Rob Reiner’s 1989 film When Harry Met Sally may have been a fictional account of single life in New York City, and the voluble orgasm she performs at a central table while eating lunch at Katz’ Delicatessen was hilariously fake but it’s a certifiable fact that Estelle Reiner’s brilliant, deadpan line to her waitress — “I’ll have what she’s having!” — is one of the great lines of modern comedy.
It’s also the name of a traveling exhibit from LA’s Skirball Cultural Center that has happily landed at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (ILHMEC) in Skokie, where it will stay through April 14, 2024. And believe me, you will want to have what they’re having. The exhibit is so evocative that when I left, my car basically drove itself to Kaufman’s so that I could fill a shopping bag with matzo ball soup, thinly sliced lean corned beef, coleslaw, rugelach, fresh rye bread and deli mustard to relive my own wonderful Detroit childhood and deli visits with my beloved parents and grandparents, all long gone.
You may wonder, “Why this exhibit?” Is it too lighthearted with the Middle East on fire and anti-Semitism on the rise worldwide? And why has it landed at ILHMEC, a gorgeous and haunting place designed by renowned architect Stanley Tigerman that takes you on a journey from darkness to light, both literally and figuratively?
Arielle Weininger, Chief Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, has something to say about these questions. “At times like these, the Jewish people want to be in community,” Weininger shares, “and it’s an important part of being a Jew. Deli food is the food of joy and sadness, an integral part of Jewish life for both simchas (happy occasions, like weddings, b’nai mitzvahs and births) and shivas (the grieving period after a death).”
Perhaps even more significantly, says Weininger, “A large part of genocide is the erasure of culture: food, language, music, writing.” So when Holocaust Survivor communities sprung up in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and New York City, preserving Jewish food ways was both a comfort and a necessity to avoid further erasure of the Jewish culture. Delis were a place to gather, a sacred space in the community where you would go to fress (overeat), kvell (feel happiness and pride), and kibbitz (give unwanted advice, joke) with others.
This is not the museum’s first partnership with the Skirball. They often contact Weininger while they’re developing new exhibits to see if there’s a mission match. In the original exhibit, NYC and LA were featured prominently with a nod to Chicago; Weininger heightened the local angle, and it makes the exhibit all the stronger for it.
When doing her initial research, she started with old phonebooks at the Skokie Historical Society, then reached out to the community via Facebook and was astonished to get nearly 250 responses from Chicagoland residents both past and present. They weighed in not only with names of delis consigned to history, but with memorabilia, photographs, and more — including a 500-pound meat slicer from Kaufman’s, originally purchased in 1958 and nicknamed “Baby Bertha,” which sits near the front of the exhibit in a reinforced display case.
The exhibit starts off with an eight-minute short by filmmaker Liz Sung of Engel-Park Productions featuring interviews with the proprietors of local deli stalwarts The Bagel, Manny’s Deli and Kaufman’s telling stories of Chicago deli culture and the importance of these traditions.
After that, you wind your way through the very approachable exhibit, savoring the bits and pieces of local and national history. A short film clip shot in the early days of the 20th century shows pushcart peddlers on the Lower East Side of New York City as they sell their wares, and the beat cops that keep them moving. It’s surprisingly effecting. Eventually, these pickle and knish entrepreneurs opened small brick-and-mortar delicatessens — literally translated as “a place to find delicious things to eat.” By 1930, there were over 1,500 delis in New York City.
Chicago, the meat capital of the world at the time, and home of the Union Stockyards, wasn’t far behind in terms of deli development. Some interesting Chicago tidbits from the exhibition: The famous Vienna Beef, home of the original Chicago dog, was originally a Kosher-certified company — although still all-beef, they are no longer Kosher — and got their start at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. And S. Rosen’s, baker of that classic poppy-seed dotted hot-dog bun, as well as a fine Kaiser roll, still has their original dough starter.
Other highlights include signage, menus and other deli memorabilia of the once-vital local deli culture, which catered to the Jewish immigrant population of Central and Eastern Europe.
The big photo wall of Chicago delis is sourced largely from that original Facebook post, as is the wall with stories of Chicago Survivor Communities. Both are fascinating reminders of the seemingly distant past and its relevance in current events.
Over 450 people attended the opening of “I’ll Have What She’s Having”: The Jewish Deli exhibition on October 22, and another large crowd gathered for a special program on November 1 that featured a panel of Jewish food luminaries (Rich Melman, founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You; Larry Levy, founder of Levy Restaurants; Marc Shulman, president of Eli’s Cheesecake; and Ken Raskin, owner of Manny’s Deli) moderated by local broadcasting legend Bob Sirott.
So, contrary to popular belief, the delicatessen isn’t dying out. Clearly the interest is still there, and the concept is being seen through a more modern lens. In the Chicago area, there have been numerous new deli openings in the last decade, and many old classics are hanging on, even thriving. Russ & Daughters, Barney Greengrass, and Katz’s Deli in NYC — fueled by TikTok postings — still have lines out the door, and Manny’s is still bringing in Chicago’s movers and shakers. There’s still life left in the deli, and people crave comfort and familiarity now more than ever. And what’s more comforting than a bowl of chicken soup?
Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center is located at 9602 Woods Drive, Skokie. For. more information or to secure tickets, call them at 847-967-4800 or visit Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center online.
Looking for a place to nosh after all this deli talk? Here are both timeless local favorites and new-fangled local delis that you should consider visiting to scratch that itch:
The dill pickles and bread basket on every table let you know you’re in the right place. This is deli hospitality. They do a nice blintz here, and the Mish-Mash Soup — SO MUCH chicken broth with matzo ball, kreplach, noodles, rice and kasha — is a delicious dare. You will not finish it. My mom loved their tuna salad, so I do too.
3107 N. Broadway, Chicago
Keto bowls and a Veggie Reuben share pride of place with Bubbie’s Chicken Soup, Challah French Toast and Sweet ‘n Sour Cabbage at this South Loop favorite. If you’re really hard core, order the meltingly tender brisket.
Wabash at 11th St., Chicago
Owner Bette Dworkin knows her deli history, and it shows. This is the real deal: hot corned beef sandwiches slathered in mustard, nova lox sliced to order, whitefish salad to die for, and all the noodle kugel you can eat, all ordered at the counter. If you’re looking for a deli platter, look no further. For those keeping score, this is the closest deli to the museum.
4905 W. Dempster St., Skokie
This is old school Chicago, and you want this in your life. Salami and Eggs or Matzo Brei are the call at breakfast, the Chazzer sandwich — corned beef and pastrami on rye with coleslaw, muenster cheese and thousand island dressing — and a bowl of chicken soup with kreplach at lunch.
1141 S. Jefferson St., Chicago
The bagels are the thing here, and you can’t go wrong with Nova Lox Plate, where you can add just the right amount of cream cheese and layer it with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and capers. They also do a fine flat Greek omelet, and the cookies and other bake goods are tasty.
1888 1st St., Highland Park and 1050 Gage St., Winnetka
Opened December 2019
This Uptown deli, only open on weekends, is the world’s first vegan deli. Owner Andy Kalish grew up in a kosher household, and wanted to honor the traditional deli foods through a vegan lens. Try the “Goldie’s Laks,” “New Schwartz” or “Broccoli and Chedda Knish” for a change of pace.
1309 W. Wilson Ave., Chicago
Opened August 2023
Owner Jake Schneider has set up shop in a small storefront in River North where he’s making his own corned beef and roasted turkey, soups and deli-style salads every day. Don’t miss the Matzo Ball Soup, plump and crispy Latkes and the Reuben sandwich.
600 N. LaSalle Dr., Chicago
Opened August 2017
Originally opened in the Irving Park neighborhood, they moved to Wrigleyville in 2021 and expanded the shop. They’re making the bagels in house — boiled and baked, as G-d intended — I’m partial to the Everything and Za’atar varieties, they also make an excellent base for their scrumptious breakfast sandwiches. Do not miss the Chocolate Babka, or the chicken soup. I’m intrigued by the vegetarian Cousin Suzy sandwich with pastrami-spiced mushrooms, swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Russian dressing on rye. A new take on an old favorite.
3737 N. Southport, Chicago
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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.