My Kind of Town: A Chicago Hoya’s Guide to Food and Drink

Al's Italian Beef. Happiness on a roll.

The Hoyas will be traveling to Chicago this weekend for their first and, hopefully, second games of the NCAA tournament. With them will be a few fans who may be novices in finding their way around the Windy City. We polled a few Chicagoans to collect recommendations for game day festivities and for off days. Special thanks to GG, whose curatorial knowledge of Chicago’s meateries is unparalleled, and PS, an old hand wise in the ways of the United Center. Without further ado:

Game Day.

The Hoyas will be playing at the United Center (1901 W. Madison), two miles or so west of downtown. There’s little development surrounding the arena, unlike the Phone Booth. Also, many of the allotted Georgetown seats are rumored to be in the 200 level, which is nice for game-viewing (friendly wait-staff brings orders, including beer, to those seats) but features nigh-inedible food. So planning your trip is important.

Food. The Billy Goat Tavern (1535 W. Madison) is a ritual way-station for those making the westward migration to the United Center. The original location, buried beneath El downtown, inspired both a famous Saturday Night Live sketch featuring John Belushi and the Cubs’ famed curse. Legend has it that the tavern’s original owner brought the bar mascot/pet goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. Although owner and goat each had a paid seat, both were ejected due to the latter’s strong odor, prompting the former to place a curse on the ball club. The tavern has since been franchised; one location sits less than a half mile from the arena. In addition to convenience, fans flock here for low-priced eats and seedy charm. Get a double cheeseburger and prepare for one of the most satisfying recently unfrozen delicacies this side of the Juicy Lucy. (Lenten observers can get a grilled cheese.) Special tip: the Billy Goat has limited parking but, during Bulls games, offers that parking for free to paying customers. No word yet on whether that’ll be true this weekend.

Drink. While the area around the arena doesn’t offer much in this department, between downtown and the arena is the West Loop, a developing neighborhood with plenty of bars and restaurants. Two particular watering holes of note are WestEnd (1326 W. Madison) and CrossRoads (1120 W. Madison). Both have free shuttle service to Bulls and Blackhawks games, and CrossRoads has confirmed that it will offer the same amenity for NCAA action. CrossRoads also has better food and tends to be a touch less crowded than its neighbor, making it the better pre- and post-game stop.

Off Day.

Whether you’re coming early, staying late, or biding time on Saturday, there’s plenty to do. You can look up the typical tourist sites–the Sears Willis Tower, the Shedd Aquarium–in any guide book, but here are a few spots Frommer’s might have missed.

Food. Meat, meat, meat. It should come as no surprise that here in the City of Big Shoulders, many of said shoulders belong to butchers. Though the union stockyards–of which Old Blue Eyes once famously crooned–have long since relocated to KC, Chicago boasts a storied history of quality meats. For those with means, fine steakhouse meals abound, like The Original Morton’s (1050 N. State St.), Gibson’s (around the corner at 1028 N. Rush St.), and Gene and Georgetti (500 N. Franklin St.).

But you can order a good steak in any American metropolis. You can only find an authentic Italian Beef sandwich (the Philly cheese steak’s brother-from-another-mother) in Chicago. Like the third Emanuel brother, the Italian Beef gets short shrift, compared to the bombastic Chicago-style hotdog and the dominant deep dish pizza. As I write (and my saliva pools) thinly-sliced rashers of tender rib eye bathe in au jus, destined for a short stint atop a sturdy Gonnella roll, underneath a spicy, crunchy salad of homemade (hot) giardiniera peppers–no runny cheese at this mouth party, please. Some prefer their peppers sweet, a choice I can lukewarmly endorse but not personally abide.  Regardless, order your sandwich “wet” for a brief baptism in au jus. And don’t worry, the Gonnella loaf–not some flimsy hoagie roll–is up to it. For a quick fix, try Al’s #1 (various locations, including 601 W. Adams, on the way to the United Ctr.; or 169 W. Ontario St., near downtown).  Or, if it’s beef adventure you seek, go to Johnnies (7500 W. North Ave.) 

If you crave the other aforementioned Chicago specialties–hot dog and pizza–we’ve got you covered. Conveniently near downtown accommodations are Portillo’s (100 W. Ontario–they also serve Ital. beefs) for dogs and Lou Malnati’s (439 N. Wells) for deep-dish pizza. If you have wheels and a couple of spare hours, head to Hot Doug’s (3324 N. California), a hot dog stand a few miles up the expressway from downtown. A local institution, Doug’s serves the classic Chicago-style dog alongside offerings that range from the high-brow (Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse and Fleur de Sel) to the populist (cheese fries). But arrive early–weekend waits are the rule. Those seeking a shorter line and entertainment with their food should head to Wiener’s Circle (2622 N. Clark); the sharp-tongued and quick-witted are particularly welcome. Pizza can be found throughout the city, but Pequod’s Pizza (2207 N. Clybourn) on the edge of Lincoln Park will get you great food and cheer.

Drink. Chicago has no shortage of watering holes, but here are three essentials for your off day. Near downtown, the Green Door Tavern (678 N. Orleans) has been around since 1872 and survived Prohibition as a speakeasy. A mile or so north, you’ll find the Old Town Ale House (219 W. North), a true dive, and traditional hang-out of Second City-ers. Enjoy a cheap draft (cash only) and check out the portraits of Farley, Aykroyd, Murray, and other local comedy alumni, not to mention a painting that made some political waves. If the night is still young and you want to dance, head to a blues bar. The best is Rosa’s Lounge (3420 W. Armitage), a hefty cab ride away, while Kingston Mines (2548 N. Halsted) is a bit closer and just as fun.

Enjoy your stay, and Hoya Saxa!

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