On September 11, Chicago-style pizzas will officially land at the Source, but they won't be the deep-dish pies you're probably thinking about. Restaurateur Jared Leonard, who has already launched the Budlong Hot Chicken, Norm's Deli and AJ's Pit Bar-B-Q in Denver, tapped into his childhood in Illinois as the inspiration for Grabowski's, an old-school pizzeria dishing out cracker-thin pizzas cut into squares.
"I have always loved pizza; I was born with a slice in my mouth," jokes Leonard as he dives into an Old Comiskey pie (made with Stanislaus tomatoes, fresh and shredded mozzarella, giardiniera and fennel sausage). "I wanted to do a pizza concept for a while; I was just waiting for the right fit."
That right fit came in the form of Zeppelin Development, which offered him a spot in the former Comida space at the Source. Once the concept became more concrete, Leonard immersed himself into the world of pizza, digging up memories from childhood family pizza nights in Chicago. He also enlisted the help of Professor Pizza, also known as Anthony Scardino, a certified pizzaiolo who worked with Leonard to make Grabowski's the most authentic tavern-style pie joint in town.
"This is what your average Chicagoan eats, not deep dish," says Leonard about the thin-crust, square-cut pizza. A tavern pie is a style of pizza that gained popularity in Chicago during the days of indoor smoking and working-class men gathering in watering holes for pitchers of cheap beer and inexpensive pizza before going home for dinner. Two classic places to go for it are Barnaby’s or Vito & Nick’s, which have been serving locals since the 1970s and 1930s, respectively. It's lighter than the usual hand-tossed pizza, and many Chicagoans look at a small square of this as a snack before a meal — unless they're sitting down to polish the whole thing off.
Once Grabowski's opens its doors (metaphorically, since the open dining room spills out onto the floor of the Source) you can expect to order twelve- or sixteen-inch pies, made with Ceresota flour dough that goes through a three-day proofing process before getting slathered with sauce made from Stanislaus tomatoes. (Ceresota and Stanislaus are both traditional brands in the Chicago pizza scene.) Then, of course, there's the array of goodies on top: meatballs, fresh garlic, feta and kalamata olives, among others. Or get one of the specialty pies such as the Classic Chicago, topped with fennel-heavy Italian sausage, fresh and shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce; or the Italian Club with pepperoni, prosciutto, salami and bacon. No matter what you choose, it all goes into the rotating stone oven to cook.
"I grew up eating this pizza, so recipe and development was super-easy; it was all childhood memories," says Leonard, lamenting the closure of so many old-school red-sauce spots and family-run pizzerias in his home town and beyond. "The chef-driven movement really pushed the old-school joints out. They couldn't claim to have a certain chef or be farm-to-table." But hopefully, he adds, Grabowski's will help fix this loss.
Also expect garlic bread, mozzarella bites, burrata, sausage and peppers, bruschetta and three salads, including the Signature, made with romaine, artichoke, hearts of palm, tomato, watermelon radish, carrots, roasted peppers, smoked mozzarella and red-wine vinaigrette.
There's a full bar, too, with a drinks roster designed by partner Justin Anderson of Zeppelin Station and Bar Isabel. The list features cocktails like the Pink Squirrel, Southside Fizz and Floral G&T, as well as pitchers of craft beer, draft root beer, and wines of every color.
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But, wait — there's more: In order to further the family-fun idea, Leonard has converted a loft over the kitchen into a free mini-arcade full of pinball and classic stand-up games. The idea, he says, is to give families the opportunity to sit back for dinner, order a pizza, let the kids play games while parents relax (or join in), and bring back the traditional pizzeria culture of yore.
"Pizza has a special place in my heart and my stomach," says Leonard as he continued to "taste test" his creation. Was it just right? Yes, he says, but he will keep tasting more, just to make sure.
Visit Grabowski's Pizzeria starting Wednesday, September 11, at 3350 Brighton Boulevard. Hours will initially be from 4 to 9 p.m. seven days a week, with plans to extend to lunch and delivery service in the coming months. The restaurant is currently in soft-opening mode, so you can stop by for some pie this week, but the team expects to be in full swing by next Wednesday. Visit grabowskispizzeria.com for more details.