Lou Malnati's is a Chicago area institution. While they weren't the first to do deep dish pizza, they are arguably the best among all the high profile local chains. While places like Burt's and Pequod's may have a better deep dish pizza, Lou's is consistently the best among the high profile places in the city. And there is a family lineage between the first and the best. Here's the story:
Everybody in Chicago knows that Ike Sewell opened the first deep dish pizza restaurant in Chicago - Pizzeria Uno - in 1943. Sewell came up with the concept of the deep dish pizza, but his chef, Rudy Malnati, is the one who came up with the first true design of the deep dish pizza. To this day, Pizzeria Uno disputes that claim, but a 1955 article in a local Chicago area newspaper backs up the Malnati's claim that Rudy was the originator of the deep dish pizza.
Rudy's son, Lou, helped his father at the original Pizzeria Uno in the 40's. and managed Sewell's second restaurant, Pizzeria Due, in the 50's and 60's. In 1971, Lou Malnati left Sewell's pizza places and with his wife, Jean, they opened up the first Lou Malnati's in the Lincolnwood area on the north side of Chicago. The place was an immediate hit with the local residents and the Malnati's opened up a second restaurant in Elk Grove Village. While that location proved to be less of a hit with the locals, it eventually began to turn a profit and opened the door to more expansion across the Chicagoland area.
Unfortunately, Lou Malnati (left) contracted cancer and died in 1978. His son, Marc, was just out of college and he joined the company to run the day-to-day operations. A few years later, younger brother Rick joined the operation and worked with the company for 15 years before becoming a successful Chicago-area high school basketball coach. There are now 28 locations in the Chicago area with three restaurants in Chicago and seven restaurants in the suburbs, and 18 take-out only places throughout the region.
With all that said, I visited the Lou Malnati's location in downtown Naperville (right) recently one evening (see map). Being stuck in the Chicago area on a Friday night, I thought I treat myself to a Lou's pizza. There's just something about a Lou's pizza that I like over the other deep dish or stuffed pizzas I've had the other local chains. I don't know if it's their tangy sauce made out of specially chosen California plum tomatoes or the tremendously fresh mozzarella cheese. I don't know if it's the crust (of which they make a butter crust available upon request) or the secret sausage blend the Malnati's make. All I know is that for a local chain, the pizzas are damn good.
And a lot of other people agree with me as Lou Malnati's is consistently chosen as the best pizza by fans voting in polls in local publications and on local internet guides. I've yet to go from one Malnati's location to another and have any deviation from the signature taste of a Malnati's pizza.
I ordered up my standard sausage, pepperoni, and mushroom with the butter crust from my waitress who tried to give me a menu, but I knew what I wanted. And after a long week and an especially long day, I needed multiple beers.
I've eaten at the Naperville location once before, but I will sometimes stop there on the way out of town to pick up a "Lou's To Go" to bring back home for Cindy and I. I usually order a large when I get it to go, but when I eat in at a Lou's I always get the small. My hotel room that evening did have a refrigerator and a microwave, so what I didn't eat that evening would go toward breakfast the next day.
Like with all deep dish pizzas, it takes a good 30 minutes to bake the pizza. And that's fine - I had my Chicago Tribune to read and the waitress kept bringing me beer. Not exactly the highest of excitement in the Chicago region on a Friday night, but it was exactly what I need at that point in time.
And when my pizza was served to me, as always, the waitress uses a pizza trowel to put the first piece on the plate. I let it cool down for a bit as it was piping hot out of the oven. But from the first bite, I was in heaven. It was a typical, consistent Lou's pizza. It was a major spot hitter that evening. I usually don't care for deep dish crust, but Lou's butter crust (which costs about a buck more per small pizza) is fabulous. Butter and pizza - man, there's two ingredients for artery blockage.
Lou Malnati's was recently in the news as being part of an effort by a retired Illinois air force man to send 3000 pizzas to the servicemen in Iraq. Initially, he was going to send 300 pizzas, but the groundswell of support by people attending the annual Taste of Chicago raised enough money to send ten fold the orginal amount of pizza. Even after going through military red tape and working with international shipper DHL, 3000 frozen "Lou's To Go" pizzas were delivered to seven bases in Iraq on July 5. That's pretty cool.
While Burt's and Pequod's may have better deep-dish pizza, mainly because they are so eclectic in their pizza and surroundings, Lou Malnati's displays the consistency that is needed to succeed as a local chain in the Chicago area. It doesn't matter where you are, a Lou's pizza is the same at any of the locations. If you've never tried a true Chicago deep dish pizza, I suggest you start at Lou's and go from there.