Yes, summer is here and we’re ready for al fresco anything!
As the season finally changes, our thoughts stray to outdoor concerts and picnics with friends, because everyone knows that food always tastes better outdoors. Next time you’re looking for just the right assortment of snacks and beverages to bask in the summer sun, or on a warm night under the stars, choose from the gourmet groceries below and make the evening easy. That’s what summer is about, right?
Things are happening at Wilmette’s little specialty gem where sourcing local products is a mission. New culinary director and veteran Chicago chef Erwin Drechsler is on board now and revamping the prepared food and to-go menu. Talk about super fresh: They’re doing in-house, whole-animal butchery. An ideal picnic basket might include: inventive Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches; chicken salad made from just-roasted chickens; Slagel Family Farms beef roasted rare in-house; greens direct from Catalpa Grove Farm; gluten-free whole grain salads; and for fish-lovers, try Chef Erwin’s famous salmon cakes, served with the sauce of the day. 414 Linden Ave., Wilmette, 847-512-3155
This long-time North Shore favorite has a nice selection of meals to go that are perfect for a meal under the stars, from the Salmon Splash (fresh poached salmon with cucumber dill sauce, pasta salad, fresh fruit salad, roll and cookies) to the Wrap This (wrap sandwich, fresh fruit salad, chips and a chocolate-chip cookie). The huge made-to-order sandwich and salad menu, large cheese and bakery sections, and well-curated selection of pantry items (chutneys, dips, mustards, etc.) make this a one-stop shop. 2106 Central St., Evanston, 847-328-7704; 338 Park Ave., Glencoe, 847-835-5105; 1456 Waukegan Road, Glenview, 847-832-9999; 255 E. Westminster Ave., Lake Forest, 847-234-6600
There’s always plenty to choose from at this North Carolina-based specialty grocery store in Edens Plaza. For a picnic, you might grab one of their hand-rolled wraps (try the Turkey, Brie and Cranberries or the Chicken Caesar), a prepared salad and a loaf of the wonderfully crusty rosemary and sea salt sourdough rolls. The cheese selection is broad and the prepared roasted meats (pork loin, turkey breast and chicken) are always a good bet, although a knife for carving would be required. Desserts tempt with wonderfully moist red-velvet cupcakes and heavenly chocolate-chip rugelach. Their ample selection of craft beers and chilled wines makes it easy to grab your picnic items last minute, especially on the way to Ravinia. 850 Western Ave., Lake Forest, 847-482-0643; 475 Milwaukee Ave., Lincolnshire, 847-793-0926; 3232 Lake Ave., Wilmette, 847-251-426
These food emporiums have upped the ante for grab-‘n’-go picnic grub. So long, Dominick’s and helloMariano’s, with new stores in Northfield and Ravenswood (right off the Metra stop of the same name). Their “design your own meal” is a quick and easy entree with two sides of your choice. If you prefer not to use knife and fork, opt for Todd’s BBQ station where beef brisket and smoked pulled pork sandwiches are topped with sauces like sweet Texas or tangy Carolina. With an astoundingly extensive chilled craft beer selection, I’d suggest beer over wine, although their bottle selection also holds its own. 450 W. Half Day Road, Buffalo Grove, 847-634-8500; 1800 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, 773-334-3549; 1822 Willow Road, Northfield, 847- 446-6870; 1900 S. Cumberland Ave., Park Ridge, 847-696-2360
The Ogilvie Train Station location of this exceptional shop proves to be as convenient for picnics in Grant Park or Millennium Park as it is for Ravinia. It’s easy to download their picnic menu and order online, too. Their distinct baskets come sized to order for your group, solving most any craving. Most picnics come with Charcuterie, with one of the broadest and most eclectic selections in town, from Smoking Goose’s duck-pear-port salami to more straightforward Italian-style Milano salami, along with a range of locally sourced cheeses like the Prairie Breeze (Iowa), Quark or Red Rock (Wisconsin). If sandwiches are more to your liking, the Salumi Picante, Herbed Duck Confit or the Classic Parisian Ham and butter will not disappoint. With their hand-selected wine and beers options, you won’t go thirsty either. Chicago French Market, 131 N. Clinton St., Chicago, 312-454-2200
With multiple locations around the North Shore, the mega-organic market is filled with picnic options. Some ideas for al fresco delight: cherry-pecan grain salad, zucchini-feta pie and a turkey cucumber wrap. Finish your meal with a mini summer-fruit pie, just the right size for your party of two. And the chilled beverage selection makes pairing beer of wine a cinch. 760 Waukegan Road, Deerfield, 847-444-1900; 1111 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-475-9492; 1640 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 847-733-1600; 840 Willow Road, Northbrook, 847-205-5353; 225 W. Touhy Ave., Park Ridge, 847-292-7100