Michigan & Congress, Chicago, IL 60604
Web: Taste of Chicago
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Cheesecake Chicago Desserts Festivals French Ice Cream Italian Lemon Ice
"If it was possible to underline these words ten times for the benefit of Buffalo restauranteurs, we'd do it: please - seriously, please - start adding fresh fruit to your Italian Ice!"
If there's one thing we love about Buffalo's festivals - even the Allentown Art Festival, for that matter - it's the availability of outrageous Italian desserts, ranging from freshly assembled cannolis and pastries to lemon ice. Not surprisingly, the Taste of Chicago is no slouch in the sugar category, and as noted in Part 1 of our Taste of Chicago report has its own collection of non-gourmet and semi-gourmet dessert options. In all candor, we could hardly do justice to all of them: we'd eaten so many appetizer- and entree-class items that we could only take small samples of the sweets. Here are some of the noteworthy ones.
Eli's Cheesecake. As one of Chicago's best-known food brands, Eli's Cheesecake is one of the city's very few FedEx-able snacks - fellow exhibitor Lou Malnati's Pizza is another, both available through the Tastes of Chicago web site. Warned beforehand by a local friend that Eli's was "overrated," we gave the Plain Cheesecake (full size 5 tickets, taste size 3 tickets) a shot anyway, hoping that he was wrong. Nope - one of us thought it was fine, the other thought it was good, but neither of us would rate it as special, and we can't imagine why people would pay $30 a cake, minimum order two, to ship these across state lines. To each, their own. (Updated: See Part 4.)
Mazzone's Frozen Desserts. The signage at this stand - particularly the colorful pictures of cups of Italian Ice - was enough to draw us over, and we went with something that always excites us: Blue Raspberry Ice. Mazzone's had a smart system to sell scoops, offering three scoops for 9 tickets, two scoops for 7 tickets, and one scoop for 4 tickets, and we went with one just to be safe. We were glad that we did: the Blue Raspberry tasted like an Icee, which is nice and all, but available anywhere. The draw is the blue color rather than the raspberries, and we didn't expect to find any real fruit inside, so we weren't disappointed when there wasn't any. But...
Franco's Ristorante. One of us came to Franco's to try the Lemon Italian Ice (7 tickets full size, 4 tickets taste size). Then we came back so the other could have a serving, and so we could try the Watermelon Italian Ice for the same number of tickets. If it was possible to underline these words ten times for the benefit of Buffalo restauranteurs, we'd do it: please - seriously, please - start adding fresh fruit to your Italian Ice! We can't tell you whether Franco's is the best such place in Chicago - we've heard that there are a few places that do it better - but the soft, tangy little chunks of lemon and lemon peel in the Lemon Italian Ice were such a welcome touch that we don't want to be without them. Ditto on the Watermelon Italian Ice, which seemed to be more than a bit over the top in red coloration due to what we're guessing was faux watermelon syrup, but the little chunks of watermelon in the dish really, truly helped sell the flavor anyway. The consistency of Franco's Ice was more liquidy than the Anderson's version we enjoy, perhaps due to the summer heat, but we really enjoyed it nonetheless.
Lagniappe. Though we arrived to check out this place because of the sign offering Cajun catfish and crawfish options, we wound up skipping them in favor of the Beignets (5 full, 3 taste), fried dough with powdered sugar. Sometimes referred to as a French doughnut, Beignets are deep-fried choux dough - nothing fancy - and come out in golden chunks like the one in our photo. There's nothing more to say about this dessert save that as long as it's hot and sugared, it's good, and it was both here. The people working at Lagniappe were especially nice.
The Original Rainbow Cone. We'd call Chicago's locally famous Rainbow Cone (8 full cone, 4 taste) a dessert highlight of the Taste, and as the booth occupies a prime central position at the event, it's obvious that we're not the only ones to feel this way. Five layers of ice cream are stacked on top of each other for this single dessert: chocolate's at the bottom, followed by strawberry, Palmer House - French vanilla with chunks of cherry and walnut - pistachio, and orange sherbet, all in your choice of a cake or waffle cone. You'll wind up with the plain cake cone unless you're fast enough to order otherwise.
Stacked tall and wide, the Rainbow Cone dates back over 80 years, and though the flavors are old-fashioned, they work well together and surprisingly don't blend into a melange of indiscernible flavor. We actually regret rushing through this one, though our desire to cool off from the heat was as much of a factor as anything else. It's easy to imagine a wide variety of other flavors working well in a similar flat slab-style stacking system.
We didn't have many regrets after our visit to the Taste of Chicago, but we did have one: we didn't think we'd tasted enough of the desserts this food festival had to offer, and there's the possibility that we'll go back for another visit just for the sweets before we leave town. If we do, we'll let you know, but if not, trust us when we say that we have some extremely worthwhile Chicagoan items to share with you anyway. Expect updates soon.