When Eataly opened in Chicago to much fanfare in late 2013, it immediately went toward the top of the list of places I wanted to visit. And after friends had gone and raved about the place, it shot to the top. The only problem is that my wife put her foot down and said that we both had to visit the place at the same time. So, I've passed Eataly on E. Ohio St. in downtown Chicago (see map) a handful of times over the past couple of years, but never went in. With a late December birthday for my wife, we decided to go in and check out Eataly when we stayed in downtown Chicago just before Christmas.
The concept of Eataly is pretty simple - it's an all-encompassing Italian market that features everything from a pastry shop, to a fishmonger, to a wine shop, to a butcher counter, to a brick oven bakery, to a cured meats and cheese area, to eight separate restaurants. And it's all under one roof. Eataly is the brain-child of Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti who opened the first Eataly in Turin, Italy in 2007.
In 1967, Farinetti's father, Paolo, started a small supermarket in the city of Alba, Italy. Paolo Farinetti was a follower of Altiero Spinneli, an Italian writer and politician who envisioned a united Europe long before the European Union was formed in the early 1990's. Farinetti called his supermarket UniEuro and it featured a little bit of everything from basic groceries to small electronics.
Oscar Farinetti joined his father in the business after he graduated from college in 1978. The younger Farinetti focused on consumer electronics within the store and the business began to take off. Oscar Farinetti eventually took over UniEuro and expansion took it from a handful of stores in the late 70's to over 150 stores by the turn of the century.
Pictured right - Oscar Farinetti
Farinetti sold UniEuro in 2003 and turned his attention to a new concept - an open market, an upscale food court, and a culinary learning center all under one roof. In January of 2007, Farinetti opened the first Eataly in Turin in a 30,000 foot space in what was once a vermouth factory. A second Eataly opened in Tokyo in September of 2008.
Oscar Farinetti wanted to put a store in New York City, but he ran into a big obstacle - the economic crisis of 2008 caused a series of investors to pull their support. It was in 2008 when he met Joe Bastianich, a restaurateur and world-class sommelier from New York City who was a partner with his mother, author, restaurateur and Emmy Award-winning television chef Lydia Bastianich, and celebrity chef Mario Batali in the B&B Hospitality Group of restaurants.
Pictured left - Joe Bastianich, Lydia Bastianich and Mario Batali.
Intrigued with bringing the Eataly concept to Manhattan, Joe Bastianich brought in brothers Adam and Alex Saper into the investment group for the New York Eataly. Adam Saper had spent summers during his youth in Italy and fell in love with Italian food and culture. After graduating from Columbia, Adam Saper spent a year in Florence, Italy before coming back to New York to work as the business development director of a medical equipment company. His travels took him overseas and he visited Italy on business on a few occasions. It was during one of his visits that he found Eataly in Turin and he fell in love with the place.
Adam Saper raved about Eataly to his brother, Alex, who was a frustrated financial planner who also loved everything about Italy as well. Alex started to work for the original Eataly and was instrumental in opening the Tokyo location as well as other locations around Italy. (There are now over 30 Eataly locations in Italy.)
Pictured right - Adam and Alex Saper
On August 30, 2010, Farinetti, the B&B Hospitality Group, and the Saper brothers opened the New York Eataly in a 50,000 square foot space in Manhattan's Flatiron district. The New York Times called Eataly a "megastore that combines elements of a bustling European open market, a Whole Foods-style supermarket, a high-end food court and a New Age learning center."
Looking to expand across North America and into South America, the group set their sights on Chicago and found a large space (63,000 square feet) that formerly housed the ESPN Zone sports bar and restaurant on E. Ohio St. They opened the Chicago Eataly on December 2, 2013 and from the start the crowds in the place were tremendous. Lines formed on E. Ohio St. to get into Eataly and it continued that way for a number of months after it opened.
Since the Chicago opening, additional Eataly's have opened in places such as Munich, Istanbul, Seoul, and a mega-location opened in Rome. The group of investors in the New York and Chicago Eataly locations have opened an Eataly in Sao Paulo, Brazil and are looking to open other Eataly locations in North and South America in the future.
There are two floors to Eataly and below left is the map of the first floor of the place. You enter Eataly from Ohio Street and you turn right to enter the main welcoming area of the place. (Click on the map below left to get a larger view.)
The first thing you see is a customer service kiosk that is manned by a couple of employees to help answer any questions. They have maps of the two floors at Eataly and I highly suggest you take on on your first visit.
From there, just wander about. There are no set traffic patterns at Eataly so you can go in any direction you like. The first thing that we were drawn to was the pastry shop. Fresh mouth-watering pastries were brought out through a window from the baking area and put into the pastry case. A number of cakes were in a glass enclosed cooler behind the pastry counter.
Next to the pastry area was the Venchi dark chocolate counter. Venchi dark chocolates started in Turin, Italy in the late 1870's and are known worldwide for their rich flavor and blended aromas. Many of the Eataly locations around the world feature a Venchi dark chocolate counter.
The first floor at Eataly featured a Nutella bar, a coffee cafe, and a gelato counter. We came back to Eataly for some gelato one evening after going out for dinner as it was just around the corner from our hotel. I got a lemon gelato and Cindy got a hazelnut coffee gelato. I'm such a sucker for any type of frozen treat that has lemon in it and the gelato served at Eataly was simply excellent. It was thick, creamy and full of flavor. Cindy's hazelnut coffee gelato was equally as good as what I had.
Also on the first floor were a number of housewares and gadgets for the kitchen. I always like looking through the gadgets to see if there's something that grabs my attention and makes my life easier when cooking. There was also a large area near the cashiers area that was full of imported coffees, teas and sweets. Organic foods, juices and milk were in a refrigerated case in this area, as well.
After lingering downstairs for awhile, we headed up the escalator to the second floor. Below left is the map for the second floor. (Click on the map to get a larger view.) The first floor was impressive. But the second floor is what truly makes Eataly an interesting place.
In the center of the floor is La Piazza - an area fashioned after an old world Italian city square where friends and family gather for food and wine. There are a number of small counters around the La Piazza that feature different foods to choose from. One can pick something out from one or more of the counters, take it to a table to dine and linger over a glass of wine.
We noticed that one of the counter stations featured an oyster bar. They had oysters on ice behind the counter. No one was at the station when we were there, but we thought it might be fun to come back at some point and belly up to the oyster bar, down a dozen on-the-halfshell and enjoy a glass of chardonnay.
Also near La Piazza is Eataly's La Rosticceria - a rotisserie that features a number of roasted meats. I understand that Eataly is famous for their roasted prime rib sandwiches with the beef coming from Donley Ranch near Ellsworth, KS. Donley Ranch is somewhat famous for their grass-fed 100% black angus prime beef. Rotisserie chicken at La Rosticceria comes from 3 different independent range-free farms located near Lancaster, PA. Each day La Rositcceria features a different roasted meat special and the meats are available on panini or bread baked there at Eataly.
The one thing that you can't miss on the second floor is the cheese counter. It's one of the largest cheese counters that I've ever seen.
They had hundreds of different types of imported cheese choose from. The amount of cheese they offered was quite dizzying. If you asked for romano cheese, they would probably ask if you wanted pecorino (made from sheep's milk), vaccino (cow's milk), or caprino (goat's milk) romano cheese. And they may ask you if it matters which area from Italy where the cheese was made.
Eataly featured a number of large cheese wheels on display with signage that asked people not to touch the wheels. The one thing that we liked about Eataly were the number of small signs on or near the foods on display that explained what that particular food was all about, what it was used for, how it was made, etc.
The blue cheese in the cheese counter was also very interesting. There was a staggering number of blue cheese bricks and wheels in the counter. And because it's all imported, I'm guessing that's why I didn't see any Maytag blue cheese in the display.
Behind the cheese counter is a long self-serve cooler full of dozens of different types of cheese to choose from. The amount of cheese they had available was just mind-blowing.
Along with cheese, you gotta have some meat. They had a great charcuterie section next to the cheese area. Eataly had practically any type of Italian meat you could think of. I considered picking up some Italian meats to take home, but we decided on our first visit we'd just get the lay of the land and not get caught up in buying stuff that we necessarily didn't need to get.
From the charcuterie section, we wandered around a corner and found the meat counter. Now, this was far from your neighborhood grocery meat counter. They had some pretty amazing things in the meat case.
It was tough to miss the tomahawk prime aged ribeye in the case. Long rib bones stuck out of a slab of beef and I had a hard time imagining how I would be able to cook a couple of those on the grill. And at nearly $39 bucks a pound, these guys weren't cheap.
The meat counter also featured regular cuts of beef, lamb and pork. Some of the beef offered at butcher shop was dry aged. No, this was not your typical Fareway or Hy-Vee meat counter. Eataly sources their no-hormones/no-antibiotics beef from family-owned free-range farms and use 100% Black Angus prime beef as well as Piemontese beef. Piemontese beef originated from Italy from the Piemontese cattle breed. It is supposedly more lean and lower in cholesterol and calories, and is recognized as some of the finest beef on the planet. Eataly sources their Piemontese beef from the Toro Ranch near Broken Bow, NE which calls their beef by the Americanized "Piedmontese" name.
Around the corner from the meat counter were the coolers they use to dry age their beef. They age their beef anywhere from 28 to 40 days at Eataly. Quite actually, I'm not that big on aged beef. I've had a aged beef a number of times at restaurants and - to me - I'm not really sure that it's that significantly better than a day-old cut of beef. I will admit that some of the aged beef I have had has been excellent, but other times it's just sort of a let down. I guess it varies from steakhouse to steakhouse.
We then went from the land to the sea. Eataly has an extensive fishmonger counter that features a number of fresh seafood on display.
The seafood is flown in on a daily basis and is never frozen. They had an extensive array of fish both ocean caught and farm-raised. The salmon looked especially delicious. We thought about taking some back home, but we didn't bring a cooler with us.
The fresh pasta counter was especially busy. The case was filled with house-made pastas including meat filled ravioli, balls of angelhair pasta, and spinach fettucine. Prepared foods were also available for those who would like to heat the food up at home. Of course, the house-made pasta wasn't cheap, but it's a step above the boxed or bagged dry pasta.
Speaking of pasta, Eataly had a huge section of imported dry pastas in dozens of diverse styles. We noticed that they had only imported pastas which included Barilla brand pastas. Barilla has a large pasta plant outside of Ames, IA, but all the dry pastas in the Barilla boxes on the shelves all came from Italy.
One of the more popular places during our initial visits to Eataly was La Birreria, a beer bar/brew pub that looked out over the corner of Ohio and Wabash streets. It featured house-brewed beers, a handful of craft and microbrews, as well as imported beers from Italy. Appetizers were also available in La Birreria, but I'm guessing that you could bring food in from other areas in Eataly.
The brewery was right next door featuring a number of vessels for brewing the beers. La Birreria brews four different types of beers - a Belgian strong ale (8.9% ABV), a rye-based pale ale, an India pale ale and an English-style brown ale.
There are over a dozen different eating venues within Eataly. And that doesn't include Baffo, a Mario Batali/Joe Bastianich restaurant that is part of Eataly, but has a separate entrance on E. Grand Ave. on the back side of the complex. One of the more popular places was La Pizza and La Pasta, a pizza and pasta restaurant on the second floor. Eataly teamed up with Rossopomodoro, a Naples-based pizza maker to bring authentic Napoli pizza to the U.S. The pizza kitchen featured two large wood-fired copper-clad pizza ovens and a fresh pasta kitchen was off to the side. People were standing in line to be seated in the area even in the middle of the afternoon.
Next to La Pizza and La Pasta was Osteria de Eataly. This was originally La Carne, a meat-centric restaurant that was changed in early 2015 after a number Eataly patrons were confused by the lack of a non-Italian-centric restaurant within the complex. Osteria de Eataly features a menu that is more along the traditional lines of Italian cooking with three or four course meals available.
Also on the second floor, you'll find Il Pesce and Le Verdure, a restaurant that featured fresh seafood complemented by fresh vegetables. The menu changes constantly in this area given the availability of fresh ingredients.
One thing that I noticed on the walls of the second floor - well, actually, throughout the whole Eataly complex - were a number of photographs and quotes from Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was born and raised in suburban Oak Park and spent an amount of time in the Venice and Treviso areas of northeast Italy. The area - known as Veneto - is famous for the love of wine and food by its people. The Eataly ownership group decided to pay homage to one of the Chicago area's famous sons who also had ties to Italy by displaying a number of pictures of Hemingway during his time in Veneto.
Eataly has a good sized artisanal baking area behind a large plexiglass wall on the second floor. It featured a huge wood-fired brick oven that baked the in-house made artisanal breads. The smell of the freshly baked breads on the shelves outside the baking area was heavenly.
Past the olive oils, balsamic vinegars and spices was the extensive wine area of Eataly. All the way, naturally, was imported from Italy. Now, I know little to nothing about wines from Italy, but my colleague, Ian, has an extensive knowledge of Italian wines and this was one time that I wished he was around to point out the better wines they had at Eataly.
Eataly featured hundreds of wines from different regions around Italy. Signs above shelves showed the area where the wines were from. Also part of the wine area at Eataly was a wine bar - Vino Libero - that offered wines and antipasti plates. There was also a wine tasting area as part of Vino Libero for people to try the wines they may purchase.
The amount of Italian wines they had at Eataly was staggering. Shelves were lined with individual crates full of wines. A locked case featured the high end wines were the prices extended well over $500 a bottle and up.
Wrapping around the wine area, we ran into the fruits and vegetable area. The stands were full of all different types of fruits - all looking somewhat out of place at the start of winter. I mean, they all looked freshly picked and robust. The lemons were large and looked like they had just been picked from a tree out back.
The vegetables were equally fresh and the array was impressive. Fresh herbs and a large number of vegetables were available in this area. They had signage above the vegetable bins to identify what was what for the untrained eye. I was sort of mesmerized looking at what they had available. For mushrooms alone, they had nine different types to choose from. It was a head-shaking experience.
And that was it! We went back to Eataly four times during our time in Chicago. We didn't want to get sucked in buying a lot of stuff because we knew that it would be very easy to drop a couple hundred dollars on a visit to Eataly. We stayed conservative - our first visit was just that. We just wanted to get a lay of the land, so to speak, and not get sucked in by the wonderment of Eataly. Our second visit was for gelato. Our third visit was for espresso in the morning, and our fourth visit we did buy some pasta and sauces to take back with us. But we did say that the next time we went into Chicago with an expressed intent on going back to Eataly, we would need our large cooler. I'm still not certain about the restaurants yet, but we'll probably try one of the food areas at some point, as well. Eataly is truly a destination and it's best to budget in a couple hours for your first visit. But don't be surprised if you end up lingering longer than expected on subsequent visits.