Aurelio's: South Side Chain Is Tops for Sweet Sauce Crowd

Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. The Mgmt.

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]


18162 Harwood Avenue Homewood, IL 60430 (map); 708-798-8050;
Getting There: Metra to Homewood
Pizza Style: thin-crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Outstanding crust, toppings, and cheese are severely damaged by a sauce that could well be made by Willy Wonka
Price: 13-inch pies, 1 topping, $15

If you know anyone who grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago at any point in the last 50 years, the chances are good they have a deep love for pizza at Aurelio's. Opened as a restaurant that would star beef sandwiches by 26-year-old Joe Aurelio Sr. in Homewood in 1959, the popularity of the pizza quickly redefined the place as a pizzeria.

Joe Sr. died a few years ago, but Joe Jr. carries on the family business that is insanely popular among the locals. Today there are over 40 locations spread across Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Florida and Nevada, though the overwhelming majority are in the south suburbs of Chicago and across the border in northwestern Indiana. Only two of the locations, the restaurant in Richton Park and the massive and always packed mothership in Homewood, are owned by the Aurelio family.

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Aurelio's has a thick crust pizza on the menu as well as stuffed and a calzone they call a Calabrese. But based on the way people flock to the thin crust, those other options might as well be for show. I decided to do like the locals and got a thin crust pie. I opted for sausage on one half and meatball on the other and both meats were excellent. The hunks of fennel sausage were bursting with flavor and had a really nice chew to them. The soft meatballs were beef and packed with herbage and were an excellent counterpoint to the sausage. Next time I might get both meats on the entire pie.

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The golden crust is a little thicker than a standard thin crust pizza and is both crisp and a bit dense, giving it a light crunch and a good chew. Although the color might indicate otherwise, there is no butter in the crust. There is, however, some oil that gives it a little bit of flavor that works well. It's not so good that I would want to eat it with nothing on it, but it is much more than just a flavorless base.

After talking to a friend who grew up in Homewood, I learned a little secret about the crust. Apparently every long-time customer knows that there are two different kinds of ovens in the kitchen at Aurelio's: the deck ovens that survived the move from the original location and newer conveyor ovens. It's a lot faster and easier to use the conveyor oven so supposedly those are the default ovens. Unfortunately for me, I didn't learn this secret until after my visit. Fortunately for me, the crust from the conveyor oven is very good.

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Without question, the first thing that will jump out at any first-time eater of an Aurelio's pizza is the sweet, sweet sauce. And it is how much one appreciates the sweetness that will make or break the meal. Pizza sauces with added sugar are not uncommon across the south side and southern suburbs, but this place reaches an unmatched degree of sweetness. Personally, I'm not a fan of sweet sauce so to my tastes, this stuff is like pureed candied tomatoes.

The lightly sharp cheese, a very good secret blend of more than just mozzarella, does a little bit to counteract the sauce with some tanginess, although I still needed to add a whole lot of red pepper to cut through the sugar. Another nice aspect of the cheese was that there was a nice bit of crisp caramelization around the edges. Despite the good cheese, good crust and great meat, I still had a lot of trouble with the pizza because of the sauce. But for people who like a sweet sauce, it would be tough to find a better version of this style of pizza.