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Giving the Chicago way

Taste Chicago (viTuscany): Rosebud olive oils. Get any Rosebud restaurants.

Taste of Chicago (via Tuscany): Rosebud olive oils. Get at any Rosebud restaurants.

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Updated: January 13, 2013 6:08AM

Think local this holiday season, and give a gift that says Chicago.


Wrapping up a Chicago-style hot dog or an Italian beef sandwich to put under the Christmas tree would be messy, but you can give a collection of the accouterments: Plochman yellow mustard, made in Illinois since 1904, bright green pickle relish, sport peppers and mild or hot giardiniera — several brands of each are available at most local grocers, or stop by the Vienna Beef factory store. Throw in a copy of Vienna Beef veteran Bob Schwartz’s guide to local hot dog stands, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (Chicago’s Books Press, $27.50).

Our plethora of barbecue joints and steakhouses means a corresponding flood of locally made barbecue and steak sauces. Most grocery stores offer a selection, or stop in to your favorite meatery.

Spice up your gift with a bottle of the super hot sauce used on the prize winning XXX wings, made with the extra-hot bhut jolokia pepper, at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap.

Big Bowl restaurants make available their custom Asian-style sauces, dipping, glazing poultry or grilled fish, tossing with stir-fries: soy vinegar, peanut; plum, and mustard. Stop into any Big Bowl.

Rosebud Restaurants offers bottles of its exclusive, cold pressed, Allegretto Extra Virgin Olive Oil, hand selected in Tuscany by chef Michael Ponzio and used in the restaurants. Get it at any Rosebud.


Chicago remains a candy-making center. Pack up a basket of kiddie favorites such as Wonka Bars and Everlasting Gobstoppers from Itasca’s Willy Wonka Candy Factory; Atomic Fire Balls, Lemonheads and Red Hots from Ferrara Pan Candy Co. in Forest Park; gourmet treats such as Jelly Belly jelly beans, made in North Chicago, and handmade marshmallows from Katherine Anne Confections; luxury chocolates such as those from Vosges Haut-Chocolat, or make up a bakers’ gift with cocoa and bulk chocolate that started as cacao beans at Blommer Chocolate Co.

Affy Tapple was the very first caramel apple, and Chicagoans have loved them since Edna Kastrup created the confection in Chicago back in 1948. Choose from plain caramel-dipped or apples embellished with nuts or candies.

You can’t exactly put a cheesecake under the Christmas tree — they’re sold frozen and once thawed shouldn’t be kept out at room temperature for more than a couple hours, but Eli’s Cheesecake has been a Chicago favorite since the 1970s. Most local supermarkets carry a limited selection, or head out to the factory store to see the whole line, from original plain to blood orange-champagne and Saigon cinnamon-chocolate.

Whether the oddly addictive Chicago Mix or the special holiday Gingerbread CaramelCrisp, tins of Garrett Popcorn have been a Chicago holiday essential since the 1940s.

Baked goods and sweets from the Hearts & Flower Bakery at Misericordia and the bakery at Lamb’s Farm support their work providing homes and occupations for people with developmental disabilities, who mix, bake and package the goodies. Find cookies, Irish soda breads, whiskey cake, peppermint bark, fudge and more at Misericordia.

Lamb’s Farm’s butter cookies are a local favorite, but they also offer many other cookies, chocolates and preserves.


Local cookbooks are a great way to give a taste of Chicago. Bookstores stock a quantity of tomes by our celebrity chefs, Rick Bayless, Gale Gand and Charlie Trotter, and many other locals, such as:

The Great Chicago-Style Pizza Cookbook by the late Sun-Times restaurant critic Pasquale “Pat” Bruno Jr. (McGraw-Hill, $16.95) remains a classic. You could pair it with a deep-dish pizza pan.

Soup & Bread Cookbook: Building Community One Pot at a Time by Martha Bayne (Agate Surrey, $20.95) features a collection of soup recipes served by the volunteer cooks at The Hideout’s weekly charity fundraisers, combined with Bayne’s commentary on the ways soup reflects and supports communities. Add a soup pot and a ladle to dress up the gift, perhaps.

Go green with Fresh as the Harvest: A Season of Cooking with Green Youth Farm by Heidi Joynt with Samantha Creightney and contributions from Laquita Norton, Teirra Scott, Derrick Smith and Shaquita Taylor (CreateSpace, $12.95), a fundraiser containing original recipes by participants in Chicago’s Green Youth Farm program. High school students in the program work at four urban farms in and near the city, learning all aspects of organic farming, as well as cooking the food they grow and selling it at farmstands and markets. If you’re feeling generous, add a subscription to an area CSA.

Judging by the quantity of restaurants, Chicago’s favorite cuisine is Italian. 250 True Italian Pasta Dishes: Easy and Authentic Recipes by chef John Coletta with Nancy Ross Ryan (Robert Rose, $24.95) does an excellent job of explaining the basics of
Italian cooking, as well as the chef’s approach at his popular River North restaurant, Quartino.

For serious cooks, The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux by chef Paul Virant (Ten Speed Press, $29.99) showcases a cornerstone of the cuisine at his acclaimed Vie and Perennial Virant restaurants.


Local beers always make a fun gift, and Chicago has loads of them, from venerable Goose Island to newcomer Finch’s, but we have stronger choices, too.

Illinois law changed in 2010 to make it easier for small-volume “craft” distillers to open, and the Chicago area now boasts four of them, offering unique spirits that would add to anyone’s holiday cheer.

† Koval Distillery’s line starts with five single-grain, unaged white whiskeys — rye, oat, wheat, millet and spelt — and crafts them into European- and American-style single-barrel whiskeys and liqueurs in such flavors as chrysanthemum honey, jasmine and rosehip. They also make the heady 47th Ward, a single-barrel, four-grain whiskey, and more. Find Koval’s products at the distillery, as well as local liquor stores.

† Temperance ended once and for all in formerly dry Evanston with the opening of Few Spirits. They make gin, flavored with 11 botanicals, ranging from lemon peel and vanilla to juniper; white whiskey distilled from corn and wheat; rye whiskey, aged in air-dried oak barrels, and a three-grain bourbon. There’s a tasting room at the distillery and many area liquor stores carry Few.

† The pioneer of local boutique distilleries, launched in 2004, North Shore Distillery, makes a number of unique gins; vodka; Sol, a vodka flavored with citrus, chamomile and spices; absinthe; aquavit, one of a very few made in the United States, and special single-batch spirits, released annually. This year’s is Silver Lining, a German-style herbal liqueur, produced in a limited run of just 860 hand-numbered bottles. North Shore spirits are sold at the distillery and widely around Chicago.

† Quincy Street Distillery is the newest area distillery, opened in July, with two products: an unaged corn whiskey, Water Tower White Lightning Whiskey, and Old No. 176 American Gin, made using a process found in an 1819 treatise. They’re available at the distillery, open Fridays and Saturdays only, and a few retailers.

For those who like it easy, Bob Chinn’s World Famous Mai Tais are blended from real fruit juices and Hawaiian dark rum in Wheeling. Find them in 1-liter cartons, premixed and ready to drink, at local liquor stores.

Need a gift for somebody you don’t like much? Give them a bottle of Jeppson’s Malort. This unique libation, flavored with wormwood, has been for sale almost exclusively in Chicagoland since 1934. Posters for the bitter liqueur used to ask, “Are you man enough to drink Jeppson?” Available at most local liquor stores, Malort has a cult following around town, despite the fact that it tastes like vaguely herbal bile.

Sans alcohol

Give that morning jolt with Chicago-roasted coffee from Intelligentsia, Dark Matter or your favorite.

For the younger set, Green River soda pop, made in Chicago since 1919, should be at your nearest grocer, or head down to Filbert’s for a case of its famous root beer, bottled here since 1926, or any of more than two dozen other flavors.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.

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