What lies between the bread? It’s a vital question for the sandwich fanatic, because not all sandwiches are created equal. Some just have that special something, that little “zhuzh” that lifts it above the average PBJ or basic ham sandwich. Usually, that starts with high-quality cheeses, freshly roasted meats and veggies, pickled stuff, and a plethora of condiments. And let’s face it: a sandwich is only a sandwich if bread is involved. It can be a flatbread, a pita, English muffin, sliced bread, or a roll, but to my mind, a lettuce leaf does not a sandwich make. Nor does a tortilla, as that would be a taco, right? Here are some of the folks in and around Chicago that understand what I’m talking about.
(For a previous “Best Sandwich” list, check out this column from 2016 because they are all still calorie-worthy!)
This Little Piggy
Star Sandwich: Cubano, $10.95
Don’t kill the messenger, but you have only a few days to get in on this sandwich, but it’s so knock-your-socks off good that I had to include it. The TriBecca pop-up booth at Revival Food Hall in the Loop is currently looking for a permanent home, but that will have to wait until after chef Becca Grothe pops out her newest creation (she’s having a baby!). RUN there now to devour this perfectly griddled olive oil panino stuffed to bursting with mojo-marinated, slow-roasted pork, cured ham, swiss cheese, house-made pickles, and chipotle mayo. The bread is coated with mustard butter before hitting the hot plancha. If you don’t get the sweet potato fries, you’re a fool.
Star Sandwich: Milanesa, $9.50
While this new West Loop location might not have the bona fides of the original in East Humboldt Park, it’s all about the sandwich, and their Milanesa, crispy breaded pork loin layered with Oaxacan cheese, avocado, and chipotle sauce on a house-made sesame seed telera roll, is a champion.
Star Sandwich: Pig Candy B.L.T., $9
The Food Network’s Jeff Mauro is a Chicago native, so it’s no surprise that he came back to his hometown to start his sandwich empire. The stand-alone store is in Bucktown, but you’ll find outpost booths at the Loop’s Forum 55 and Wrigley Field, with another soon to come at Wells Street Market. His updated B.L.T. features strips of his crispy-sweet “Pig Candy” bacon, lettuce, ripe tomato, onions caramelized with balsamic vinegar, and mayo seasoned with dry rub spices, all served on a griddled brioche bun.
Swimming in It
Star Sandwich: Albacore Tuna Melt, $12
Who would’ve thunk that you’d find such a fabulous Tuna Melt at Alpana Singh’s Mediterranean-leaning restaurant? Time for a little mind expansion. Served on marbled rye, the tuna is topped with tomatoes, pickles, and melty fontina cheese (there’s the Italian!). In a recent interview with WTTW, Singh admitted she’s a big sandwich lover, and the tuna melt is one of her top picks.
Star Sandwich: Nova Scotia Lobster Roll, $19
Oh, we fancy. This white tablecloth restaurant, a favorite of nearby Loop office peeps, happens to have a great lobster roll, served properly on a toasted bun, with lots of sweet, plump meat tossed lightly with mayo, finely chopped cucumber, and herbs. Feel free to put the side of jicama slaw on top. No one will judge.
Star Sandwich: Steingold’s Classic Lox, $12.75
This North Center newcomer really hit the ground running. It’s hard to choose a favorite, truthfully, and I could just have easily highlighted the Sister-In-Law sandwich (house-made pastrami on a baguette with dill kimchi and anchovy mustard) or the Aunt Alice (whitefish salad on challah with pickled onions, bibb lettuce, and heirloom tomato), but I’ve got to go old school. Obviously, you’ll order it on an everything bagel (although I’m a pumpernickel gal myself) with chive cream cheese and pastrami-spiced lox, and top it with capers, red onions, heirloom tomatoes, and lightly pickled cucumbers. And you will be glad you did.
Star Sandwich: The Reuben, $9.50
I’d walk a mile (well, half a mile, as that’s the distance from my house to their front door) for this exquisite rendition of the classic Reuben. Of course, it starts with a great loaf of Hewn bread — in this case the Rouge de Bordeaux whole wheat, a sturdy bread that stands up to the substantial filling. Chef/owner Ellen King tells me that they are now making their own corned beef, sauerkraut, and 1000 Island dressing in the bakery, only outsourcing the Wisconsin cheese that completes the sandwich. The Reubens are griddled to order, and they make a limited amount every day, so call to have one set aside.
Star Sandwich: Meatball Parm, $11.95
A toasted and split French baguette gently cradles three ethereal meatballs (how can something made from veal, pork, and beef be so fluffy?) cloaked in tomato sauce and fontina cheese, and I, for one, am a very happy camper. Order it as part of the lunch combo ($9.95), and you get a “half” sandwich (still plenty) and your choice of soup or side salad, which might be one of the best deals around. Available at all of the Francesca’s family of restaurants.
Star Sandwich: House-made Gyros, $12
This is not the gyro you think you know, but the gyro that others aspire to be. Louie Alexakis spit roasts his beef and lamb, slices them to order, and piles them on a warm griddled pita with onions, tomato, oregano, and creamy tzatziki sauce. It will spoil you big time.
Star Sandwich: Spring Goddess, $8
I’ve long been a fan of this Northfield bakery, and of their sandwiches — the Chicken Artichoke was my previous love. But now, this revelation: slices of oven roasted chicken breast layered with thinly sliced radishes, arugula, and herby house-made Green Goddess dressing on thick slices of Three Tarts’ own country French loaf? My allegiance has shifted.
Star Sandwich: Turkey Pesto, $8
They take the time to do sandwiches right here, and the always interesting ingredient combinations reflect that. Take this elevated turkey sandwich, in which the thinly sliced turkey is tossed with pesto ranch dressing, tomatoes, arugula, and shaved onion and happily stuffed into a very good Italian baguette roll. And, score! All sandwiches come with house-made kettle chips.
Star Sandwich: Chicken Shawarma, $7.99
There are four Loop locations (and one in Schaumburg) of this ode to Jerusalem’s street food. For the sandwiches, hand-stretched, freshly grilled flatbread is topped with a healthy portion of shaved chicken shawarma, and the toppings are your choice … so may I recommend going with hummus, Jerusalem salad, chopped tomato, Mediterranean pickles, red cabbage salad, and a little tahini drizzled on top? Now that’s a mouthful.
Star Sandwich: Lemongrass Chicken Bánh Mì, $5.25
Lincoln Square is home to this Vietnamese gem, where everyone raves about their “Saigon Subs,” all served on airy French-style baguette rolls baked on premise. I’ll always opt for the roasted lemongrass-spiced chicken with all the classic toppings: shredded pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber spears, sprigs of fresh cilantro, and thinly sliced rings of jalapeño.
Star Sandwich: Deviled Egg, $10
All the glory of a really fine deviled egg captured in the ultimate egg salad sandwich. Hard-boiled eggs are clearly meant to be paired with paprika, Creole mustard, McClure’s snappy bread and butter pickles, fried shallots, and greens. I prefer it on the challah toast.
Star Sandwich: Nashville Hot Chickin’ Sandwich, $10.95
I would’ve put this in my fried chicken roundup … if it was actually chicken. This fast-casual vegan hot spot (now with four Chicago locations) recreates the flavor and texture profiles of meaty favorites with all of the protein but none of the animal. A crispy Chickin’ patty, hot sauce, bread and butter pickles, dairy-free coleslaw, and charred scallion ranch, all on a sesame seed bun. It fills a need.
Star Sandwich: Gourmet Falafel, $5.99
There are now five locations of this suburban favorite — the original in Skokie, plus Glenview, Wheeling, Naperville, and Mundelein. All use fresh pita (from Pita Inn’s own Market and Bakery in Skokie) as a vehicle for their greaseless, deep-fried falafel patties, made with seasoned, ground garbanzo beans, herbs, and spices. The Gourmet version adds chopped potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and diced sour pickles to the standard additions of lettuce and smooth tahini sauce.
Because You’re Not the Only One Who’s Hungry…
As you head out to try one (or all) of these incredible sammies, take a moment to remember that not everyone is so easily able to enjoy such fabulous food. Feed your stomach, then your soul by joining the fight to end world hunger.
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.