NEWS: First Look at Eataly Chicago

Like hordes of chocoholics grappling to get a peek inside Willy Wonka's sprawling chocolate factory, food-lovers in Chicago have been ravenously curious and eager for the new Eataly in River North. With promises to be bigger and more expansive than its New York City compatriot, the Chicago outpost is a Mecca of all things Italian food, housed in a 63,000 square foot space adjacent to The Shops at North Bridge. Here's a first look at Chicago's new Eataly. Get hungry.

Mozzarella "lab"
(Mozzarella "lab" in action)

"Chicago is the true great American city," muses Mario Batali, partner in the U.S. outposts, on why our fair city was the next target destination after New York. With the thriving food scene that we have in Chicago and the bevy of great chefs, it made perfect sense to bring the brand to the Midwest. Oscar Farinetti, founder of the original Eataly in Turin, Italy, in 2007, echoes Batali's sentiments: "The city of Chicago boasts such a great food culture; we are very excited about this new opening." Like all Eataly outposts worldwide, the new iteration is modeled after the original, albeit with its own distinct character and layout. A partnership between Batali, Joe and Lidia Bastianich, and brothers Adam and Alex Saper, Eataly Chicago is a bi-level space with more of an open floorplan than its New York sister. Upon entry, guests are greeted on the first floor with a small market area, a grab-and-go area called Il Panino, a gelato stand, a Nutella bar, and a cafe. Make sure and save room for the soft-serve gelato and Nutella smeared on otherworldly panettone, imported from Italy. Take the escalator up to the second floor to experience what can best be described as the Epcot of Italian cuisine. Batali actually describes the format as one giant bar, encouraging patrons to explore their way around, follow their noses, and dive in headfirst. He explains that the concept of Eataly is to amass quality Italian ingredients and foods under one large roof, curating a destination for shoppers, diners, and those curious about Italian cuisine and cuture. It's as much about the eating as it is about the learning, and education is a lot more fun when there are fist-sized mozzarella balls involved. The massive space features an overwhelming array of various food stands, shopping areas, dining areas, pizza ovens, a bread counter, a mozzarella "lab," wine bars, a bookstore, a microbrewery, and more. Notably, Eataly sports more than 100 kinds of olive oils, nestled under an actual olive tree, something unique to Chicago in the U.S. market.

Fish and seafood
(Fish and seafood department, complete with giant swordfish)

The fun part is meandering around the warehouse-like space and exploring. One section boasts an impressive stock of seafood and fish, offering a juxtaposition of imports and Lake Michigan favorites; it won't be unusual to find walleye perched next to a giant whole swordfish. The meat division sources meats from local farms and supplies charcuterie both in the Italian and American veins. There's also a meat-focused restaurant, La Carne, where you can nosh on dishes such as tartare with shaved white truffles. Six other restaurants scattered throughout the space include La Pizza & La Pasta, fish-centric Il Pesce, vegetable-focused La Verdure, a wine-friendly eatery called La Piazza modeled after central squares in Italy, a fried food restaurant called Il Fritto, and La Birreria, a beer-themed eatery. There's also a fine dining restaurant called Baffo opening later in December. Standouts for me were the aforementioned Nutella bar with citrus-splashed panettone, the soft-serve gelato (yes I have a sweet tooth and I plan to spend a lot of time here), the olive bread at Eataly's bread department, a particularly thyme-y beer from La Birreria, truffle-scented butternut squash ravioli, and incomparable Neapolitan-style pizza fresh from one of the massive pizza ovens. So massive in fact that Eataly had to shut down Grand Avenue for a few hours in order to safely transport the ovens inside. "We know Jon Stewart and Chicago have been in the news lately regarding your pizza," quips Batali. "But rest assured that what we are doing is neither Chicago-style nor New York-style; it's Neapolitan-style." And with pizza this perfect, cooked for 90 seconds to achieve a puffy, barely charred crust and a cheesy, saucy corona, I'm willing to forget about Chicago-style pizza entirely.

Pizza ovens
(Eataly's pizza ovens in action)

Still to come: the fine dining restaurant Baffo, accessed through a separate entrance on the first floor, and a culinary school. Lots to eat and explore at Eataly.