One of the more hyped restaurant openings in the western suburbs of Chicago last fall was the new pizza restaurant from artisan baker and restaurateur Rich Labriola, Pizza Barra. I have eaten at both of his other restaurants - Labriola Bakery Cafe in Oak Brook and in downtown Chicago (click here to read about my visit to the one in Oak Brook) - and was impressed with the food on both visits. Since my visit earlier this summer, Labriola has changed the name of Pizza Barra to LaBarra signifying a shift in their food philosophy to more of an Italian restaurant more so than just being pizza-centric.
Rich Labriola's background in the culinary arts began at his parents south side Chicago pizza joint when he was a young boy. He learned how to bake artisan breads at a young age and ended up studying under world-class bread makers to learn from the masters. Labriola found that taking the extra step or the extra minute to sift or add ingredients made all the difference in the world.
He opened his artisan bakery - Labriola Baking Company - in 1993 using specially designed baking ovens from Italy and using only the finest ingredients for his breads. Not long after he started his bakery, he was selling his breads to a number of top-end restaurants in Chicago. At its peak, Labriola Baking Company was supplying bread to over 700 restaurants in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Pictured right - Rich Labriola (Photo courtesy Crain's Chicago Business)
Labriola dove into the restaurant business when he opened the first of his two Labriola Bakery Cafe locations in the Oak Brook Promenade in west suburban Oak Brook in 2009. He sold his namesake bakery in 2013 and opened a second Labriola Bakery Cafe just off Michigan Ave. at E. Grand. While the Labriola Bakery Cafe in Oak Brook is an upscale cafe, the one in downtown Chicago features a more formal Italian menu in an even more upscale setting.
For his pizza restaurant, Labriola joined forces with Chris Macchia whose background included stints as the executive chef at The Florentine and Coco Pazzo, two highly acclaimed Italian restaurants in Chicago. The two came up the idea of having all different types of pizza from Chicago deep-dish style, to a thin-crust tavern style, to a coal oven-baked Neapolitan-style of pizza. Macchia helped Labriola fashion a menu that used locally grown and sourced items for the pizza they served. With both Labriola and Macchia well-known in the Chicago restaurant community, Pizza Barra opened to much fanfare in September of last year. Initial reviews were overly favorable. (Macchia has since gone on to become the executive chef at Nonnina which was the former Piccolo Sogno Due in Chicago's River North neighborhood.)
I had a late day meeting with one of my dealers in the Oak Brook area and decided to head over to Pizza LaBarra - which what it was still called at the time - to try one of their pizzas. It is located on the east side of the Oak Brook Promenade, literally a stone's throw from the Labriola Bakery Cafe off of Butterfield Road. (see map) Valet parking is available at peak times, but this was just after 6 p.m. when I was there and there was plenty of parking in the lot out front.
Walking into Pizza LaBarra, the pizza ovens are prominently on display behind the counter. There are two ovens - a gas oven for regular tavern-style or deep-dish pizza - and a coal-fired oven for the artisan Neapolitan pizzas the restaurant offers.
There are a couple of dining areas off to the main dining area. These are used for private parties or overflow from the main dining area in the middle of the restaurant. A divider separates the two rooms that can be individually closed off. A large mural of black and white photographs depicting the melding of Italian and American cultures ran the length of the two rooms.
The main dining room features a large rectangular bar with a window that looks into the kitchen. It features contemporary decor and a number of booths along the wall. Wooden floors and a wooden ceiling made the room a little loud and echo-y.
I ended up sitting at the bar and was greeted by Angel, a pleasant young guy who handed me a menu to look over. They had a number of beers on tap and I ended up getting a Goose Island Summertime, their seasonal summertime Kolsch.
The menu has changed since I was there initially - as I said they went more to an Italian-centric menu with pizza now sort of down on the menu. But I was there for the pizza that night and I got my standard Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom - a small thin-crust. I was tempted to get a deep-dish pizza given Rich Labriola's reputation of making great bread. I could almost imagine how good the deep-dish crust would be at Pizza LaBarra.
The pizza came out and was piping hot. The chunks of the sausage that Pizza LaBarra sources from DiRusso Italian Sausage Co. were sweet and spicy. The pepperoni slices were large and salty, and the sliced mushrooms were very fresh. The sauce they used on the pizzas at Pizza LaBarra was a little sweet, yet had a good tangy taste. The crust, however, was light, flaky and wonderful. The overall taste of the pizza with everything wrapped together was outstanding. There wasn't much I could quibble about with the taste of the pizza. A small was just enough for me. I was full after I finished the last of the "honey-pot" squares in the center of the tavern-cut pizza - the best pieces of any tavern-cut pizza.
I've encountered a lot of great pizza places in Chicago over the years, but I will say that the thin-crust, tavern-cut pizza that I got at Pizza LaBarra would give some of my favorites a run for their money. The hand-tossed crust was wonderful and the toppings were plentiful and full of flavor. Pizza LaBarra is a little more upscale than most of the pizza places I like in the Chicago area, but the service I received was fine, and the surroundings and decor of the restaurant was pleasant. I'm definitely going back to try one of Pizza LaBarra's deep-dish pizza sometime this fall.