Slice: Chicago »

Chicago Essential: Home Run Inn

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Home Run Inn

4254 W. 31st Street, Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-247-9696; homeruninn.com (company site); hrichicagosbestpizza.com (location reviewed)
Pizza Style: Thin Crust
The Skinny: Though better known nationally for frozen pizza, Home Run Inn is a worthy Chicago institution
Price: 14" Laura's Favorite is $22; 12" Garlic Fireball Pizza is $18.50
Notes: 7 additional locations, all in the Chicago area

Throughout the parts of the country that carry the company's frozen pizza, Home Run Inn is merely one of the better pizza options in grocery store freezers. Here in Chicago, people appreciate the frozen stuff, but Home Run Inn has a much more beloved reputation as a pizzeria that's been making people happy since 1947, when a tavern on the southwest side started serving pizza.

Home Run Inn has been family-run since it opened its doors in 1923. According to corporate lore, Nick Perrino convinced his mother-in-law, the owner of Home Run Inn, to give away her pizza to customers in an effort to drum up business for the bar. Today, Nick's son Joe runs the company, which has since grown to 8 locations and a massive frozen pizza business. I've never been a huge fan of Home Run Inn, but given it's popularity and importance in local pizza history, there's no question it belongs on any list of "Chicago Essentials".

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Laura's Favorite, one of six specialty pizzas on the menu, comes topped with spinach and plum tomatoes and features a garlic butter crust. Neither tomatoes nor spinach are the most aesthetically pleasing, but they were outstanding and very good, respectively. I'm not sure if the tomatoes are canned with an extra dose of citric acid, sugar, or both, but something made the tomato flavor particularly bright.

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The crust on the Laura's Favorite was surprisingly delicious. My previous forays to Home Run Inn saw crusts that were mildly crisp, but not texturally impressive. This one was so crisp that it was almost crunchy, but not at all hard to chew. Garlic butter on the crust is available on any pizza for a surcharge, but it's automatically added to this one. Whoever constructed this pie was quite generous with the garlic butter; the added boost of flavor and fat worked well.

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The Garlic Fireball was a less impressive pizza. Topped with sausage, jalapeno and giardiniera, this pie more than lived up to its name. The moderate-sized pieces of chewy pork were packed with fennel and quite delicious on their own.

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The problem was that I couldn't taste them through the heat. Jalapeno covered every single inch of this pizza. The abundant supply of cheese and the thick herbed sauce made an effort to balance it out, but was ultimately unsuccessful. And by garlic, they meant garlic butter, but it was also completely swamped by the heat.

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When I isolated the crust on this one, it was clear that the garlic butter was not applied nearly as generously on this pizza. The basic crust at Home Run Inn is not particularly flavorful, so an adequate dose of garlic butter is really key to a particularly successful pizza there. This one did, however, have the same crispness that the Laura's Favorite supplied, which was great.

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After sampling the two pizzas at the restaurant for lunch, I stopped off at the grocery store and picked up a frozen Home Run Inn sausage and mushroom pizza. I started my dinner with a couple of leftover slices from lunch and then gave the frozen pie a try to compare. The crust offered little in the way of flavor and was not nearly as crisp as the restaurant pizzas (I followed the instructions and cooked the pizza directly on the oven rack at 450 degrees). Frozen mushrooms are never going to be particularly special, but sausage can be. Flavor-wise, these pork nuggets were close to on par with the restaurant version, but were not nearly as tender.

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It should surprise absolutely nobody that Home Run Inn pizza from the freezer is not as good as those available at the restaurant. But the restaurant puts out some very good pizzas and it's unfair to compare the frozen ones to their fresh-baked cousins. In the end, both are must-tries in their respective categories.

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