Top 5 Chicago Deep Dish Pizzas (Suburbs)*

Beggars

They are rarely hands-on, these sturdy, reinforced pizzas. Typically knife-and-fork affairs, a single slice probably provides enough calcium, carbohydrates, vitamin A and sausage for a full day. But boy, how we love our deep dish, especially in the suburbs. The dark horse here was the Chicago-style deep dish coming out of the ovens at Pizza Barra, which rival anything in the city. The key is that caramelized cheese crust, a la Pequod’s. I’m fine eating a slice or two, but anything more than that and you’ll find me on the couch, snoozing it off in a stupefied food coma. If you want to see all of the deep/stuffed pizzas I tried, here’s a link to that post earlier this week.

Incidentally, all of the names here are also links to the restaurant’s websites. Also, I’ll show you my top three picks on the ABC 7 News this Saturday night at 10 p.m., after the football game.

*There’s a reason this Deep Dish compilation has an asterisk. Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove was closed for the two months I did the Quest, in August and September, and according to a report in Fooditor, is now closed permanently. Just in case you were wondering why it’s not on this list.

5. Beggars Pizza

10204 Central Ave., Oak Lawn; 708-499-0505
22 locations
Style: Deep Dish
Got small deep dish, half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.75)

Beggars

Sausage + Pepperoni Deep Dish at Beggar’s in Oak Lawn

Most of the two dozen or so locations of this chain are located in the South and Southwest Sides of the city – mostly in the suburbs – plus a few in Indiana. Several readers strongly urged me to check them out, not just because they’re served at U.S. Cellular and Soldier Field. When I called two of the locations (Oak Lawn, where I happened to be nearby, as well as the original location at 127th & Western) both employees on the other end of the phone told me it was their deep dish that they were known for, so that’s the route I went. The question of “pan” vs “deep dish” came up frequently. In Beggars’ case, “we really don’t have a pan pizza, we have a deep dish,” said Ray Cantelo, the VP of Operations (his brother-in-law, Larry Garetto, runs the main company, then there are family-owned stores and franchises). “Pan pizza would be a thicker thin-crust pizza – like a double thin crust.”

Beggars’ pies come with that standard high-sided dough, jammed into a pan that’s lubricated with olive oil and butter; it’s nearly as yellow as Gino’s but not as flavorful, with a middle that drops about a half an inch lower, like Lou’s and Uno’s. The standard architecture goes like this:  bottom crust, then whole and part-skim mozzarella (shredded at a commissary in Blue Island), then hunks of sausage (made by a Chicago company; pepperoni from Hormel) and finally, the tomato sauce on top, which comes from California (all of the tomatoes for the entire year are packed fresh in August). At first glance, and certainly in Instagram, it looks pretty good. But for some reason, whenever I cut into my piece, that deeply acidic, somewhat intense tomato sauce just fell off the cheese mountain, like rainwater running off the hood of my car. Sausage pieces are pretty large, but relatively bland. In a land of chains and fast food options, I can see why Beggars dominates in Blue Island, Lansing, Harvey, etc. There’s just no competition.

 

4. Lou Malnati’s

6649 N Lincoln Ave, Lincolnwood; 847-673-0800
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Comes in personal, small, medium and large; got a personal Buttercrust™ & a small pan, half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.95)

Lou Malnati's

Sausage + Pepperoni Deep Dish at Lou Malnati’s in Chicago

A visit to the first Lou’s, opened more than 40 years ago and site of countless birthdays and post-game little league celebrations, is like going home again (if you grew up nearby). Not unlike a visit to Hackney’s or Vito & Nick’s or Charlie Beinlich’s, there is a large amount of nostalgia served up with the house special: deep dish pizza. Lou Malnati worked at Pizzeria Uno in the 60s, left to open his namesake along a stretch of Lincoln Avenue in Lincolnwood in 1971, and in the decades since, his offspring have stretched the brand into nearly every nook and cranny community in Chicagoland. They’ve also set up a nationwide shipping apparatus, so your homesick cousin in California can get their deep dish fix anytime, thanks to UPS. I met my brother-in-law for lunch one day, since he’s a huge fan, and we ordered both the standard deep dish, plus a personal pizza featuring their trade marked Buttercrust™ for an extra 75 cents.

Both versions arrive with a crispy-edged crust, about two inches high on the outside, but a tad shorter on the interior. The buttercrust rests for two days. “The big misconception with deep dish is it’s this thick, doughy thing,” said Meggie Lindberg, the Marketing Manager for Lou’s. “It’s thick due to the layers, not the crust. Ours is thin, crispy and flaky but sturdy enough to hold everything; thin enough not to overwhelm the pizza.” Indeed. It does a fine job of holding up the layer of whole milk, sliced Wisconsin mozzarella (they’ve worked with the same dairy for 40 years) and seasoned, lean sausage (no fennel) made by a local company. All of the sauce used for the entire year at all Lou’s locations comes from West Coast plum tomatoes, pulled from vines and canned within six hours.

Lou’s also understands ratios. Each bite has that perfect blend of cheese/crust/topping/sauce and that sauce – a rough mix of chunky tomatoes, sprinkled with grated pecorino romano seasoned with oregano – offers excellent acidity to balance the rich, melted cheese. Even though they apply the sausage in pieces, it tends to take the form of a sausage frisbee when baked – not really a fan – however, even though it tends to be on the bland side, I can see how fans love the fact that almost every bite ensures an equal bite of sausage. The pepperoni definitely had a stronger spice profile than most, offering a good contrast to the oozing mozzarella.  ”The process has never changed,” said Marc Malnati, Lou’s son and now owner of the company. “Over time as we have grown more meticulous, we have begun to blend strains of winter wheat and spring wheat to insure year round consistency.”

As for that Buttercrust™, it’s pretty tasty, but it’s overkill. The fatty, melted mozzarella provides plenty of richness, and adding a buttery crust just gilds the lilly; there’s nothing wrong with the regular crust, but in both cases, we noted how the whole pizza changed character after about 10 minutes on the table. The ingredients seize up, becoming relatively firm, making a knife and fork unnecessary. But I’m guessing most customers aren’t going to let their pizzas sit that long, since these slices are somewhat addictive.

 

3. Old World Pizza

7230 W. North Ave # 206, Elmwood Park; 708-456-3000
Style: Deep
Ate a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.15)

Old World

Standard deep dish at Old World Pizza in Elmwood Park

Maybe it was the four Sopranos posters, or the one of Sinatra, but I had a sinking feeling as I walked into this local landmark, which has been serving the neighbors in Elmwood Park since ’63, that the clichés were going to continue on the plate. Thankfully, I was wrong. If you try to look them up online, it’s a little confusing, as they’re aligned with a company called Fat Ricky’s, with locations in Tinley Park, Shorewood, Romeoville and Plainfield, but there’s no way to see the menu for the Elmwood Park location. When we called, they mentioned thin and deep, but emphasized that deep was what they were known for, so we ordered the usual. They told us it would be about 45 minutes until it was ready, so we took our time, arriving in the quiet strip mall just a few minutes before it was ready.

This pizza has a sturdy, two inch-high outer crust, but inside, where the toppings reside, the crust is only about a quarter inch thick – much like Malnati’s – and contains extra virgin olive oil as well as yeast, resting for just 24 hours. Cheese is of course the first layer (a combo of shredded and sliced whole milk mozzarella) then some heavily-seasoned sausage from Greco, loaded up with quite a bit of fennel embedded into large, jagged pieces. Their beautifully seasoned tomato sauce (California tomatoes, rests for 24 – 36 hours before using) sits above it all, in splotches rather than a uniform coating, making the top of the pizza look like a map of the world, with continents made of tomatoes and sausage (seasoned lightly with Pecorino Romano cheese), swimming in an ocean of mozzarella. You don’t need a fork and knife here, since the slices are sturdy enough to hold with one hand; the crust has plenty of flavor and I’ll bet you there aren’t any crust fragments left on your plate, as there are at several lesser pizza joints. This is a pizza you’re going to have a hard time putting down, especially if you like Malnati’s style.

 

2. Louisa’s Pizza & Pasta

14025 S. Cicero Ave., Crestwood; 708-371-0950
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Ordered small half sausage-half pepperoni ($15)

Louisa's

Deep Dish at Louisa’s in Crestwood

Louise Benash was a waitress in the 70s at the original Pizzeria Due, and even worked with some guy named Lou Malnati, who was busy back in the kitchen over at Uno’s, making Chicago’s original deep dish pizza. She worked at Due’s from 1959 until ’81, opening her namesake bar and pizza joint that year. After she passed away, she left the business to her daughter, Linda. The family still runs it, making the same deep dish pie (figure 45 minutes at least) as they’ve done the past 35 years. They typically won’t cut up the pizzas into slices unless you ask them, but they still come in those sturdy, blackened stainless steel pans. At the bottom and up along the sides, a sturdy, slightly rich, buttery crust, the result of Ceresota unbleached flour, and a resting period of at least a day. Along the bottom, Wisconsin part-skim mozzarella, extra large hunks of cooked Anichini sausage they’ve been getting for 34 years, and a bright-and-chunky tomato sauce on the top, the product of California vine-ripened tomatoes (Saporito brand), covering everything except the outermost ring of crust. Just before it hits the oven, it gets a sprinkling of grated parmesan and oregano. Pizzas are baked in an old Blodgett oven at a constant 550 degrees, then moved to the upper oven to crisp-up the top without burning the bottom. That high edge is slightly browned in spots, yielding to the edge of a fork, but somehow riding that beautiful middle ground between crispy exterior and softened, cheese-riddled interior. Even after trying two pizzas on the day I visited, I still polished off a full slice. I dare you to try to eat just one (assuming you haven’t had a few pizzas beforehand).

1. Pizza Barra

3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook; 630-861-6177
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Also sells Chicago-style thin, but specializes in coal fired artisan thin

Pizza Barra

Chicago deep dish at Pizza Barra, with caramelized crust, in Oak Brook

Rich Labriola knows dough. The guy built his eponymous bakery, sold it, and has since moved on to licensing UCLA’s Stan’s Donuts, which is quickly gobbling up retail space around the city. His namesake café has kept humming along in a semi-fancy Oak Brook strip mall, and last year, he opened up a branch off of Michigan Avenue. Even though they have a pizza oven at both, and they manage to churn out good Neapolitan-style pies, I decided not to include them as part of the Quest, since I had made a rule early on about prohibiting restaurants that didn’t focus on pizza (otherwise this Quest would never end; sorry Piccolo Sogno, Balena and Quartino). Labriola recently took over a vacant space near the Oak Brook location, setting up his pizza fantasyland. He recruited Chris Macchia, a Coco Pazzo vet, and the two have spent the past year or so stuffing their faces with various crusts, trying to come up with something truly unique.

The massive restaurant offers three types of pizza: thin, Chicago deep dish and their signature: a coal fired artisan pie that emerges from the brick ovens with some of the most beautiful corniciones in the tri-state area. As much as I like Coalfired downtown, this is the kind of dough I want putting up a fight in the blistering heat – it’s got a lot of character with tons of air pockets, plenty of olive oil-kissed blistering around the top and a puffiness that allows for a good, hearty chew. The middle is still as thin as can be, supporting any number of artisan toppings, roasted vegetables or even ‘nduja from West Loop Salumi. But this is the “thick” part of the Quest, so why am I going on about his artisan thin pizzas? Because up until I ate here, most of the pizza places had established themselves in one realm or the other. When I would call up Piero’s, in Northbrook, for example, I would ask them “what’s your specialty? What are you guys known for?” They answered “pan” of course, so that’s what I ordered. In this case, with Pizza Barra being only a few weeks old, there is no pattern yet, which is why I’ve included them in both the thin and thick roundups.

I never saw it coming. Hit like a quarterback on the blind side by Singletary on the blitz, my 10” deep dish with sausage was placed in front of me, and I already liked what I saw: generous, chunky icebergs of tomato (Stanislas 7440 canned) with hints of granulated garlic, oregano and cayenne; jagged-edged pieces of sausage from Russo in Alsip, with a lot more fennel than normal, plus some Calabrian chiles, fragrant and juicy, tucked within melted layers of both Bel Paese provolone and Grande whole milk mozzarella, plus a bit of Ponte (a Greco brand) mozzarella to add sharpness. Then the best surprise of all – as I lifted out my first piece, I saw that outer edge – just like Pequod’s – a caramelized, darkened, thin layer of cheese, clinging to the perimeter, all the way around. Underneath, I noticed how firm the dough was. Labriola says it’s a combo of bread and low protein flours, with a bulk fermentation of three hours, kick-started by a pre-fermentation, or biga, then a rest overnight, before balling it up and waiting a total of 48 hours before baking.

As I cut into it with my knife, I realized it was actually crispy all the way around, and so I picked up the rest of my piece with my hands, and summarily devoured it. The ratio! They figured out the ratio! The night before, I had taken a few half-hearted bites of a deep dish at the Lake View location of Tortorice’s, a 45 year-old pizzeria with seven locations. Underneath the sauce and cheese was a ridiculously thick piece of soft focaccia-like dough, making the experience feel like I was 12 again, eating a Stouffer’s French bread “pizza.” But here, in the sleepy Oak Brook Promenade mall, next to a corporate plaza, overlooking a manmade lake, two Italian guys have cracked the code somehow – after a lot of trial and error no doubt – and have created a remarkable deep dish pizza.

Kristin Sherred contributed reporting to this story

5 Comments

  1. Sal

    November 6, 2015 at 5:09 am

    Come on Steve! Old World / Fat Rickys may not be as glamorous as these 2 other places. But if we are just comparing deep to deep forget about all the fancy words these other guys use. Authentic to authentic the place that’s been serving since 1963 wins hands down. I’ve been to these other 2 places. Decent but flash in the pans! (Pardon the pun)

  2. Aggie Di Tola

    November 8, 2015 at 7:17 am

    Some think Lou Malnottis is the best. I tried the deep dish at two different places and at both Malnati places, the pizza was so soggy we couldn’t eat it. Too much liquid left in the mushrooms, too much greasy liquid from the sausage. Not cooked enough either time.

    • Ron

      November 8, 2015 at 10:35 am

      Aggie – If you get the pizza to order – or take out – tell them not to cut it, Cut it at home and that will substantially take out the sogginess.

  3. Richard DeBow

    November 8, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Aurelio’s doesn’t make the list? Not for any style of pizza?

    Come on, man!

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 8, 2015 at 9:55 am

      Not in my top 5. If you read my Thin Pizzas, A to Z, you’ll see why.

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