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The past few weeks we've been taking a look at the best places to eat around various colleges around the country. I should note that the area around University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) is still mostly known for the food it used to have. Of course, that happens when the city decides to demo a neighborhood, eventually tearing down one of the most cherished food icons of the city, the Maxwell Street Market (cue the history of the Polish sausage and pork chop sandwich). But I don't want to dwell on the past, because like the ever growing and diverse student body, there is an incredible array of options nearby, from old-school Italian joints to a collection of new restaurants setting up in the growing neighborhoods. It's one of the best places to eat cheaply in Chicago.
UIC is located in a neighborhood called University Village, but I don't know many people who use that term, instead calling most of the area Little Italy. Though cut off by I-290 and I-90/94, the campus is also very close to the West Loop, Greektown, and the South Loop.
This may be the best neighborhood in the city for fans of the Italian beef. Of course, some (i.e. me) think that the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street is the best example in the city. The beef is roasted in-house, sliced daily, and bathed in an intricately spiced gravy, which I find irrestiable. But it's not the only option in the option. As a group of us found on an Italian beef tour, The Patio also serves up a solid version. I also like the one you can find at Carm's.
The Patio, 1503 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-829-0454
Best Dessert: Mario's Italian Lemonade
Located directly across the street from Al's #1, Mario's Italian Lemonade is the perfect dessert after you get your hands dirty with an Italian beef. The fresh and tart Italian ice has none of the cloying sweetness that ruins most versions around town. The only problem is that Mario's is only open during the summer, closing mid-September. In other words, stopping wasting time and check this place out now!
Mario's Lemonade, 1068 W. Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-829-0672
Best Late-Night Option: Jim's Original
It may have moved around, but Jim's Original is still the link to the neighborhood's past, and it's alive and well. Open 24 hours a day, Jim's serves up stellar Polish sausages, pork chop sandwiches, and hot dogs, all loaded with the standard topping of mustard and caramelized onions. The latter ingredient haunts the block nearby, and will follow you around like a ghost for a good two hours after every visit. I should note that some people prefer Express Grill, which is located next door and serves the exact same menu, but in a head-to-head battle, Jim's came out on top.
No college is complete without a genuine greasy breakfast option, and Hash Browns more than lives up to the challenge. Try the Maxwell Street omelet ($8.95), which contains all the classic dishes from the old neighborhood—Polish sausage, grilled onions, and sliced grilled pork chop—all mixed up into one glorious whole. If you're in need of something slightly more refined, Sweet Maple Cafe on Taylor Street offers handmade breakfast dishes in a cute atmosphere.
Best Pizza: Dough Boys
Update: Eater Chicago just posted today that both Dough Boys and Saltino's closed. Talk about bad timing.
Considering its location to Little Italy, you'd think there would be some classic pizza joint that has been serving kids for years. For all I know, there may have been one before Dough Boys rolled into town a few years ago and monopolized the market. The Scott Harris and Jimmy Bannos joint manages to do just about every style of pizza well, from flaky stuffed crust to thin and foldable New York-style slices. It's mostly a grab-and-go operation, though you can sometimes snag a table in the cramped interior.
Dough Boys Pizzeria, 626 S. Racine, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-226-5550
This is the second location of Lucky's Sandwiches (the first is by Wrigley Field), but the restaurant's gut-busting sandwiches have been embraced by the college crowd. Just note that though it appeared on Man vs. Food, there is no glory in eating four of these sandwiches. It's never seemed to me like much of a college joint, but Manny's Deli is surprising close to the campus. Go for the pastrami. And Fontano's is one of those old-school Italian delis that is left from when the neighborhood really deserved to be called Little Italy.
Though called Little Italy, only a few remnants of the neighborhood's past remained before restaurateur Scott Harris decided to remake it in his image. Sometimes I wonder if he owns every single Italian restaurant in the area (not quite), but he has some of the best options. All you need to decide is what kind of Italian food you'd like. If you're interested in a more playful and modern take, Davanti Enoteca is one of the most acclaimed mid-scale Italian restaurants in the city. We particularly like the pasta. If you have a soft spot for old school Italian-American—you know, the kind with piles of meatballs and gallons of red sauce—then Salatino's is your spot.
For many years, UIC was known as a commuter school, which explains why there weren't many stereotypical college bars. But as more undergraduates start to live on campus, there are now some serious options for those who want to both eat and drink well. Three Aces only opened up a few years ago, but thanks to an adventurous menu and some great drinks, it's one of the most popular options. Hawkeye's takes no chances with its menu, but I'm not complaining since it also serves some of the best buffalo wings around. I've also been told that Jaks Tap is a popular local hangout.
Located just north of the campus is Greektown, which is still holding strong despite the influx of new residents into the West Loop. For many people, this is the perfect excuse to visit The Parthenon so you can yell "opa!" when the waiters rush around with the fried cheese bomb called saganaki (which was actually invented right here). But honestly, we've had better luck with the Greek sweets, including what may be the best baklava in the city at Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop. If you want to try something a little more under-the-radar, try the galaktoboureko ($3.50) from Artopolis, which tastes like "baklava, a lemon bar, and bread pudding had a square, kind of homely food baby that ended up with all of the best qualities from its trifecta of parents."
Maxwell Street Market
The Maxwell Street Market may not be located on the street it got its name from, but the weekly market still attracts thousands of visitors looking for random household items and, more importantly, food. This is where you'll get to sample some of the best Mexican food in the city. This is where I believe you'll be able to find the best al pastor tacos in Chicago, but as I also found, there are plenty of non-taco options as well.
I feel like this list could go on and on, but I'll end with two that didn't quite fit into any of the other categories. Chinatown staple, Joy Yee, has an outlet nearby serving epic portions of pan-Asian dishes. Lito's Empanadas, which also has a location in Lincoln Park, recently opened a second storefront here.
Of course, I know I'm forgetting some place, so please let me know if you have any favorites that should be added to the list!