Food & Drink

The Best Italian Restaurants in Chicago

Published On 01/20/2015 Published On 01/20/2015

Chicago has one of the largest Italian populations in the entire country, which means 1) LOTS of gesturing, and 2) plenty of delicious carb-loaded food. The best of it is gonna come from one of these local spots flush with Michelin stars and red sauce classics.

Balena

Lincoln Park

Although it’s only been around since 2012, this modern Italian spot from the Boka Restaurant Group and B. Hospitality Co. has already had a major impact on Chicago’s dining scene, and has the Michelin Bib Gourmand status to prove it. Starters like burrata di panna and grilled octopus are no-brainers, while the tagliolini nero with crab, sea urchin, and chili flake and the spicy mortadella pizza with pistachio pesto, red onion, and mozzarella are no-no-no-NO-brainers.

Bruna's

Little Italy

From pastas and ultra-tender veal limone to some of the best tiramisu in the city, Bruna’s has all things Italian pretty well covered. The Oakley Ave mainstay (located in the REAL Little Italy) has been serving the hungry folks of Chicago since 1933, and it shows. Stop in for an authentic experience of roast chicken made with an old-school original recipe (served only on Sundays) and more than enough wine to make this a regular thing.

Ceres’ Table

Ceres' Table

Lakeview

After relocating from Uptown to bustling East Lakeview last year, new life was breathed into this well-loved, seasonally inspired restaurant. Despite the considerably more spacious digs and bigger crowds, the heart and soul of Ceres’ Table remains the same: Sicilian-leaning regional Italian plates like venison osso buco, spaghettone cacio e pepe, and bistecca Fiorentina. And thanks to a new wood-burning oven, the kitchen is now slinging four varieties of perfectly blistered pizzas, too.

Rachel Bires/Coco Pazzo

Coco Pazzo

River North

Established some 20 years ago, Coco Pazzo was one of the first Tuscan-inspired restaurants to open in Chicago. Since, it has consistently churned out a solid mix of classic and contemporary eats every bit as delicious as they are simple. Dig into homemade, stick-to-your-ribs gnocchetti tossed with tomato sauce, buffalo ricotta, and basil, and cap off your meal with something sweet like house-made gelato or panna cotta with huckleberry sauce and caramelized citrus zests.

Piccolo Sogno

River West

From homemade pastas and hand-tossed pizzas to a thorough, Italian-only wine selection some 400 varieties strong, this "little dream" on Halsted St checks all the mustachioed boxes for what it means to be a great Italian restaurant. Try the signature ravioli stuffed with four cheeses, drizzled in a Marsala glaze and butter, and finished with pine nuts and Parmesan curls for something straightforward and satisfying. Get your hearty protein fix via the rosticciana (braised beef short ribs with squash puree, red wine, and veggies). Also, the outdoor area is easily one of the most romantic spots in town. Not that it matters in January.

Quartino

Quartino

River North

Unlike most of the restaurants on this list, Quartino ditches massive portions in favor of smaller, shareable plates. To get the full experience, enlist a couple (okay, maybe five) dining companions to help you eat your way through an assortment of meats and cheeses; veal meatball sliders; braised, pork-stuffed ravioli; penne alla vodka; fried calamari; and, most importantly, zeppole: a Nutella panino and house-made biscotti.

Sapori Trattoria

Sapori Trattoria

Lincoln Park

This cozy, neighborhood-y spot offers upscale food in a decidedly casual setting: a juxtaposition we’re all about. Whether you’re here for a date night or just a good meal out with your bro-hams, it’s great for slow-cooked veal osso buco with red sauce and meat lasagna, linguini tossed with clams and garlic in a white wine sauce, and comforting minestrone.

Galdones Photography

Spiaggia

Gold Coast

When it comes to Italian fine dining in the heart of Chicago, nothing touches Tony Mantuano’s Michelin-starred Spiaggia. In early 2014, the restaurant underwent a massive redesign complete with a lighter, airy aesthetic, a revamped menu created by executive chef Chris Marchino, and a new philosophy that draws from the Italian concept of "sprezzatura," aka nonchalant elegance, aaka ditch the jackets, revel in carbonara packed with duck egg, pecorino, guanciale, and peppercorn, and when asked if you want to add 100 grams of shaved truffle on top, the answer is always "yes."

Via Carducci

Via Carducci

Lincoln Park

The DePaul area of Lincoln Park isn’t exactly known for its bustling restaurant scene, but consider Via Carducci a veritable diamond in the rough. (It also has a location in Wicker Park.) The quaint eatery is home to everything from rigatoni Siciliana (w/ roasted eggplant, tomato cream sauce, and mozzarella) to lamb chops (w/ rapini greens, white beans, garlic EVOO, and balsamic reduction). And, in true Italian style, its a sure bet for a lively (GESTURING!!!) -- if quite a bit noisy -- atmosphere.

Stephen Green

Osteria Langhe

Logan Square

Hearty Northern Italian fare is the name of the game at this Piedmont-focused spot nestled in Logan Square. Every meal here should begin with a selection from the remarkable wine list and end with citrus and vanilla fritters with tequila budino. Try dishes like the Lumache slow food (snail confit with arneis, leeks, carrots, herbs, and garlic bread); plin tossed with Parmesan, thyme, and butter; and prosciutto-wrapped rabbit loin in between.

Courtesy of Charlatan

Charlatan

West Town

We’ll concede that the cuisine at this self-proclaimed “Italian countryside meets Midwest farmhouse” concept isn’t strictly Italian, but given the game-changing lineup of pastas they roll, we’d be remiss not to include it. Explore seasonal delights like elote-style agnolotti with tri-tip steak, ormenu staples like house-made black pepper rigatoni tossed with wild boar ragu, Parmesan, and fried black kale. And whatever you do, don’t miss the daily focaccia served with roasted garlic compound butter and Maldon sea salt flakes.

Riccardo Trattoria

Riccardo Trattoria

Lincoln Park

Cozy, charming, and entirely devoid of trendiness or pretension, this trattoria is the place to go for well-executed and wholly authentic Italian. Vitello tonnato (poached veal carpaccio with tuna and caper sauce) and burrata with speck shine among the antipasti options, and saffron risotto with veal and ricotta meatballs in ossobuco sauce, pappardelle with porcini mushrooms and white truffle sauce, and veal saltimbocca also won’t disappoint.

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Kailley Lindman is a contributing writer for Thrillist Chicago, as well as a food blogger, bacon enthusiast, and devout user of the Oxford comma. Follow her at @KailleysKitchen.

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1. Balena 1633 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

The menu at this acclaimed collaborative effort between Boka Restaurant Group and B. Hospitality Co. showcases executive chef/partner Chris Pandel's modern-yet-homey interpretation of Italian cuisine, and spans from hearth-fired pizzas and burrata di panna to far-from-ordinary house-made pastas, including tagliolini nero tossed with crab, sea urchin, and mint, and walnut pesto-coated Sardinian gnocchi. The concept also offers an exceptional brunch program packed with sweet and savory dishes.

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2. Bruna's Ristorante 2424 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608

Located on Pilsen's Oakland Ave, aka the most authentic Italian hood in Chicago, Bruna's is an old-school red sauce joint whose menu items have been around longer than most restaurants in the city. Open since 1933, Bruna's doles out regional classics and Italian-American staples (meatball sandwich, anyone?) in a casual and dimly-lit dining room. House specialities, like ultra-tender veal scaloppine, fusilli with tomato cream sauce and mushrooms, and tiramisu, are MUST orders.

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3. Ceres' Table 3124 N Broadway St, Chicago, IL 60657 (Lakeview)

The heart and soul of this well-loved, seasonally-inspired restaurant is Sicilian-leaning regional plates like venison osso buco, spaghettone cacio e pepe, and bistecca Fiorentina. New life was breathed into Ceres' Table when it moved from Uptown to East Lakeview in 2015, and the spacious space includes a wood-burning oven that slings perfectly blistered pizzas, too.

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4. Coco Pazzo 300 W Hubbard St, Chicago, IL 60610 (River North)

When Coco Pazzo opened in 1992, it was one of the first Tuscan-inspired restaurants in Chicago. Since, it has consistently churned out a solid mix of classic and contemporary food every bit as delicious as it is simple. Expect stick-to-your-ribs gnocchi tossed with tomato sauce and buffalo ricotta; four-cheese ravioli with marsala glaze; and chicken Milanese. Be sure to start with a few bruschetta appetizers -- the menu includes varieties that run from the classic tomato and basil to the more acquired-tasting gorgonzola and caramelized onion -- and cap off your meal with house-made gelato or sorbet.

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5. Piccolo Sogno 464 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60642 (Warehouse Dist)

Piccolo Sogno in River West checks all the boxes for a great Italian restaurant. From homemade pastas and hand-tossed pizzas to a thorough, Italian-only wine selection some 400 varieties strong, the rustic menu is approachable and intriguing enough to keep you coming back for more. The eponymous ravioli, stuffed with four cheeses and tossed with pine nuts, butter, and Marsala glaze is a house signature. As for ambience, the garden patio is one of the best in Chicago.

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6. Quartino 626 N. State St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

Quartino ditches massive portions in favor of smaller, shareable plates. To get the full experience, enlist a couple (okay, maybe five) dining companions to help you eat your way through an assortment of meats and cheeses; veal meatball sliders; braised, pork-stuffed ravioli; penne alla vodka; fried calamari; and, most importantly, zeppole.

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7. Sapori Trattoria 2701 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

This cozy, neighborhoody spot offers upscale food in a decidedly casual setting: a juxtaposition we’re all about. Whether you’re here for a date night or just a good meal out, Sapori is great for soul-warming dishes like slow-cooked veal osso buco with red sauce and meat lasagna, linguini tossed with clams and garlic in a white wine sauce, and minestrone soup.

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8. Spiaggia 980 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611 (Gold Coast)

Walls of wine bottles line the entrance to this elegant Italian eatery (which nabbed a 2014 James Beard nomination for Outstanding Restaurant), ushering diners into a contemporary space with black marble and white tablecloths. Chef Tony Mantuano heads the kitchen, making the preparation of elevated, artfully plated dishes look like a walk on the beach (by the way, "spiaggia" means beach in Italian). Jackets are no longer required in the dining room, but let it be known, this isn't the type of place where you want to show up looking like a schlub.

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9. Via Carducci La Sorella 1928 W Division St, Chicago, IL 60622 (Wicker Park)

The Wicker Park location of Via Carducci is a quaint, Italian restaurant that's home to everything from rigatoni Siciliana (made with roasted eggplant, tomato cream sauce, and mozzarella) to lamb chops (made with rapini greens, white beans, garlic EVOO, and balsamic reduction).

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10. Osteria Langhe 2824 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 (Logan Square)

This Logan Square spot seamlessly blends slow food (literally, there's snail confit) with fine wines, all while transporting you to the northern Italian countryside. Expect rich dishes like prosciutto-wrapped rabbit loin and hand-pinched ravioli tossed with Parmesan, thyme, and butter. You'll want to grab a table in the Giardino Segreto ("secret garden" in Italian), but heads up: you'll need a reservation to dine on this lovely patio, so be sure to plan ahead.

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11. Charlatan 1329 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60642 (West Town)

The guys behind Three Aces unleashed this spot in West Town. While Charlatan may lack the raucous vibe of its sister restaurant, it doesn't lack the fantastic cuisine: American farm-to-table and Italian influences produce standouts like Slagel Farm beef carpaccio, skate wing, house-made pastas, and pig’s head for two.

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12. Riccardo Enoteca 2116 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

This laid-back Italian in Lincoln Park turns out medium-thick pan pizzas from a wood-burning oven as well as hearty, house-made pastas and risotto, and Northern Italian meat specialities like veal Emiliana and chicken Milanese. The wide range of simply-prepared but rich dishes on Riccardo Enoteca's menu means it's hard to disappoint, and the wine list and dessert specials (tiramisu! ricotta cheesecake!) kick everything up a notch.

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