According to David Sax, author of Save the Deli (published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Chicago at one time had the majority of the kosher meat deli producers in the country. Which makes it all the more puzzling that, as he put to me, “deli never permeated the culture here.” There’s of course Manny’s Coffee Shop and Deli (1141 S. Jefferson, 312-939-2855), the old-school cafeteria whose corned beef, latkes, and brisket have kept it going for 67 years now. I went in search of other holdouts and found that in addition to the remaining Jewish delis, there are a lot of delis that reflect only partly or not at all the tradition of the Ashkenazi, the European Jews responsible for the bill of fare you’ll find in many classic New York delis.
Kaufman’s Bagel & Delicatessen (4905 W. Dempster, Skokie, 847-677-9880) is among the last of a dying breed of triple-threat grocery store/bakery/sandwich shop combos, with a well-stocked cooler, racks of dry packaged goods, a separate annex for baked goods, and scattered tables with a small window counter where you can sit to nosh. Gregarious owner Arnold Dworkin passed away in December, but his wife, Judy, and daughter, Bette, are still running the place. There are four types of corned beef: supertrim, lean, regular, and deckle, the fatty brisket end—which is definitely what you want if you like flavor. Salami comes in soft, medium, and hard, the soft being the youngest and the hard being the oldest, possessed of the densest texture and deepest, most concentrated flavor. There are even two types of house-made pickles: old, which having been brined longer are more salty and garlicky, and new, which are crunchier.
Open since 1938, the Original Frances’ Deli (2552 N. Clark, 773-248-4580) is even older than Manny’s. But though it offers corned beef, pastrami, and a few other traditional Jewish items, it trades more heavily in omelets and a range of treyf (unkosher) meat-and-cheese sandwiches and burgers. Frances’ does offer fried matzo, which is one of those haymish (homemade) offerings that attests to roots that go deeper than might be suggested by the current business model.
Don’t be daunted by the unsmiling, uniformly blond Eastern bloc women manning the deli counter, ladling galompki (cabbage rolls) with grim efficiency: Kasia’s Deli (2101 W. Chicago, 773-486-7500) has been a Ukie Village landmark for 27 years, and owner Kazimiera Bober has proudly served her pierogi to presidents (Clinton), mayors (Daley), and domestic divas (Martha Stewart). Her deli offers tasty pork sausages and other staples of non-Jewish Europe.
The word delicatessen entered the language through German, and Chicago has had some excellent German delis as well. The venerable Kuhn’s Deli (749 W. Golf, Des Plaines, 800-522-9019), established in 1929, used to be on Lincoln but moved to Des Plaines some 20 years ago. And this is the pattern: delis that were once an urban phenomenon have followed shifting demographics to the suburbs, where some of the finer delis can now be found.
Bergstein’s NY Delicatessen (200 Dixie Hwy., Chicago Heights, 708-754-6400), for example, is owned and operated by Michael Mesirow and Bill Davis, both former countermen at Kaufman’s. When they were in high school at Homewood-Flossmoor, Mesirow and Davis used to help with “lox box fund-raisers” for B’nai B’rith, delivering items like smoked salmon and bagels to people’s homes in exchange for contributions. After college the two started Chicago Brunch Box Delivery Service, providing much the same service for straight-up payment. From there, with financial help and business guidance from Harris Davis, Bill’s dad, they began planning a deli that Mesirow describes as something akin to Kaufman’s: a sandwich shop, but also a place where you can buy a few pounds of this or that to bring home and eat later. The plan was always to be more than a sandwich shop.
Firmly in the New York deli tradition, Bergstein’s—which is named after Harris’s mother—purchases fish from well-known suppliers like Acme in Brooklyn and Banner of Coney Island. “There is no better salmon salad anywhere,” Mesirow says. The menu reflects time-honored Ashkenazi preferences: Sweet-and-sour cabbage soup, one of several offered daily, is made from the recipe of a family friend, and it’s a big favorite. The delicate fried knishes here enfold fluffy whipped potato; the kishke, a delectable blend of grain and beef fat, is sourced—like so many deli sausages in Chicago—from Romanian Kosher Sausage Company (7200 N. Clark, 773-761-4141).
Davis says customers who don’t know deli can “get a little freaked out” when he describes the composition of a kishke, and Sax recently told me an anecdote about a radio interviewer who took one bite of chopped liver and spit it out with what he described as a “yuck, what’s that?” look. For those types, Bergstein’s offers green salads.
Plus: Nosh Time
Nine more delis and bagel bakeries
14 S. Wabash | 312-214-4282
AMERICAN, KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: EVERY NIGHT TILL 11
The sole city location for this otherwise suburban deli chain. The cavernous dining room is filled with Loop workers and students for lunch; dinner attracts theatergoers and those seeking an after-work nosh or quick takeout. While the food—matzo ball soup, corned beef, chopped liver, and other deli standards—doesn’t break any new ground, it’s satisfying. Portions are generous; deluxe sandwiches teeter with meat and trimmings and are served with pickles, coleslaw, and your choice of soup, fries, or a potato pancake. —Martha Bayne
12 E. Cedar | 312-944-5006
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS
The deli’s menu says “Push your way to the front of the line by calling ahead!” I hardly ever do that—my lunches are usually hasty, spur-of-the-moment events. But then on a couple stops at Ashkenaz the deli was busy and the wait was slightly longer than expected. Luckily, the food made up for it. The first time I opted for the pastrami-and-turkey sandwich. It was packed with meat, enough for two meals. The second time I got a combo—a corned beef sandwich, matzo ball soup, and three-bean salad—and added a cheese blintz for good measure. All were tasty and fresh. But one day I had to run some errands during my lunch break. So I called ahead and ordered a box lunch: pastrami sandwich, chips, brownie, pickle, coleslaw, and a fruit cup. Along the way I bumped into an old friend. I was a few minutes late, and a staff member chuckled when he saw me. But the sandwich still tasted fresh. —Michael Marsh
3107 N. Broadway | 773-477-0300
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | OPEN LATE: FRIDAY & SATURDAY TILL 11 | BYO | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
A big bowl of Mish-Mash Soup—chicken broth with noodles, kreplach, rice, kasha, and a matzo ball—is the object of many a flu-addled diner’s pilgrimage to this much-loved Lakeview deli. Other menu items, while not as overtly therapeutic, have similarly comforting effects. They include an array of hearty sandwiches, daily soups, and hot entrees. Breakfast is served all day. The room has been given a recent face-lift, but retains its Broadway theme. A take-out counter in front does brisk business. —Martha Bayne
1500 W. Jarvis | 773-743-2233
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI, COFFEE SHOP | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Ram on High (“numperpickel bagel, hoked money sham, swiss, tour yoice of choppings”). Fart Smella (“barlic gagel, boast reef, comato, tapers, and lomaine rettuce”). Spoonerisms are all very well in their way, I suppose, but this little deli and cafe goes so nuts with the verbal scramblings that deciphering the offerings just might drive you nuts. Thankfully the place does offer a “translation menu” in plain English. The other gimmick here is that the more-than-25 specialty bagel sandwiches all come steamed, which has an upside (who doesn’t like melted cheese?) but also a slight downside—since the process takes about ten minutes, you’ll wait a little while for your food. The bagels themselves are from New York Bagel & Bialy, and they come with a wide range of accompaniments, from spicy mayo to olive cream cheese. Whereas Dagel and Beli used to adjoin Charmers Cafe, it’s now been merged with it, so Charmers’ pastries from Bennison’s, Homer’s ice cream, teas, and superior Metropolis coffee are also available. —Kate Schmidt
1112 S. Wabash | 312-212-1112
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: SEVEN DAYS | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
Don’t go to Eleven City Diner expecting the fast, brusque treatment you usually find in a traditional deli. Dinner service on one of my visits was polite to the point of approval seeking: a staffer made a special trip to the table to find out if the egg cream he’d made was up to par. (Yes.) Despite its unnerving lack of attitude, Eleven City offers other traditional trappings—there’s a pie case up front, and matzo ball soup, knishes, and tuna melts on the menu. But as an all-day-breakfast fan, I chose the huge and excellent challah French toast topped with strawberries, bananas, and coconut—”I’m going to have to get in on that action” was a fellow diner’s response. There’s a full bar, and they don’t skimp on desserts here, either: the root beer float (made with Homer’s ice cream) comes in a glass three fists high, and I struck ice cream as soon as I stuck my spoon in the foam. On the other side of the restaurant is a deli counter stocked with sandwich fixings—corned beef, egg salad—for carryout customers. Maybe they’re ruder over there. —Anne Ford
225 N. Michigan | 312-565-1267
AMERICAN, KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH: MONDAY-FRIDAY | CLOSED SATURDAY, SUNDAY
In much the same way that Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing slowly changed into 3M, maker of Post-It Notes, Jaffa Bagels has become the city’s preeminent supplier of fresh roast turkey sandwiches. All the dozens of corporate lunchers in line are there to order the $6.79 lunch special, which is a turkey sandwich, generous soda, and chips. You get your own drink first, then quickly give the line of servers your order, for example: “mixed, dry, sesame.” Which means mixed dark and white meat, without extra juice, on a sesame bun. The second guy in the serving line mans the condiments, which include perfectly executed falafel balls; the cashier bags it and inserts off-brand chips. The sandwich itself is delicious, the platonic ideal of the post-Thanksgiving leftover. By the way, I’ve never seen anyone there order a bagel, but then the staff doesn’t seem like they’re from Jaffa either. —Peter Sagal
2856 W. Devon | 773-761-3174
KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | Monday 9 AM-3 PM, Tuesday-Thursday 6 AM-6 pm, Friday-saturday 6 am-7 pm, sunday 6 am-5 pm
One of the original Jewish bakeries on this stretch of Devon, Levinson’s has been in operation for more than 80 years. It offers cookies and bagels alongside other traditional goods: challah, braided coffee cakes with almond, apricot, and cherry fillings, and honey cakes topped with slivered almonds. There are several sinful pastries, like napoleons (crisp layers of pastry separated by layers of custard, fruit preserves, and chocolate mousse), plus mandelbrot and various rolls made with a sweet egg dough. —Laura Levy Shatkin
1141 S. Jefferson | 312-939-2855
AMERICAN, KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER: MONDAY-SATURDAY | CLOSED SUNDAY | RESERVATIONS FOR LARGE GROUPS ONLY
Some things are never as good as they used to be. The delis of yesteryear were palaces, serving sliced meat a mile high for $1.98. Now? At Manny’s the latkes are very good, light and crisp, fluffy and flavorful—you don’t need a side of applesauce to enjoy. But you should have had them before! They were potato ambrosia, splendor in the grease. And these prices: $10.95 for a sandwich in a cafeteria? A strange one too: instead of paying at the end of the line like G-d intended, you pay on the way out, after you eat. But Manny’s has been here since 1942, and they know what they’re doing. They serve brisket, roast beef, corned beef, very lean, and pastrami, fatty in all the right places, piled high on rye. Too high! How are you supposed to eat all this? So share or get a doggie bag. What else are you going to order at a place like Manny’s—a veggie burger? And look, they have all the condiments right on the table, mustard in both colors, your salt, your pepper, sugar and ketchup, a napkin holder, very useful. Years ago all the big shots ate here; now it’s all hoi polloi. But you can still get a cigar at the register, a piece of candy, some gum, your choice of Tums or Rolaids. See, at Manny’s they know what they’re doing. —Jeffrey Felshman
New York Bagel & Bialy
4714 W. Touhy, Lincolnwood | 847-677-9388
BAKERY, KOSHER/JEWISH/DELI | 24 HOURS EVERY DAY | RESERVATIONS NOT ACCEPTED
It’s easy to drive right past this unassuming storefront, tucked away in a Lincolnwood strip mall. But it’s Chicago’s mecca for bagels. I can think of no better weekend nosh than a chewy, just-baked pumpernickel bagel with lox, red onion, tomato, and a thick schmear of cream cheese. The bialys are the real deal too—try the onion, simply toasted and buttered. And it’s open 24 hours, so whenever the mood strikes you, there’s a bagel waiting. The carless can get their fix at restaurants and sandwich shops around the city, among them Dagel and Beli and the Bagel. —Kate Schmidt