A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Food Hall: Eataly

Not to be confused with a food court (the fast food variety usually found in shopping malls), a food hall is an artisanal shopping and eating experience all under one roof.  The concept is said to have originated in Europe and is fast becoming a go-to dining experience here in America.

Since we were going downtown for a smaller activity, we decided to make a day of it and include one of the more well-known destinations, Eataly, into our plans for the day.

Eataly is an Italian food hall concept that was brought to America through a partnership that includes famous Italian chefs such as Mario Batali*, Lidia Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich.  They have locations in Los Angeles, Boston, and two in New York.  The one in Chicago is considered to be the largest in the U.S.

This two-story location is overwhelming when you first walk in but, fortunately, they have a map and guide that walks you through each department so that you don’t miss out on anything.

Self guided tour

We decided to do the self-guided tour and, as directed, we started upstairs and got a glass of wine.  You can walk around with it so, sure.  From there, we hit the olive oil department, and this is where you realize what you have really gotten yourself into.  ROWS and ROWS.  I had no idea there were so many types and flavors of olive oil.  I expected this from the wine department but not olive oil.  Every department is like this.

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And bring your appetite – hence the Girl’s Gotta Eat connection.  There are a few sit-down restaurant style options.  They are smaller spaces, but we had no problem getting seated.  Take away counters are available as well for sandwiches, panini, and other Italian specialties.

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But don’t fill up upstairs.  Once you get back down to the main level you have way too many desserts to choose from.  There is a gelato bar, pastry counter, cannoli bar, and Nutella station.  Oh, and coffee.  I’m getting full just remembering this visit.

So, all in all, this was a great way to spend a couple of hours together and share some great food as well.

*For those of you who are aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against Mario Batali, Eataly has terminated its relationship with the chef and all products bearing his likeness have been removed from the shelves.

Day Drinking AND A Girl’s Gotta Eat – Bacon and Beer Classic

Bacon.  AND Beer.  What?!?!?  Yes.  And it was just as good as you are imagining.

This year was the 4th annual Bacon and Beer Classic in Chicago.  You can also catch this tour in other cities but the food and beer vendors will be representative of those locations.  The event was held at Soldier Field and took up the entire walkway on the Mezzanine level.  There were over 100 beer vendors (craft beers) and over 30 bacon dishes.

General Admission* got you entrance into the event, three hours of eating and drinking, and a really nice souvenir cup.  No throw-away plastic here.  This one was ceramic.

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There was also a VIP option (which I might consider upgrading to next year).  You get an additional hour of tasting (before the General Admission crowd comes in), designated bathrooms, and a lanyard that hold your souvenir cup.  Trust me when I say this would have come in handy when I was trying to juggle the mini cup and all of the food I was sampling.

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As I mentioned before, there were over 100 craft beer vendors.  Some were brands you might know like Pollyanna, Bells, and Founders.  My SO and I are always up for something different so we were trying out the local vendors.  There were also a couple of cider vendors as well as a few spiked sparkling water booths.  A little something for everyone.  One stop that put a smile on our faces was the bacon bourbon table.  I wish I could tell you what it tasted like but they were mixing it with their special brand of Bloody Mary mix.  So it looks like I’ll be making a trip to Binny’s (I already Googled it.  They carry it.).

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Now, let’s talk about the food.  With the exception of a few places, you were only getting a tasting portion.  Which was fine because there were over 30 food booths.  A few of our favorites were a pork belly fried rice, a bacon beignet, and a bourbon glazed shredded pork over mashed potatoes.  Seriously, they weren’t playing here.  But hands down, our two favorites were the bacon topped jalapeno popper and the spiced pork belly with a pineapple relish.  We went back for seconds on the latter one.

Bacon favorites

My one tip for you – if you pass a beer or food vendor and don’t want to stand in the long line, you will not be able to go back later.  Well, you will, but the chances are pretty high that they will be out of their product.  Especially the first-time and local vendors.  Trust me, the line was long for a reason.  I found out the hard way when I missed out on a bacon topped Krispy Kreme donut.  Someone is in the dog house for convincing me we should come back later.

*I thought I saw this event on Groupon but, since I already had tickets, I did not save the link.  Look for it next year.

Day Drinking – Whiskey Acres

Whiskey Acres Distilling Company is a true “seed-to-spirit” operation.  A certified “farm distillery”, Whiskey Acres is located in DeKalb, IL.  The Walter family decided to turn some of their farm land into crops to be used to produce their own brand of whiskey and bourbon (and some vodka too).  The corn, the wheat, and the rye are all grown right there on their land.  And you can tour the farm and distillery to see where the magic happens.

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They started opening the distillery to the public in 2014.  Our guide, Cherise, has been leading those tours since they opened.  Her knowledge of the process and passion for what they produce added to our fun-filled experience.

The tasting room is open from 1:30-8:30 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and again on Sundays from 1:30-5:30 pm (from April thru November*).  Tours are given at the top of every hour.  The cost for the basic tour is $10 and gets you the tour, a tasting, and a souvenir shot glass.

You can upgrade your tour to include a full drink (or two).  This was a no-brainer.  Especially when they had bourbon slushies on the drink menu.

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The journey begins with a view of the farm and a story about the history of the family and the crops they grow there.  What I found fascinating was the variety of corn they grow and the various flavors they can instill in their spirits as a result.  The photo below shows some of those “specialty” corns.

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From there, you get to see the stills and learn about the distilling process.  They discuss the mashing, fermenting, and barreling of each batch they produce.  After that, they age it, bottle it, and ship it out themselves.  They even host “bottling parties” that are open to the public.  I definitely want to get in on one of these.

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Once your tour is over, you are welcome to stay on the property and enjoy more of their libations.  They have a really cute cocktail patio and even encourage visitors to bring their own snacks or lunches.  We packed up a small cooler with cheeses, crackers, peanuts, etc.  It was a beautiful sunny day and they have plenty of seating.

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*They are currently in the process of building a new visitors center.  The plan is to have it completed by the end of November.  This new building will enable them to remain open year-round.  The current visitor center is only 400 square feet and feels like a cozy bar.  Except that, with 40 people in our tour group all trying to buy tour passes and cocktails, it felt less cozy and more cramped.  The new visitor center will be around 4,000 square feet and will seat around 60 people (with more than enough wiggle room for standing room only).

Old visitor center

New visitors center

I was able to see the new building when I was there, but it had only just been framed out.  I guess I will have to go back again to get all of you an update.  Twist my arm.  This was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  I highly recommend taking the road trip!