Credit: Gwynedd Stuart

Waiting in a line roughly 50-people deep for a free half sandwich is one of the least dignified things I’ve done recently (that I can remember). 

That said, I don’t have all that much dignity to begin with and an Olive Garden breadstick sandwich isn’t just any sandwich—it’s a sandwich on a breadstick. OG rolled into Chicago last week and over the weekend for a series of events during which they parked a big brown food truck someplace, belched some marinara smells into the air, and waited for the salivating hordes to come a-running for a sample of the chain’s newest lunch item.  

The last time I wrote about OG was shortly after the first location within Chicago city limits opened last fall. I called it a place where the food is salty and also more expensive than one might expect, and commenters called me an elitist asshole who’s become accustomed to fancy $500 dinners funded by my big, fat free-weekly-newspaper paychecks. The paycheck part is not true, but the asshole part just might be: when I saw the Facebook invite for these so-called #BreadstickNation events, one of which (the one I attended) was held at Daley Plaza during the Thursday farmers’ market, my first thought was that it seemed sort of sleazy for a corporate chain to capitalize on the popularity of an event built by local growers, makers, and bakers, and to do so in what’s become a vehicle (literally) for up-and-coming chefs who don’t have the means to open a brick-and-mortar eatery. But, seriously, I’m poor and these sandwiches go for like $7 a pop, so when the Olive Garden offers to slide $3.50 worth of meatballs or chicken parm into your face between two oily buns, you don’t say no.

So at around 1 PM last Thursday, I lined up with dozens of other people who also can’t turn down free food. I eavesdropped as the lady behind me told the lady behind her how glad she is a location finally opened in the city so she doesn’t have to travel to the one in Lincolnwood anymore—I was in good company.

According to the origin story I just fabricated, the breadstick sandwich was invented by a clever busboy who’d seen one too many diners bisecting their breadsticks and attempting to stuff the contents of their plates inside. He dropped his plastic bus tub and cried to the heavens, “THERE HAS TO BE A BETTER WAY,” namely a hoagie roll-breadstick hybrid. He took the idea to corporate and they rewarded his ingenuity with a $25 Olive Garden gift card. He’s since been fired, but continues to sell pot to a few of the servers he became friends with during his tenure—the rest is made-up history. The breadstick sandwich has become a fundamental component in OG’s attempt to cultivate a lunch crowd (AYCE soup, salad, and breadsticks wasn’t cutting it anymore, I guess). An enthusiastic young lady in a brown T-shirt made her way down the line with a viral marketing pitch: take a photo of yourself taking a bite of the sandwich and post it to social media with the #BreadstickNation hashtag for a chance to win free lunch for a year. Unless the winner’s place of business is in the immediate vicinity of Addison and the Kennedy, they’re retired or unemployed, or their boss lets them take really long lunch breaks, chances are they won’t enjoy the full benefit of the grand prize. The real prize is a selfie that immortalizes the breaking of your breadstick-sandwich hymen—and everyone’s a winner.

The line moved quickly. I chose chicken Parmesan over meatball . . .

Credit: Gwynedd Stuart

. . . and it was good. Undersauced maybe, but hot and juicy and greasy and smothered in cheese. Simple. I’m partial to bread with a crunchy exterior, but people who are really into OG’s breadsticks—and they are legion—will probably think this big fat boy is pretty neat. It’s oily and covered in little flecks of granulated garlic and salt, and it appears that whatever substance is applied to the outside of the stick has been applied to the inside as well—that’s double the oily stuff for your hard-earned lunchtime bucks. When I sat down to eat, I was encouraged to see that the woman next to me had foregone a free lunch and gotten a grilled cheese sandwich from a local vendor instead. Meanwhile the line for the food truck continued to snake its way toward Dearborn and out of sight.