By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I’m not from Chicago, but in repeat visits to the Windy City I’ve packed my gut plenty of times with its iconic deep-dish pizza, mustard-y Vienna Beef hot dogs and juicy Italian beef sandwiches.
They’re the “big three” dishes (plus others) that Chi-town transplants Brendan and Lauren Hodson have been slinging with precision at Lefty’s Chicago Pizzeria for the past 13 years.
Locally, nothing else really compares.
With locations in North Park and Mission Hills, we dropped in on the latter and discovered since last eating here the additions of a kid-friendly patio out back and a small selection of rotating craft beers on tap.
In addition, pizza puffs were added to the menu after remaining a secret item for some time.
“They’re a cult thing in Chicago after a night of drinking,” said general manager David Eskra (Lauren’s brother), who cautions not to bite into them too quickly because they’re scorching hot inside when served.
Indeed, compared to their temperate outer casings — made of thin, flaky tortillas — the innards yield a steamy rush of red sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni capable of inflicting mouth pain no matter how much alcohol you previously consumed.
Sourced from a leading manufacturer in Chicago (Iltaco Foods), they marked a savory initiation to a popular nosh that had somehow evaded me over the years.
Lefty’s front room is where customers place their orders before choosing a table from three indoor dining sections defined by sports memorabilia, wainscoting and Craftsman windows. Though customers need only look behind the order counter to spot signage showing two things never to request here.
“We’re a culture of ‘yes’ except if you want ketchup on your hot dog or pineapple on your pizza,” Eskra quipped with a tone of conviction.
The belief is that sugary ketchup destroys the tangy essence of classic Chicago dogs, which as much of the world knows by now, are garnished with a zingy hodgepodge of mustard, neon-green relish, onions, celery salt, slender sport peppers and a couple tomato slices.
Count me among those who could easily withstand ketchup in the scheme, although I applaud Lefty’s intolerance for sweetening pizza with any sort of fruit.
Lefty’s churns out three types of pies: deep dish; stuffed, and thin and crispy. We tried all three by the slice and with varying toppings.
The stuffed version was particularly orgasmic with its deep-dish crust laden with cornmeal and oozing with mozzarella. The oven-fresh pizza, prepared “Monster of the Midway” style, was strewn with house-made sausage, pepperoni, elephant garlic and giardiniera, a semi-spicy relish of brined carrots, onions, cauliflower and peppers that is a must on Chicago’s celebrated Italian beef sandwiches.
Regardless of their toppings, both the stuffed and deep-dish pizzas carry a lot of weight. (And yes, the sauce always goes on top.) The former is saddled with nearly three pounds of cheese and the deep-dish takes on a pound and a half. Hence, the word “light” has never defined Chicago food.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kaukauna cheese, try it on the Italian beef sandwich or the loaded fries. The curds hail from the namesake town in Wisconsin, offering a strong cheddar-y bite similar to those holiday cheese balls we secretly love.
The bright-orange cheese softened particularly well on our beef sandwich, which featured a hefty measure of thinly sliced top round, a flood of au jus, and giardiniera on top. If combining it with a slice of pizza or fries, you’re easily looking at another full meal from the leftovers.
Other staples include Carbonara pasta, char-grilled burgers and sliders, meatball sandwiches and the Maxwell Street Polish sausage, a Windy City favorite featuring a charred sausage link crowned with mustard, grilled onions and sport peppers. Just as everything else we tried, it was wickedly tasty.
If you can’t think of a dessert Chicago is famous for, neither can the folks at Lefty’s despite a dessert category printed on the menu that simply states beneath: “Inquire within.”
Eskra said it was put on as an inside joke, adding that with a menu of food so rich and heavy, sweet stuff would never sell.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.