Chicago’s Famous Foodies Tell All

Chicago is full of foodies.

These local chefs, store owners and restaurateurs gave us an exclusive look at their ultimate favorites: spots to eat, dishes to cook at home, can’t-live-without cocktails and even a few fun facts and insider tips for navigating their restaurants and stores.

famous-foodies-tell-all-rick-baylessRICK BAYLESS
Chef and Founder of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and XOCO

Rick Bayless is a Chicago food legend. Not only has he won countless awards, but he also founded the Frontera Farmer Foundation and Frontera Scholarship Fund to give back to local farmers and aspiring chefs.

What sparked your love of Mexican food?
“When I was 14 years old, our family took a trip to Mexico City. We landed late, and my mother was so afraid we weren’t going to be able to find a cab—boy, was she wrong! We got to our hotel by the Zócalo and the place was wild with activity. Mariachis, street vendors… before I had even taken a bite, I knew I loved this place.”

Favorite place to eat in the area:
“Chicago is really such a great food city and a city of neighborhoods. I try to get to new places and check out young chefs and see what they are doing. It’s so exciting for our city.”

Favorite dish to cook at home:
“I cook simple at home—something from the grill, and perhaps the garden.”

Go-to wine or cocktail:
“You really can’t beat a good margarita. Hand-shaken, fresh lime juice.”


Founding Partner, RPM Italian

This E! News co-anchor skyrocketed onto the Chicago food scene in 2012 with the opening of the super-trendy RPM Italian in River North.

What sparked your love of food?
“I was born in Naples, Italy and we all know with Italian culture comes a love for food. I grew up with my mom always in the kitchen making these amazing and authentic Italian meals—there was no way I couldn’t love food!”

Favorite item on the menu at RPM:
Mama DePandi’s Bucatini Pomodoro. “The recipe has been in my family for years, and it reminds me of my childhood in Italy.”

Do you have a favorite place to eat in the area when you’re not at RPM?
“I love going to Paris Club. It has a really cool and rustic vibe, and, of course, the food is amazing.”

Go-to wine or cocktail:
The G-rizzle. “I can’t give away what’s in it, so you’ll just have to go to RPM Italian to try it.”


Owner, Madame ZuZu’s

Former frontman of The Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan decided to bring cool live music to the North Shore in the form of a tea house, with local bands, open mic nights and poetry readings.

Why did you want to open Madame ZuZu’s?
“I’d lived in Highland Park since 2003, and I often complained to friends that there wasn’t anything to do. I wanted a place where people could get together and play music, but it was more artistically minded.”

Favorite tea in the shop:
Madame ZuZu’s Stimulus Hot Tea. “It’s this crazy, highly caffeinated tea that is like nothing I’ve ever had. It’s got a certain caffeine property that’s very unique, and people have been buying a lot of it.”

Favorite restaurant:
Happi Sushi in Highland Park. “It’s the best sushi on the North Shore by far, and it’s family-run, which I think really makes a big difference. There are actually two Billy Corgan rolls on the menu. I usually order Billy Corgan Number 2.”


Founding Pastry Chef and Partner, Tru; Chef in Residence at Elawa Farm

This Chicago pastry chef has done it all. She’s a restaurateur, author of seven cookbooks (with an eighth on the way), TV personality, and she even hosts cooking classes for kids and adults at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest.

Favorite dessert to make:
Chocolate pots de crème with black pepper whipped cream and salted caramel sauce. “I call it Chocolate with Salt and Pepper. I try to make desserts that have funny names like that. I broke my foot once years ago and I made a Black and Blueberry Crumble. And when Rick (Tramonto) and I got divorced, I did a Banana Split Up. My personal life gets into the titles of my desserts.”

Tru insider tip:
Diners can ask for a special guided tour of the esteemed art collection. “We have one of the best original art collections of any restaurant in the country.”

Fun fact:
Gale makes her own root beer, including a unique cinnamon-ginger-vanilla-flavored root beer, made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Gale’s Root Beer is sold online and in stores nationally.

Favorite dish to cook at home:
Baked eggs in ham cups with roasted asparagus, and chive and cheddar biscuits.


Semi-Finalist on ABC’s “The Taste,” Executive Chef, 545 North Bar & Grill

Libertyville-based chef Paul Caravelli served up gourmet meals and a sense of humor on ABC’s hit show “The Taste.” After filming, Paul returned to the suburbs, where he heads up the kitchen at 545 North Bar & Grill.

What was your favorite dish that you created on the show?
“I think it was my steak sandwich. Ludo (Lefebvre, a judge on “The Taste”) said, ‘It’s like a symphony in my mouth,’ because it was all crunchy and it had different textures, and it was really, really good steak.”

Favorite item on the menu at 545 North:
Fish tacos. “I wrap them in paper and put them on a plate, and it looks like you got it at a food truck, but it’s served to you in a fine-dining restaurant. It’s kind of mixing the two things together that I love.”

Favorite place to eat besides his own restaurant:
Gene and Jude’s Hot Dogs in River Grove

Go-to cocktail:
Vodka tonic, two limes


famous-foodies-martha-melmanMARTHA MELMAN
Owner, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises

Martha and Richard Melman are the co-owners of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You, with more than 80 restaurants across the country. Martha has been a major player in Lettuce since its founding in the early ‘70s, and she’s a mainstay of the Chicago food scene.

What’s your favorite of all of your restaurants?
R.J. Grunts. “We (Richard and I) met there, we named our first child R.J., and he was a manager and is still a managing partner there.”

What’s your favorite item on any of the Lettuce Entertain You menus?
Tuna and Thai Basil and Shaki-Shaki Tuna Rolls from Hub 51

Fun fact:
Martha’s personal carrot cake recipe is a favorite on the Hub 51 menu.


CEO, Sunset Foods

John Cortesi first started working at Sunset Foods when he was just 14 years old, although it’s been around for much longer—since his grandfather opened the first store in Highland Park in 1937.

What sets Sunset Foods apart from other local grocers?
“We carry more products than any traditional grocery retailer around. If it’s a new product our customer finds somewhere, we’re glad to bring it in.”

Favorite restaurant:
Sushi Kushi Toyo in Lake Forest for the Red Dragon, Caterpillar, Highland Park and Boston rolls. (He’s also a big fan of the Tuna Tartar at Paul Caravelli’s 545 North!)

Favorite dish to cook at home:
Cheese-filled pasta with prosciutto. “That’s a recipe my mother developed. She taught her three children how to make the same pasta, so that’s a very fun winter dinner.” 

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