Serious Eats: Chicago
Lou Malnati's: Home of Flawless Deep Dish
"I have tried more pizzas than I can possibly remember, and Lou Malnati's remains my favorite."
Location visited: 958 West Wrightwood Avenue, Chicago IL 60614 (map; but there are multiple locations); 773-832-4030; loumalnatis.com
Pizza Style: Known for deep-dish but also serves thin-crust and gluten-free
The Skinny: The best deep dish in the Chicago area can be found at this local chain of pizzerias located mostly in the suburbs. The signature pizza, The Lou, comes with a butter crust, but it's worth the 75¢ upcharge to get the butter crust on any other pizza you get. Malnati's also serves a unique "gluten-free" pizza that does right by the celeiac set by replacing the crust with sausage
Price: The Lou, large, $22.50; medium, $17.85; small, $12.85; individual, $6.65
When I was a young sparky attending Cubs games, I noticed advertisements for a pizzeria called Lou Malnati's on the back of the tickets. I have a vague recollection (perhaps completely fabricated) that I asked my father about going there and he explained that they were in the suburbs and did not have stuffed pizza. That meant they were far away and that I would have seen no point in eating there (in my young mind, if a pizza wasn't stuffed, it wasn't good).
By the time I tried Malnati's for the first time in 1999, I already knew that deep-dish pizza was worth eating. But the buttery crust, sweet chunky tomato sauce, and fresh homemade sausage on a Lou Malnati's pie changed my pizza worldview forever. Since that time, I have tried more pizzas than I can possibly remember, and Lou Malnati's remains my favorite.
Lou Malnati and his wife, Jean, opened the first Malnati's in 1971 in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. Before that, he had worked at Uno's with his father, Rudy Malnati. In fact, there is some debate as to who actually created the deep-dish pizza that Uno's introduced to Chicago. Uno's says Ike Sewell did, but a Malnati's spokesperson says that Rudy Malnati was the creator. According to Wikipedia, there was a 1955 newspaper article that backs up the Malnati version of events.
In 1978, Lou Malnati died and his sons took over the family business and still run it today. In that time, the business has done well. In 1995, they were up to nine locations, and today they have 28. However, only ten of those are sit-down restaurants, three of which are in Chicago and seven are in the suburbs. In addition to the restaurants, the company ships 250,000 pizzas around the country every year.
It is also worth mentioning that Malnati's has been a remarkable corporate citizen. In 1995, the company partnered with a local community organization and opened a restaurant on the far west side of Chicago in Lawndale, a community that could be the poster child for urban decay in America. In addition to employing local residents and offering high-quality food, the Lawndale Lou Malnati's contributes 100 percent of its profits to help finance educational and recreational programs for neighborhood youth.
Enough Business, Let's Talk Pizza
Normally when I go to Malnati's, I get The Lou, which is the pizza in the upper left in the photo above. The Lou starts with the buttery crust that is, in my opinion, the best pizza crust in Chicago. It is not quite as thick as the traditional deep-dish crust found at the more visible downtown pizzerias like Uno's and Gino's East. The texture is perfect—flaky but not weak, and crisp but not hard. The cornmeal gives it a nice flavor and a yellow shade. While The Lou automatically comes with a butter crust, other deep-dish pizzas do not, although they can be upgraded to a butter crust for 75¢. I've always paid the odd nominal amount, so I can't say a word about the regular deep-dish crust.
On top of the crust comes a fantastic blend of mozzarella, Romano, and cheddar cheese. Malnati's has bought its mozzarella from the same small dairy farmer for 35 years. On top of the cheese in The Lou is fresh spinach and fresh mushrooms. The next layer is Malnati's chunky, sweet, and slightly acidic tomato sauce. The Lou is topped with sliced Roma tomatoes, which are also available as a topping on its other pizzas.
A Sausage-Crust Pizza
As much as I love The Lou, which I have no problem describing in detail from recent memory, I decided to expand my horizons a bit on my recent Slice trip, and I ordered a pizza that may well only be available in a city that once was Hog Butcher for the World. I'm not sure when or why it started, but Malnati's offers a unique gluten-free pizza. Other places offer gluten-free pies, but they typically make a crust out of rice flour rather than wheat flour. There is nothing resembling bread in the Malnati's version. The crust is one large piece of savory, juicy sausage.
The bottom layer is about a quarter-inch-thick piece of sausage. The next layer is about the same thickness of mozzarella cheese. I opted for mushrooms and Roma tomatoes as toppings. The mushrooms were under the sauce, and the sliced tomatoes were on top. For reasons I can't explain, even though there is no thick crust to deal with, it still took 35 minutes to cook the pizza.
Both my dining companion and I agreed it was worth the wait. One unavoidable flaw of the sausage crust is that it does not hold onto the melted cheese nearly as well as a traditional crust. As a result, this can be a messy treat.
While Malnati's remains primarily a suburban chain, there are two conveniently located restaurants in Chicago that out-of-towners can easily reach. One, where I went tonight, is on the north side of the city, just more than a mile directly south of Wrigley Field. The other one is in River North, just north of the Loop and west of the North Michigan Avenue shopping district. Both restaurants are filled with Chicago sports memorabilia and offer deep-dish, thin, and gluten-free pizza.
I am far from alone in my infatuation with Lou Malnati's pizza. In the 1990s, Mark Evans, a suburban Chicagoan and retired Air Force officer, sent 50 pizzas to the troops in Bosnia. Recently, his 16-year-old son Kent asked Evans whether the troops currently in the Middle East had access to the family's favorite pizza. Following an email exchange with Gen. David Petraeus, the Evans family got to work. They are currently raising money to buy 3,000 pizzas to ship to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Fourth of July. That's some patriotic pizza love.