Don't Stray Too Far from the Incredible Cheesesteak at Monti's
Sorry, Philly's Best: you're not, and by now, everyone in Chicago knows it. From the par-cooked Amoroso rolls shipped weekly from the City of Brotherly Love to the housemade aged cheddar cheese sauce to the crispy, well seasoned steak, Monti's in Lincoln Square serves the cheesesteak to beat.
So with as much attention and care that goes into these Italian Beef market share encroachers, I couldn't help but wonder how the rest of the menu stacked up. Long story short, nothing here is going to compel you to forsake Monti's mainstay. However, there are a few standouts worth a look—as long as you pair them with a cheesesteak, of course.
Let's start with the just ok. The Jumbo Buffalo Wings ($7.50 for six) are breaded and lightly dressed with a orange, vinegary sauce. They're fine, but not unlike every other breaded version you've had at every other place ever.
Instead, go for the exemplary Fried Calamari ($10.95), the night's easy standout. There's no rubberiness here, with properly fried rings and tentacles. The side of marinara enhances the well seasoned breading, and while I still haven't figured out the practical purpose of the fried lemon slices (you don't eat them... right?), they're certainly nice to look at.
The chasm separating a good Wedge Salad ($7.50) from a great one is largely one of construction. You've already made a knife-and-fork-composed-bites commitment, so anything the restaurant can do to make the disparate components stick together helps considerably. Here, bleu cheese crumbles, tomato slices, and crumbled bacon are scattered down the iceberg's steep slope, but since dressing is added tableside, everything tumbles to the bottom. I could let that one slide (sorry), were it not for the dressing—its origins betrayed by from-the-bottle sweetness.
I had high hopes for the Roast Pork Grinder ($8.95 for an 8"), Monti's take on what many now tout as Philly's true best sandwich. I can't speak to that, but this much I know: though moist, the pork is obscured by the melted smoked provolone, which also cancels out any bitter contrast from the sautéed broccoli rabe while it's at it.
I wouldn't dream of not taking my own advice, making the Authentic Philly Cheesesteak ($10.95 for an 8") the obvious meal-topper. It goes down great with nothing more than aged cheddar sauce and grilled onions, though a side of finely chopped Rocky Peppers will certainly keep things interesting. Save the fried calamari, said peppers are probably the only detour here really worth taking from what's easily one of the most satisfying sandwiches in the city.