantuano, it’s Osteria Langhe. “We ate there Thursday night and it was awesome,” Mantuano says. “The pastas are just like what you’d taste in Italy."
His two big raves include the tajarin – a dish of housemade noodles, Italian summer truffles, fontina with cream – and the plin, a Piedmontese-style hand pinched ravioli with la tur, parmesan, thyme and butter.
Nearby, inside the white-tented Italian Invasion Tasting Pavilion on Millennium Park's grassy lawn, Quartino Ristorante and Wine Bar executive chef and co-founder John Coletta is slicing and serving paper-thin spianata romana topped with housemade giardiniera and organic arugula on panino.
“Where else would I eat besides my restaurant?” he repeats with a laugh as he serves the melt-in-your-mouth spianata romana which takes six months to house cure.
Quartino Ristorante and Wine Bar executive chef and co-founder John Coletta is slicing and serving paper-thin spianata romana — Photo courtesy of Dawn Reiss
“My house. No, I would eat at Pelago, it is a great restaurant. The food is authentic, it has a lot of flavor. And his trio of pastas is to die for. What I love about it is that Mauro Mafrici’s family is from Calabria and he grew up Trieste, so he has a cross section of Italy in him.”
No matter the type of Italian cuisine, be it the more refined, meat-and-egg laden dishes of northern Italy or the eggless, semolina-style pastas of the south, there’s plenty to be found in Chicago.
“I think [Chicago’s dining scene] is evolving,” says Osteria La Madia chef and owner Jonathan Fox, who recommends trying out Spacca Napoli, a Neapolitan-style pizzeria on Chicago's north side.
“You’ve got classic, Little Italy, Sicilian-style restaurants – that’s been traditionally the core of Chicago’s Italian dining scene – but it’s evolved into more refined, simple foods, more osterias and tavernas, just a simple country restaurant. Some of the best Italian restaurants are starting to evolve in Chicago.”