In some strange twist of fate, everything is coming up Chicago today. For starters, I'm finally giving a listen to Coloring Book, the newish mixtape from the Chicago MC Chance the Rapper. Then there's this David Means article I'm in the middle of, a story that touches repeatedly on the life of Saul Bellow, born Canadian but very much a child of Chicago. "I am an American, Chicago born," goes the beginning of one of his most famous (and best) novels. And then there's the restaurant I'm heading toward: Tony's Chicago Beef Co., which, as the name might indicate, is dedicated wholly to Windy City cuisine.
It's actually two restaurants. The first opened in Gulf Gate all the way back in 2009; the second opened on Siesta Drive, across from the Southgate mall, last year. Tony's is really only partly a restaurant. It's also a shrine (Chi-Rine?) to all things Chi-Town. Tributes to all the city's sports teams hang on the bright yellow and red walls of the Siesta Drive location, with images of stars like M.J. and the Big Hurt on display. The Blues Brothers are represented, as is the Chicago Theatre.
That Chi-City pride extends to the menu, as well, with a long list of beef and sausage sandwiches ($5.69-$7.89), Chicago-style hot dogs and Polish sausages ($3.95-$4.95), plus burgers ($4.09-$7.69), a pork chop sandwich ($6.39) and some "salads" ($4.29-$5.79), whatever those are. I'm mostly intrigued by the Italian beef sandwiches, but I can't really not get the beef sandwich that comes with a sausage, too, right? The "combo" it is, with a dose of 55-cent giardiniera to boot.
The Southgate spot includes a handful of bar seats facing a pair of TVs tuned to different sports programs. Tables line the wall that stretches back from the entrance. Up front, families have gathered for a hearty lunch, the kids and parents battling in a game of tabletop foosball and air hockey. Post office workers from down the strip mall take a break and gab.
The food comes out in plastic baskets. The combo sandwich is doused with gravy, turning my bread into almost-mush. The liquid has turned the wax paper at the bottom of my basket completely clear and the juice even splashes onto that magazine article I was reading, blurring together words and phrases from different pages. Inside that moist bread I find piles of thin beef laid atop a thick sausage. The spiced-up carrots, celery, cauliflower and peppers of the giardiniera gild the lily.
How hungry are you? I'm not sure I can finish this thing, but I'm enjoying the challenge. The beef and sausage are a little underseasoned, but the spice blend helps a lot, blistering my tonsils. The bread, although quite wet, hangs together just enough to contain everything going on here. A side of excellent freshly cut fries ($2.19-$3.09) adds to the party.
Is this a typical Chicago lunch? If so, I don't think I can hang on the regular. But I'm happy to play the part for a day. Over at the bar, a couple gents sip beer and reflect on the ambience. One of them hasn't been to Chicago in a minute, he tells a friend. "It feels good to sit here and look at this stuff," he says. Guess I'm not the only one going all in on Chicago nostalgia today.
Tony's Chicago Beef Co. has locations at 6569 Superior Ave., Sarasota, and 2117 Siesta Drive, Sarasota. Call (941) 922-7979 to reach the Superior Avenue location, (941) 993-1531 to reach the Siesta Drive restaurant. For more info on both locations, visit tonyschicagobeef.com.