Italy in Chicago: An inside look at Eataly

by Donna Berry
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Donna Berry

CHICAGO — During the National Restaurant Association’s (N.R.A.) annual extravaganza in Chicago, I had the opportunity for a behind-the-scenes tour of Eataly, one of the city’s hottest concepts in specialty food. Both restaurant and retail market, Eataly Chicago opened its doors this past December and since has become a destination for locals and tourists.

The Eataly concept was created in 2004 and after three years of research and planning, Eataly opened its first location in Turin, Italy. As with every other Eataly around the world, and there are 26, Eataly Chicago was molded after this first marketplace. Currently there are 10 locations in Italy, 13 in Japan, one in Dubai and two in the United States. The other U.S. location is New York City, which opened about three years ago. In the next three years, the chain is planning to open a number of stores in the United States as well as elsewhere in the world.

Chicago Eataly opened its doors for the first time on December 2, 2013. The first and only other U.S. location opened three years earlier in New York City. The idea behind Eataly is very simple: to gather high-quality Italian foods under one roof, where you can eat, shop and learn.
 

The idea behind Eataly is simple: to gather high-quality Italian foods under one roof, where you can eat, shop and learn. Experiencing Eataly is quite simple. Product consumed in the store should be paid for prior to eating, while those intended for outside the store should be paid at the cash registers near the exit.

Since 2004, Eataly has created and purchased shares in several food and beverage companies. Today Eataly owns, or is a partner in, more than 19 companies that produce or distribute Italian food, including water, non-alcoholic beverages, fresh meats, cured meats, cheese, pasta and pastries, as well as a food and wine-centric travel agency. The companies supply approximately 25% of Eataly’s retail products, while the other 75% is purchased from more than 2,000 producers.

Each Eataly head baker learns to use the company’s unique lievito madre, or “mother leaven.” This is the key to transforming flour and water into Italian bread. The yeast makes the bread rise and adds a unique flavor that is specific to the climate, water, flour and history behind the mother. The yeast imparts a touch of sourness to each loaf and is tested daily by the baker to determine how to yield the best bread possible. In all, the bakers make more than 70 types of bread.
 

Committed to promoting gourmet yet affordable “regional Italian food with a local twist,” at 63,000 square feet, the Chicago store allows visitors to shop, taste and savor. There are seven boutique eateries and a fine-dining restaurant. The individual retail counters located throughout the two-floor retail space include meat, fish, fresh pasta, pastries, chocolate, cheeses and cured meats. Near the latter, hand-stretched mozzarella is made daily using locally sourced milk. There are also two coffee bars (Lavazza and Vergnano), as well as a Nutella corner, bakery, gelateria, microbrewery and wine bar and store.

The 21 retail departments include condiments, dry pastas, sweets, spreads/jams and olive oils. The olive oil department is particularly impressive as it carries nearly 100 varieties from producers that harvest exclusively in Italy. The marketplace has the largest selection of boutique, single-estate olive oils in Chicago and many of the oils feature handpicked olives. Some include “birth certificates,” which identify the exact tree on an estate from where the olives were harvested.

Near the first-floor checkout is a produce department, where a vegetable butcher will clean, chop, dice and slice, practically anything but cook your fruits and vegetables, at no extra cost. The dairy case is home to milk, cultured products and eggs from small farms throughout the United States. Eataly uses that same milk to make its mozzarella and cappuccini and macchiati at its coffee bars.

In total, Eataly Chicago stocks more than 10,000 products. Almost all of the ambient packaged goods are imported from Italy. More than 500 different types of cheeses are available for sale, with 75% of them imported from Italy and the rest sourced from U.S. cheese makers. Because of strict U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, only some of the charcuterie is imported from Italy, mainly the prosciutto. Salami and other sausages typically are made in the Americas, often by butchers employed by Italian companies.

Eataly believes that where you come from matters, and through each piece of cheese sold cut-to-order at the Cheese & Salumi counter, the company wants to tell the story of the animals that produced it, the people who crafted it and the land that gave it life. More than 500 different types of cheeses are available for sale, with 75% of them imported from Italy and the rest sourced from U.S. artisan cheesemakers. Because of strict USDA regulations, only some of the charcuterie is imported from Italy, mainly the prosciutto. Salami and other sausages are typically made in the Americas, often by butchers employed by Italian companies.
 

Eataly cooks what it sells and sells what it cooks, meaning nearly every ingredient used in the restaurants is also available for retail purchase. To make ample bread for the marketplace, the bakers work consecutive 12-hour shifts. Each Eataly head baker learns to use the company’s unique lievito madre, or “mother leaven.” This is the key to transforming flour and water into Italian bread. The yeast makes the bread rise and adds a unique flavor that is specific to the climate, water, flour and history behind the mother. The yeast imparts a touch of sourness to each loaf and is tested daily by the baker to determine how to yield the best bread possible.

The bakers use a single-deck, three-meter rotating, wood-burning oven that runs at about 480 degrees F. Loaves are manually rotated approximately every 10 minutes. In all, the bakers make more than 70 types of bread.

Eataly’s pastry chef serves health-conscious and allergen-friendly treats ranging from traditional cakes and chocolate to gluten-free cookies and jams sweetened only with grape sugar. It is located adjacent to the gelateria. Here, creamy, soft gelato is made fresh daily using imported ingredients such as Piemonte hazelnuts and Venchi chocolate.

Eataly’s pastry chef serves up health-conscious and allergen-friendly treats ranging from traditional cakes and chocolate to gluten-free cookies and jams sweetened only with grape sugar. It is located adjacent to the gelateria. Here, creamy, soft gelato is made fresh daily using imported ingredients such as Piemonte hazelnuts and Venchi chocolate.
 

Eataly Chicago employs nearly 650, a number of whom moved to Chicago to train locals on how to give the “eat, shop, learn” marketplace an authentic Italian ambiance. This includes helping patrons explore Italian cuisine through the cooking school that opened in March 2014.

La Scuola di Eataly Chicago is located on the second floor and offers home chefs the opportunity to improve their culinary skills by participating in demonstration-style classes that focus on making risotto, fresh pasta and regional cuisines of Italy. Adjacent to the wine department, the school also hosts wine tastings and interactive “Chef's Table” dinners prepared in the open kitchen.

“Eataly is all about education,” said Emily Ripp, director of education and events at the Chicago venue. “Our primary goal is to empower people with the essential understanding that ‘we are what we eat,’ placing maximum attention on what we choose to fuel our bodies with.

“Each class is designed to be a deep journey into one of the 20 regions of Italy, a specific culinary art or technique, an amazing product or the philosophy of a locally or nationally renowned chef,” Ms. Ripp said. “Guests can expect to learn basic to advanced culinary techniques in a demo-style environment, while getting closer to regional Italian and locally sourced products and enjoying a full meal complemented with wine pairings.”

Open seven days a week, the first-floor coffee shop opens at 8:00 a.m., with the rest of the marketplace opening at 10:00 a.m. Eataly stays open until 11:00 p.m.
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READER COMMENTS (3)

By Sara Risch 6/9/2014 2:49:01 PM
I just saw Eataly at a very upscale mall in Istanbul. Amazing how that city has developed.

By Shelley Jacobs 6/4/2014 6:07:57 AM
Sofo ahead of their time.

By Laura Estes 6/4/2014 6:06:56 AM
Looks like Sofo's ahead of their time.