Gene's Sausage Shop
You've probably experienced it. You walk into a butcher shop intending to size up the meat, and instead find that you're the one being sized up by a surly man behind the counter. He's frowning, bloodstained, and not at all impressed with you. And having no idea what to do next and knowing that he's already eyeing you suspiciously, all you can think about is that if you open your mouth and start speaking English he'll chase you out of the store.
There's a gritty, gruff charm in that old school experience that can definitely be found in Chicago. And sometimes, it's worth it for the quality of what's sold. But it's not the kind of experience you'll have at Gene's Sausage Shop in Lincoln Square.
Not that a lack of gruff means a lack of cred: Gene's Sausage Shop has roots that go way back to the early 70s, when it was one of those old school butcher shops itself specializing in Polish products and nourishing the local immigrant community with that famous "taste of home." They were so successful that within eight years, they moved into a 20,000 square-foot location on Belmont, where still today they operate multiple in-house smokehouses, conduct full-animal butchering, and turn out what may be the most varied selection of sausage in Chicago.
However, many know Gene's by its Lincoln Square location, which opened in 2009.
It's a towering, multi-story ode to good eating: 40 varieties of house-made sausages and cured meats (many of which are smoked at their large Belmont location), a full service staff of butchers who cut to order, a stock of hard-to-find game meats, a tremendous selection of beer and wine, and a carefully curated grocery from near and far (butter from France, feta from Bulgaria, peaches from Lehman's Michigan farm, and milk from downstate Kilgus Farm). They even crowned the place with a roof deck, where their delicious sausages are grilled, and you can grab a picnic table and a beer while taking in the view. (Sadly, it's Chicago, and the beer garden season has come and gone.)
In addition to Polish standards like kielbasa ("Traditional Polish Sausage, need we say more?" is how they describe it—I mean c'mon, this is Chicago), they also expand to other countries and cuisines (like mettwurst, a spreadable German sausage). In the fresh sausage department, their Sheboygan-style bratwurst are some of the best outside of Wisconsin.
I headed into Gene's with the intention of being persuaded. Whatever they wanted me to buy, I was in. And I was quickly treated to some of priceless Midwestern charm by Jill, my counter lady, who was so excited about all the products that I ended up eating practically a full meal—from slices of smoked pork loin to hunks of their popular alpine sausage. Jill (who also happens to have a brother named Jack, she told me) enthused about their house-made veal bologna and the four sides of cow that were hanging in the window aging, eventually to be broken down into cuts and sold.
That alpine sausage is justifiably popular—it's a take on Kielbasa with amped up garlic and a second trip into the smoker. It comes out burnished and dark, with a penetrating smoke flavor that still somehow manages to not overwhelm the taste of the meat. Inside, it has a clean, smooth texture, which comes from mixing it just long enough before casing to emulsify slightly but still retain some texture and chew. It's masterfully made and well-executed.
Considering I picked up a link of it for $2.85 (it's over a foot long), this is one of the better deals when it comes to sausage in Chicago.