Sure, Italian restaurants may be the first thing that that comes to mind when you think of these West Side neighborhoods, but the area is home to much more than great pasta. Explore some of the very best restaurants in Little Italy and University Village, including great spots to grab barbecue or brunch.
RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Little Italy and University Village
Little Italy and University Village restaurants
Though it was franchised at the turn of the millennium, this location of Al’s is the oldest (opened in 1938) and the only direct descendant of the original (a wooden stand at Laflin and Harrison). These days, you’ll find Italian beefs all over town, but there’s something special about eating one at the chain's historic Little Italy location. A six-inch bun piled with tender, thinly sliced beef is only better as a combo (topped with char-grilled sausage), dipped in beef jus and finished with hot giardiniera.
Little Italy is not just about red-sauce joints. Another option is the quaint Chez Joël, where the walls are the color of buttercream and the pâté is just as smooth. The mushroom quiche is thick with earthy ’shrooms and crunchy bread crumbs, and the steak frites comes with a particularly herbal maître d’ butter and habit-forming shoestring fries. This place might just be that dependable little spot you’ve been looking for when the wait at Le Bouchon is too long.
DMK makes its foray into smoked meats at County Barbeque. Take a tip from Nashville restaurants and order the meat and three, which includes your choice of meat and three sides. Our picks? The brisket rubbed with black pepper and garlic, corn pudding, blackened cauliflower and mac and cheese. Wash it all down with the cocktail of the day or choose from a list of craft beers.
Small, shared plates reign supreme at this romantic Italian restaurant. Grab a cheese and charcuterie plate to start, followed by the polenta and ragu of the day. It's served tableside and spread on a board to mix yourself. Follow that with a warm kale salad, sprinkled with pork jowl, oranges and pecans. Pair your choice of entree (we're a fan of the pastas) with a glass of wine and someone to share conversation with.
Neighborhood regulars flock to Fontano's Subs for lunch, where sandwiches on French bread packed with cold cuts and cheese ranging from six inches to three feet abound. And while you can construct your own combination, we encourage you to grab the Blockbuster—filled with ham, salami, capicola, provolone and Swiss cheese topped with lettuce, tomato, mayo, oil, vinegar and your choice of hot or mild giardiniera.
A little walk-up shack on the UIC Campus with no seating, Jim's Original doesn't look like much. But a solid rendition of a Vienna beef Chicago-style dog with fries sets you back just $2.85, and the grilled onions are a nice touch. Open 24 hours a day, Jim's Original is just as good for lunch as it is for a late night snack.
Chicago’s most quintessential restaurant isn’t a steakhouse or a laboratory-like kitchen putting out cutting-edge cuisine—it’s a cafeteria. Decide what you want before you get in line at this 70-year-old institution. You’ll pass plates of Jell-O and chicken salad, but this line moves too quickly to decide on the spot. Our advice? Grab one of the oversized corned beef or pastrami sandwiches, a potato pancake on the side and a packet of Tums for dessert.
This no-frills seasonal stand has been churning out Italian lemonade since 1954. Though it serves novelties such as snowballs and nuts, you’re really there for the namesake goods: Delicately shaved ice with pieces of lemon rinds and flecks of zest, naturally flavored and not too tart or overly sweet. Flavors get fancy—like chocolate or piña colada—but our recommendation is to stick to the fruits (cantaloupe, for example, comes with melon chunks).
Most weekends you’ll find a crowd spilling onto this breakfast spot’s sidewalk, as servers carry plates toppling from the weight of sweet-milk biscuits and bone-in ham. Those who stick it out will be rewarded with staples like housemade muffins, vegetable hash with copious amounts of sautéed onions and peppers, and pancakes with sweet pockets of banana. Don’t miss the Southern-inspired dishes like the fried catfish, grits and compact, crispy salmon cakes, all of which are served on weekends only.
This old-school Italian joint is holding strong in its ever-changing ’hood. The chalkboard menu rarely changes, and regulars never even glance at it before ordering the house specialty: Lemon chicken Vesuvio packed with a fistful of garlic, and roasted, citrus-spritzed chicken that’s among the best around. After a couple of bites, you’ll get caught up in the tradition of the place, enough to overlook iceberg salads, standard pastas and carafes of jug wine.