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Where can I find a restaurant serving classic Chicago-style food near Antioch, Illinois?
October 7, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I'm planning a baby-daddy shower for my husband in a few weeks — my sister is throwing me an all-ladies shower, so I thought it'd be fun to send the men out (in a limo!) to celebrate Mr. Smaje's impending fatherhood. I'm originally from the Chicagoland area, but have lived outside the state for many years. Mr. Smaje would love to have his baby-daddy shower at a restaurant that serves classic Chicago-style food, but we're having a tough time nailing down a place. And so I turn to you for help.

I'd like to find a restaurant within 30 or so minutes of the hip-hoppin' town of Antioch, Illinois (about 15 minutes from Gurnee and a stone's throw from the Wisconsin border). The original plan was to hit up a Gino's East or Lou Malnati's, but the ones I found that are within a half-hour's drive are either not open for lunch on Saturday or are just take-out, not sit-down full-service. So here are the caveats:

  1. Within 30 minutes' drive of Antioch, Illinois.

  2. Open on Saturdays for lunch.

  3. Must serve alcohol.

  4. Must serve Chicago-style food (preferably deep dish pizza and killer sandwiches).

Worse comes to worst, there's a Gino's East in Deerfield (about 45 minutes drive), but I'd like to find something closer. Any ideas?

— Smaje1, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

I've got lots of ideas, Smaje. I don't claim you're going to like them. However, you've presented a difficult assignment: you want classic Chicago-style food without getting near Chicago.

I'm not saying it can't be done. As discussed in this column in the past, you can now get Al's Italian beef in Scottsdale, Arizona, which for my money is one notch south of finding life on Mars. Some say the Scottsdale Al's is a pale shadow of the real thing. I pass no judgments. The point to be focused on isn't the quality of Chicago food available in distant localities; it's that you can get it at all.

That's basically the problem you have in Antioch. Do you have any idea where Antioch is? By your lights you do: "about 15 minutes from Gurnee and a stone's throw from the Wisconsin border." To a Chicagoan, this is like saying you take a left at Manitoba. We know where such places are, in a general way; our ancestors have spoken of them. But could we find Antioch on the map? No — not because we're snobs, but because it's not on the map.

Seriously. I have here a Rand McNally Road Atlas, which depicts every hamlet of interest in North America. One of the maps, entitled "Illinois — Chicago & Vicinity," depicts such remote settlements as Batavia, Crystal Lake, and Round Lake Beach. Antioch isn't on it, and won't be till either the tectonic plates shift or they make the atlas two inches taller. Antioch is on the Illinois map, but that also includes Cairo, which for all most Chicagoans know about it might as well be in Egypt. So if the Chicago-style food offerings in Antioch are a little sparse, could be it's because nobody in Chicago knows you're there.

That brings us to your problem, Smaje. I won't say for a fact that there are no Chicago-style food establishments within 30 minutes of Antioch. However, folks on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board batted this around quite a while, and it's not looking good so far. Partly this is a function of the fact that there aren't many any-style restaurants within 30 minutes of Antioch. Here's a map, which I pulled from the bing Website:

For comparison, here's a map of restaurants in downtown Chicago:

Sure, quantity alone means nothing. For years the best restaurant in the Chicago area was widely considered to be Le Francais in suburban Wheeling. However, selecting one Antioch-area eatery at random, I find reviews such as the following:

okay its a 24 hour diner and they have lots of teenagers in there during the night shift and they can be a bit stingy but I guarantee that this place has the best hash browns and eggs I think.

You never know, the guys might get a kick out of it. However, seeing as this is a baby shower and thus a special event, I'm not sure I'd chance it.

I have a better idea. You say you've lived out of state for a long time; I'm guessing that's true of many of your other guests. If so, what better way to reward them for coming all this way to bestow gifts on you than to provide them not merely with classic Chicago-style food, but classic Chicago-style everything, in the form of a weekend in the big city? Some possibilities:

  1. A night on the town. Optional — you could drive in from Antioch Saturday morning — but recommended for anyone who hasn't been to Chicago in a while. If downtown's more than you're ready for, I'd recommend a bed-and-breakfast or other small hostelry out in the neighborhoods — google "Chicago inns." Take  in dinner at a nice restaurant and enjoy the lively urban scene; meanwhile notice prices are high and parking's a bitch. I tell you this because while we want to give you a reason to make the trek in from the suburbs, we also want to give you a reason to go back.

  2. Limo. This is the conservative approach. Hard-core city dwellers might recommend bikes, car sharing or the "L," but I'm trying to minimize culture shock.

  3. Baby shower at a fancy downtown hotel for the women. Sure, it's extravagant, but look at it this way: after this it's 18 years of parenthood. Now's your chance to indulge in champagne tea (well, just tea for you), holistic massage at the spa, and other sybaritic inducements. I think you'll get used to it pretty fast.

  4. Pizza for the guys. A place open for lunch on Saturday won't be a problem. Pizza isn't the only choice, of course; currently there are 19,722 restaurants in Chicago. I'm sure the lads will find something that works. 

  5. Miscellaneous recreational opportunities. The Bean, Art Institute, architecture tours, etc. Although in your case, being with child and all, you might just want to go back to your room and take a nap.

  6. Fireworks at Navy Pier, 9:30 p.m. every Saturday in October. This has several advantages: (1) bright lights, big city, noise — what's not to like? (2) it's over by 10, which is good if the afternoon nap thing didn't work out; and (3) it's free.

Unfortunately, that can't be said about anything else involved with this junket, which I'll concede is a significant downside. No problem.  I have a cheaper Plan B: catered Italian beef. No need for a pricey venue, wait staff, etc.; I'm betting your sister's basement rec room will do just fine while the women convene upstairs. Remember, these are guys we're talking about. All they need to be happy is an afternoon of college football, a big screen TV, and nature's perfect food.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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