If you expect Eataly Chicago to be, as one blogger put it, a dumbed-down Italian theme park, you likely will greatly impressed. A more grounded expectation could be an Italian-themed Whole Foods Market, but Eataly Chicago goes well beyond even that notion.
Your first impression of the everything-Italian gastronomic emporium at E. Ohio and Rush streets in River North is that it is big. With 63,000 square feet spread over two floors, it takes up virtually the whole block.
Eataly sells all manner of wine, pasta, cheese, cured meats, condiments and more. But it also is a wonderland of prepared foods to eat onsite or take way. There are 17 food prep stations in all.
Two – La Birreria and La Carne – are in separate rooms. Seating for the others is food-court style. There also are several standup areas.
The ground floor is home to a gelateria, pasticceria, coffee bar and area to order treats made with Nutella, the chocolate spread. One corner is devoted to kitchen and table gear, all design hip and, I assume, functional. Check out the juicer that looks like a space station.
I had a couple of hours to tour Eataly in February and gravitated to La Birreria, given my love affair with craft beer. Draft choices include brews from such popular local breweries as Three Floyds, Revolution and Half Acre plus specialty beers from the mother country and a couple of seasonals from Dogfish Head in Delaware.
There also is a small brewery on the other side of the wall. Current selections are a pale ale made with thyme from hills northeast of Rome and a stout infused with bluepoint oysters.
La Birreria offers a menu of small plates ranging from a white bean-artichoke spread ($6) to fried shrimp with lemon and parsley ($14) all the way up to a porcini-rubbed prime rib panini sandwich ($14.80).
On my second visit last month, the lady and I grabbed seats at the salumi/formaggi prep station. We ordered a nice assortment of cheeses and cured meats with glasses of blush wine. It wasn’t a snack, it was dinner, leaving room for gelato downstairs.
I read consumer comments online about the New York Eataly that prices are high – high for New York? I say the prices at the Chicago Eataly are in line with those in the Windy City, certainly not ripoff level for any of the goods. The quality level is uniformly high.
Eataly is a concept that is easy to get. Notwithstanding the Mafioso stereotype, Americans have a powerful rapport with Italy and Italian food culture led by pizza and spaghetti. All this was fueled by the millions of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic in the 19th and 20th centuries.
When we visit Italy, the pasta dishes and pizza are warmly familiar although mediocre in osterias and trattorias catering to tourists.
The number of self-styled Italian restaurants in the states only is exceeded by those serving burritos and enchiladas.
Eataly only opened in November, so there is a huge novelty factor. Go there on a weekend night and two-thirds of the visitors are first timers, a mix of suburbanites and out-of-towners. But Eataly is an attraction, ranking not far behind Willis Tower, the bean sculpture and Shedd Acquarium.
The first Eataly opened in Turin in northwest Italy in 2007. Ten more have since opened on the peninsula. Others are in Tokyo, Istanbul and Dubai. The New York edition opened in 2010. Fittingly, it is owned by a partnership that includes Italian-Americans Lydia Bastianich and son Joe, and celebrity chef/restaurateur Mario Batali. The Chicago “store” is owned by Joe Bastianich and Batali.
I recently met a foodie from Chicago area and asked what she thinks of Eataly. She said there is almost nothing there that can’t be purchased elsewhere in the metro area and perhaps even for less money. But yes, it is a pretty amazing place, she conceded.
There is one thing I will never do at Eataly and that is order pizza. That is because Pizzeria Uno has been serving fabulous deep-dish pizza across Ohio Street for the past 71 years. I used to go there when I lived in Aurora at the western fringe of the metro area. I’ll stick with the old school of pizza.