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How can we save the Jewish deli?

Pastrami sandwich at Max’s Delicatessen in Highland Park. (Photo ©Leah A. Zeldes.)

Pastrami sandwich at Max’s in Highland Park. (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

The Sun-Times recently wrote about the disappearing Jewish delicatessen, a phenomenon chronicled in David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen,” based on his similarly named blog.

Reporter Mike Thomas clearly isn’t too familiar with Jewish deli food (claiming much of it is “creamed or fried or laden with lard” — emphasis added), but that’s not his fault. As Sax notes, traditional delis are disappearing because the Jews who once ran them reared their kids to wield scalpels and law books instead of meat slicers and order pads, and a people who once thrived on such fare now worry about their weight and suffer under a misguided perception that fatty corned beef and schmaltzy chopped liver aren’t good for you.

Moreover, Chicago hasn’t been a great deli town for decades. Some of my older Chicago-reared friends claim things were different once, but when I moved to Chicago a quarter century ago, I found the local deli scene sad and sparse, and it hasn’t improved since, apart from the venerable Manny’s opening for dinner. Places like Barnum & Bagel and Sam & Hy’s are long gone.

The Sun-Times offers a good list of surviving local delis, but they left out a couple of my favorites:

Max’s Delicatessen & Restaurant is worth a trip up to Highland Park. I love their pastrami, and they make a great corn rye. All the breads and pastries are baked in-house. Try the rugelach, too.

Chicago Bagel & Bialy in Wheeling is strictly counter service, but besides their terrific old-fashioned bagels, they have a complete deli line — complete with hand-sliced lox — and make sandwiches to order.

The Sun-Times article mentions Steve’s Deli, a recently opened branch of a Detroit-area place, but since they omitted its address and describe it as being in River West, you might have a little trouble finding it. It’s definitely east of the Chicago River, at 354 W. Hubbard St. in River North.

Which Chicago-area delis do you like? Which vanished spots do you remember? And how can save this dying tradition?

Sax will give a talk and reading from his book, with a nosh, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, at Manny’s in the South Loop. Admission is free.