The Loop is an infinitely better place to have lunch than it was in my 90s-early-2000s working-in-skyscrapers heyday. (If there's any set of meals in my life I wish I could give back, it would be all the drab sandwiches I ate to survive then. Yeah, Wall Street Deli, that means you.) Still, you can open all the shiny new places you want, but there's one kind of restaurant you can't build from scratch—a genuine old Chicago place. An old school joint decorated with Capone-era headlines and Rat Pack photos, the whole family making fresh Italian sandwiches from scratch for regulars who've been eating them for 40 years. If a place like that existed near the Loop, it'd be famous and beloved, a civic treasure, right?
Yet somehow Bombacigno's J & C Inn, which fits all of the above, stubbornly remains obscure. (Joe Roy did write about one of its sandwiches.)
Located just southwest of the Loop (a block south of Lou Mitchell's), the restaurant's unwieldy name belongs to Joe Bombacigno and his wife Claudette, who've run the place for 38 years after owning an earlier tavern at Peoria and Van Buren. (This place looks to have been a tavern once too, but now closes at 3 p.m.) Claudette comes from Chicago food royalty—her stepfather was Al Ferreri, Al as in Al's #1 Italian Beef. Despite that, feisty, pepper-haired Joe is quick to point out that he uses his own Italian beef recipe: "I have Al's original recipe, but I use my own."
Almost everything, in fact, is Joe and Claudette's own; they make most of it in-house, freshly each day, including the meatballs on the meatball sub ($6.50), which is maybe the best thing and the purest taste of South Side Chicago in the place.
They also grill the eggplant and zucchini on the lemon chicken sandwich ($9.09; a little dry today, but usually only a billion times better than the lifeless, soul-draining "healthy" chicken sandwiches all over the Loop).
The main exception to the homemade rule is the bread. Joe's a little cagey when I ask where it's from, so I start to reel off some local bakeries, hoping he'll at least nod when I get to the right one. I get as far as "Gonnella" and his nose wrinkles in disgust. "Nawwww," he scowls. "I get it from D'Amato's, the old one, on Grand."
Of course. The superlative, coal-fired crusty bread on the chicken sandwich should have been unmistakable, considering I have a photo of it over my dining room table (no joke). Same for the light-as-air bread on the Italian sub ($6.30), also used at J.P. Graziano's, Bari, and other fine spots.
Beyond sandwiches, I'm sure the pasta salad or chicken caesar is fine, but you want the fries, huge full-potato slices fried to order, to go wit'. Bombacigno's is a trip back into another Chicago, where reporters drink at lunch and City Hall fixers rub elbows with cops and Royko lives to annoy Hizzoner another day. But just because it's been there forever, don't count on that continuing to be true. "I'm 75 and I'm just lookin' to get out of here," says Joe when he's had enough of my trying to squeeze poetry out of him and puts his head down to go back to work.
Bombacigno's J & C Inn
558 W Van Buren Street Chicago, IL 60607 (map)