Editor's Note: This column tracks down the best places to eat in Chicago while standing up. If you have any suggestions please let us know.
J.P. Graziano Grocery Company
901 W. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-666-4587; jpgraziano.com
The Short Order: Flawless Italian subs, plus more adventurous specialty sandwiches.
Want Fries with That? No sides are necessary. Though check out the desserts to see what's available.
Seats? Two small tables up front, and an outdoor patio in the summer
J.P. Graziano Grocery Company is not new, but its sandwiches are. Up until a few years ago, the West Loop storefront was simply an Italian importer on an increasingly popular stretch of Randolph Ave. To help bring in a little extra money, Jim Graziano—the great-grandson of founder Vincenzo Graziano—decided to add a little sandwich counter to sell to the many new residents in the rapidly changing neighborhood. And, almost immediately, J.P. Graziano's started kicking out some of my favorite sandwiches in the city.
Graziano's sandwiches are defiantly old school, yet they showcase an incredible dedication to detail. Jim is not afraid to bust out the truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette when the time is right, but each sandwich is still wrapped up and stuffed into a brown paper bag. Even though there are two small tables by the front door, and an outdoor patio during the warmer months, this is still a to-go operation.
The two subs I purchased showcase this dynamic between old and the new perfectly.
The Italian ($5.25) is a flawless recreation of the Chicago classic. Housed on freshly baked Italian bread from D'Amato's, the sandwiches bare a strong similarity to Bari (reviewed here). Incredibly thin slices of hot capicola, Volpi genoa salame, mortadella, and provolone are layered on a fresh Italian sub, and then topped with tomato, lettuce, red wine vinegar, oregano, and giardiniera. Simple, right?
But even on a seemingly straightforward sandwich like this one small details stick out. Instead of heaping sliced iceberg on each sandwich, the lettuce is dressed with vinegar in a large bowl for each order. There may be three cured meats, but only a light layer of each is added, so the proportion of the sandwich is always right. And then there is the giardineria. The mix of pickled vegetables and chiles adds crunch, acidity, and spice to each bite. As I've mentioned a few times, I was never aware of this condiment before moving to Chicago, but now I'm not sure what I'd do without it. Victoria, the brand Graziano's uses, also happens to be one of my favorites.
On the other side of the sandwich spectrum is the Mr. G ($7.25), a recent addition to the menu, which Jim has been diligently developing for the past year. Featuring a collection of some truly pungent ingredients, the sandwich is one of the most temperamental creations I've ever encountered in the city. If only one ingredient is off balance, the whole thing tastes like an experiment gone terribly wrong.
Luckily, the success rate is incredibly high, and when it's on, the Mr G is one of the great unsung sandwiches of Chicago. Hot sopresatta, Prosciutto di Parma, and Volpi genoa salami are all used, along with some fresh basil, artichokes, and some very sharp provolone. But the sandwich's secret weapon is the aforementioned truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette, a condiment which, when applied perfectly, accentuates all the other ingredients, while leading your taste buds in odd and thrilling directions.
The shop has been experimenting with different dessert options for a while now. When I went a few weeks ago, cannoli from a local bakery were brought in that morning. The pistachio one I picked up was delicious, but even though they were only a few hours old, Jim was still not quite satisfied. He wanted to make them to order, but couldn't find the right way to get it done.
That's probably what is most exciting about Graziano's right now. It's hard to know what you'll find next when you walk through the door. The shop is still an importer at heart, so it is able to get a great collection quality ingredients from Italy. Luckily, it also still feels like an old school Chicago operation in every other respect.