On the near Southwest Side of Chicago in the early twentieth century, the Maxwell Street neighborhood was home to the famous and infamous, including Benny Goodman and Jack Ruby. Maxwell Street was also home to Lyon’s Kosher Deli, opened by Ben Lyon in 1925. Lyon’s Kosher Deli was later sold to Nate Duncan, an African American who spoke Yiddish and continued to make traditional corned beef and pickled herring until he had to close. The Nate’s deli building was demolished in 1995, but was immortalized in “The Blues Brothers” (1980) when it was renamed the Soul Food Café and became the backdrop for Aretha Franklin, dressed as a counter hostess, belting out a jaw-dropping rendition of “Respect.”
To stroll into the aisles at Kuhn’s Delicatessen on Lincoln in the 1970s was to be bathed in aromas of smoked meat and cheese and battered by the clatter of cash registers and the chatter of guys in white behind the counter, taking orders and kibitzing with customers. In the days before Treasure Island, and many, many days before Whole Foods, Kuhn’s was the place to go for imported foods served with old world dignity and efficiency. Kuhn’s was not a Jewish deli; the smoked pork loin and Schweinebraten were clear evidence of that. Kuhn’s Delicatessen was down the street from St. Alphonsus (where German mass is still offered), and the long-closed Zum Deutschen Eck, a German restaurant that, according to local gossip, held an unsavory annual birthday celebration of one of Germany’s best-known and worst of twentieth-century leaders. Kuhn’s moved to DesPlaines in 2007.
In Chicago, the deli has tended to be representative of many traditions, including the still-going-strong Kasia’s Deli, a Polish operation that makes some of the city’s best pierogi; J.P. Graziano, founded in 1937, a kind of Italian deli, with dry goods and made-to-order subs and other sandwiches; and Harrington’s, an Irish deli in Jefferson Park. (It seems Irish-Americans got their passion for corned beef, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, from the Jewish folks who lived in adjacent areas of New York City.)
Where Deli Culture Is Big… And Not So Big
New York still has Katz’s Delicatessen, Russ & Daughters, Barney Greengrass and dozens of other delicatessens. Los Angeles has big names like Langer’s, Greenblatt’s and Canter’s. And Chicago has fewer delis than either of the two big coastal cities.
I interviewed David Sax, author of Save the Deli, for Chicago Public Radio in the mid-2000s. As we sat in Manny’s, one of Chicago’s best-known and beloved delis, wedging gargantuan corned beef sandwiches into our pie holes, I mumbled, “What accounts for the lack of a huge deli culture in Chicago?”
Sax could only speculate, but he believed one reason for the general absence of delis could be that when the children of Jewish deli owners got old enough to work, they opted not to go into the family business but instead moved into the professional class (doctors, lawyers, accountants) and into the suburbs, leaving the family business to fade away.
Another reason for the perceived decline of the deli is that deli food is not perceived as good for your health. Sax, in fact, opens his “Save the Deli” with a remembrance of his paternal grandfather who died while eating an overstuffed smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s in Montreal.
Delis are on the decline everywhere. In his book, Sax reports that in the 1930s, New York City was home to more than 1,500 kosher delis. Today, only a few dozen remain.
While Chicago also has fewer delis now than in years past, there’s lately been a resurgence of delis in general; specifically delis that reflect new attitudes toward what a deli can be and what it should be serving a new generation of customers.
The Rise of the Chicago Deli, Built on a Better Bagel
“I wanted to take bagels and pastrami to a new level,” says chef Billy Caruso of Rye Deli + Drink, which opened in November 2020. “There’s a New York bagel and a Montreal bagel, but I wanted to make a Chicago bagel. We build on the New York bagel, but I wanted a bagel that had a little more pull, a little more crunch, made of regionally sourced flours.”
“We wanted to make something new and different,” general manager Jeremy Vass says. “Our consulting company had done a demographic study of our neighborhood and we found that upwardly mobile millennials care a lot about their health, and so they don’t eat deli food on a regular basis. We had to go for healthier options. And everyone cites New York as having the bagel. But what makes Chicago different? We live in the breadbasket of the world, the best grains are grown in our backyard. So we decided to source from small, local farmers growing heirloom grains. And we created a better bagel, with a higher protein content. Our bagel is thirteen grams of protein using all-natural ingredients; if you add a schmear of our labneh, that adds another three to four grams of protein. So we created a comfort food and a power food. And that fits our demographic.”
Why shouldn’t Chicago have a signature bagel? New York has become the default North American gold standard for bagels, but other cities have their own version. Perhaps the most well-known and distinctive non-New York bagel comes out of Montreal, from places like St-Viateur Bagel Shop, where the bagels are baked in wood-burning ovens, slightly charred and carrying a bit of smokiness in each bite.
There are lots of ways to make bagels, though “the process of making the bagel is more complex than you might think,” says Caruso. “I’d heard about Janie’s Mill [of Ashkum, Illinois] which had been paving the way for mill-to-table,” says Caruso, “so I got on the phone with them, and we went over the types of grains and extractions.”
Several months of lockdown gave Caruso a long time to experiment with grains until he found the one that was exactly right. “I tried a lot of wheats,” Caruso says. “Our starter is made from brasetto rye, and it adds a sweet, caraway flavor. Red wheat has the protein and tenacity to form a good backbone for what we’re doing.
“The base for all our bagels is the same. After we activate the starter, which takes a day, there’s proofing, and then we roll them into bagel shape, and they sit on a tray for a day. The next day we bake them and boil them in lye and barley malt, which is traditional and gives the bagels the traditional pull and chew.”
Many people enter a deli with one thing on their mind, and that’s brisket, whether corned beef or pastrami. Caruso spends a lot of time focused on perfecting the brisket, and like his wheat, his meat comes from Midwestern farms.
“We use prime meat, Iowa premium briskets,” Caruso says, with obvious pride. “The beef is brined for twenty-one days, then we pull them out, let them dry to form a pellicle [a thin coating of protein that permits the smokiness to stick to the meat]. After that, we rub them down with pastrami spices. The best pastrami, for me, has bark on it, some crunch, and we smoke the brisket for twelve hours, starting at 250 [degrees], to get that bark on the outside, then we pull it down to 210-215 [degrees].”
At Rye Deli + Drink, Caruso and Vass are going for something more than what you will find at the traditional New York deli, like Katz’s, which has an outpost in Austin where Caruso grew up. If you’ve been to any of the major New York delis, you know what to expect when you get your sandwich: it’s going to be big, so big in fact that you may not be able to fit it in your mouth to eat it.
“We’re not making a mile-high brisket sandwich,” Caruso says. “I don’t want a sandwich that’s seven inches tall, though I’m not saying they’re bad. There’s a place for them, but there’s a shift now.” And that shift is motivated not only by today’s tastes but also by preferences for local ingredients and menu items that are more adventurous than the historic pastrami sandwich.
Beyond the Big Damn Sandwich
This traditional focus on bigger-than-your-head sandwiches of fatty, deliciously fatty meat may be one reason why deli food is perceived as an indulgence, a red meat orgy out of sync with today’s health-conscious consumers. That’s one reason why Rye Deli + Drink is broadening the traditional deli menu to incorporate more vegetable-forward Mediterranean options that use Midwestern proteins, vegetables and grains.
“I put together this very Mediterranean menu concept as an homage to Jerusalem, and all the cultures that contributed to the melting pot that is Jerusalem, like the brik, the Turkish pastry, and I wanted to make a lighter, healthier version,” Caruso says.
The brik is one of those nontraditional deli foods offered at Rye Deli + Drink that’s destined for popularity. Brik is an egg-filled pastry, and the version Caruso makes includes fingerling potatoes, fresh thyme and dill. The pastry is a thin, crisp crêpe, and although the brik is presented as a breakfast dish, it’d be fine any time of day. One could see it as a drinking food to be enjoyed with a glass of wine (which. unlike many other delis, is available at Rye Deli + Drink).
The matzo ball soup is a bowl of vibrant beauty balanced with hardiness, “an homage to grandma’s medicine,” says Caruso, but it’s not like anything bubbe served. It’s made with a twenty-four-hour chicken stock, parsnips, leeks, flavored with za’atar and sumac, garnished with parsley, dill and olive oil. The soup is brimming with fresh, raw vegetables, making this menu selection the perfect answer to whether you should have soup or salad for your starter: in this bowl, you have both. As striking as the cornucopia of beautiful vegetables in the soup, the matzo balls are made of blue corn. Such variations from the traditional version are destined to raise the ire of those who’ve grown up expecting deli food to be done a certain way. A Jewish chef I know saw a picture of the blue matzo ball that I posted and described it as his “worst nightmare.” I get that, but before you make a final decision, taste the soup, which is the most delicious version of matzo ball soup in memory. Traditional? Heck, no. Delicious. Heck, yes.
Salmon is also on the menu and Caruso says that “historically, delis smoked their pastrami and corned beef, but we also smoke our salmon. And we use Skuna Bay salmon, the best in the country. The fish has a sashimi quality, and I smoke it, but I don’t use the traditional wood, which is hickory. I use applewood and oak, so there’s a sweet smoke on the salmon and pastrami.”
While departing from the traditional deli, Caruso aims to “trigger memories of nostalgia and take all the stress out. Many people have remarked how wonderful it is to have our food at a time like this, and that’s what we’re going for. We’re in a world of negativity, and when people come in here to get a bowl of matzo ball soup or a pastrami sandwich, they smile, and that’s what we’re going for.”
Another time-tested way to take the stress out during stressful times is, of course, to serve drinks.
What Pairs Well with Pastrami?
Connected as it is to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Greektown, Rye Deli + Drink had to have a full bar, which is not seen at a lot of delis. There was a bar at Chicago’s extraordinarily short-lived Dillman’s (the only stateside deli I’ve visited that had crystal chandeliers), and beer and wine are offered at the perennially popular Eleven City Diner, but the breadth of bar offerings at Rye Deli + Drink is larger than might be expected.
So, what pairs with traditional deli foods? Both Caruso and Vass are certified level 2 sommeliers, and Vass says that “With pastrami, you’ve got smoked meat, it’s salty and it’s fatty. With pastrami, and many deli foods, you need acidic wine, something to cleanse the palate between bites, so you can enjoy more of the pastrami without overloading the palate. You wouldn’t want a sweet wine because that will add to the richness. A red wine, like an old world Italian or a zinfandel, or a high-acid pinot noir, are what you want to pair with pastrami. If you prefer white wines, a rich, buttery California chardonnay is not what you want; a high-acid French chardonnay might work, but I would seek out a sauvignon blanc, maybe from New Zealand.”
Chicago is a cocktail city, and Rye Deli + Drink, although they will custom-make any cocktail you want, also has a large selection of draft cocktails, so if you stop by the restaurant for a quick sandwich, you will get your cocktail fast… in a Chicago minute.
Chicago’s New Breed of Delis
Steingold’s Delicatessen and Café, which opened in 2017, was declared by Michael Nagrant in Redeye at that time to be “the Jewish deli of the future.” Steingold’s broke rules: for instance, they added anchovy mustard and dill kimchi to their pastrami, which would not be served at a traditional deli. Kudos to Steingold’s for being at the forefront of the trend to expand the deli menu and offer items that while not contradictory to the tradition, expand it considerably. Steingold’s recently relocated right next to the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview.
Half Sour in Printers Row opened in late 2017, and the place seems less about building on the deli tradition and more about presenting deli symbolism upfront while striking out on a much more inclusive path. Half Sour’s menu is headed up by listings for four or so bagels and schmears, pretty much baseline for any place claiming deli heritage; then the menu moves quickly into cheese curds, artichoke dips, charred wings, and other items unlikely to be found at other new-breed delis. Inside Half Sour, the long dark wood bar doesn’t look like anything we’d see in a by-the-book deli. Maybe, though, this is where the deli is headed, to a place that serves a handful of traditional deli standards as well as a lot of what you might think of more generally as “comfort food.”
Jeff and Judes opened in 2020, and it bills itself as a “Jew-ish Deli,” although the offerings are perhaps the most traditional of any delicatessen here, with steady standards like corned beef, pastrami and lox. This new deli is, the owners say, “a tribute to the heritage and hometown of Los Angeles.” Because it opened during the pandemic, offerings are spare, but the menu will grow with time.
Gotham Bagels started in Madison, Wisconsin, and in 2020 expanded to Chicago (with a second location to open soon). Gotham Bagels clearly uses the New York bagel as its model. As at Steingold’s, Gotham Bagels deals mostly in sandwiches. They use traditional ingredients in their bagels, hand-rolled and baked in-house, and their sandwiches reflect customary offerings with notable exceptions: the OMFG is a bagel sandwich with a fried egg, aged cheddar, spicy aioli, Nashville Fried Chicken (another rising favorite in Chicago and thick-sliced bacon, which one might expect from a restaurant in a city known as “hog butcher for the world,” and as clear a cue as any that Gotham Bagels—like Rye Deli + Drink—is breaking the mold of the traditional delicatessen and moving confidently beyond it.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org