Spicy education: Libertyville’s Chili U a study of all things fiery
Chili U is much more than a chili parlor, although its namesake menu item comes in many variations. To build more of a year-round theme, the owners added foods containing interesting spices at different degrees of heat.
There are lots of sandwiches as well as a full bar with specialty cocktails. The large, tastefully decorated space is divided into two dining rooms, the front room containing the bar and mostly high-top tables, separated from the back dining room by an open kitchen on both sides of the aisle.
547 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville, (847) 549-3152, chili-u.com
Cuisine: American comfort food and chili
Entrees: $9 to $15
Hours: 4:30 p.m. to 12 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday; 4:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday brunch; dinner until 10 p.m. Sunday
There's also a pleasant patio out back, where we opted to sit on a perfect late summer evening. Currently there are no lights, so daylight and candles must suffice until outdoor lighting gets installed next year.
Chef and managing partner Marc Bianchini, who owns four restaurants in Milwaukee (Cubanitas, Coa and two Indulge Wine Rooms) explained that he decided to join forces with an area investment group on Chili U to break into the greater Chicago market. "I like the Libertyville neighborhood and demographics, and it's just 60 miles from my house," he said.
With a fully stocked bar and a separate list of specialty cocktails, mostly martinis on the sweet side, I chose my old standby, an original gin martini with olives. It was properly made but could have been better chilled.
A concise wine list seems designed to pair well with the food and offers all 24 selections by the glass as well as by the bottle. No less than 15 draft beers, including several microbrews, are offered.
Appetizers range from spicy chorizo egg rolls to sriracha chili chicken wings and chili Joe sliders. I ordered the egg rolls, described as chorizo and cream cheese-stuffed egg rolls with creamy chipotle cilantro dipping sauce. The miniature egg rolls were deep-fried, breaded won ton wrappers that tasted of quite a bit of breading and not much sausage or cream cheese. The flavorful dip was the best part.
Moving on to the chili section, we found instructions that outline the three-step ordering process. We were instructed to first choose one of eight prepared chilis. Feeling adventurous, we chose the African chicken — roasted chicken, creamy tomato peanut butter sauce and wild mushrooms.
Next, from a list of "foundations" — including mashed potatoes, macaroni noodles, angel hair pasta, sticky rice and homemade hash browns — we picked angel hair pasta. Finally a long list of toppings beckoned, from which we chose scallions.
Our helpful and friendly server delivered our bowl at just the right time, along with my prime rib sandwich and a side of green chili cheese grits. This eclectic combination of dishes more than satisfied our hunger pangs.
The African chicken chili, really more like a casserole or stew, was tasty but a bit overpowered by the peanut butter flavor. It had just the right amount of mild spiciness and was a generous enough portion to warrant a doggie bag.
I enjoyed the slow-roasted prime rib on a ciabatta bun with caramelized onions and melted provolone cheese — one of the mildest choices on the menu. The thin-sliced prime rib was easy to eat in sandwich form and properly cooked. I'd order this one again.
The side of grits had good texture — not runny — and a nice accompaniment to the sandwich, though I wouldn't have minded more green chili in the mix.
Other promising-looking sides include custard cornbread muffin, spicy cheddar jalapeno cornbread and chili-steamed vegetables.
Although we were pretty full at this point, we saved room for dessert, choosing to share the Texas sheet cake with vanilla bean ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream. The cake was moist and not overly sweet — a good recipe I wouldn't be surprised to find out had been handed down from someone's grandmother.
I must mention the restroom décor because it's so unusual — enclosed display cases of Barbie dolls with printed sayings describing different scenarios and costumes. "We're having a little fun with them," said Bianchini. Costumes can be customized to suit special occasion private parties for both genders, he added.
Chili U is unexpectedly affordable, considering its upscale atmosphere. Chili prices range from $9 to $13; sandwiches, quesadillas and wraps from $3.50 to $12; entree salads from $13 to $15; and desserts, which are big enough to share, just $6.
The restaurant is off to an enthusiastic start and makes a nice addition to Libertyville's Milwaukee Avenue restaurant row. Lunch is scheduled to start this month. Once this location is more established, Bianchini hopes to expand Chili U into other suburbs.
• Reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.
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