First Look: Italian Hotspot Elina’s Ushers in Chicago’s Red Sauce Revolution

Let the carbo-loading commence.

Photo courtesy of Elina’s
Photo courtesy of Elina’s

Chicagoans have always loved Italian-American restaurants—we’ve got several neighborhoods chock full of them—so no matter where you find yourself, a platter of Fried Calamari or an order of Chicken Parm is always within a fork’s reach. And lately, a whole new crop of markedly fancy Italian spots have opened up around town, including Boka Group’s Alla Vita helmed by Michelin-starred chef Lee Wolen, the South Loop’s Apolonia with SKY chef Stephen Gillanders, and Adalina in the Gold Coast, led by Soo Ahn of the late Band of Bohemia. Their menus—front-loaded with garlicky Caesars, gooey arancini, elegant plates of crudo, and plenty of pasta, often rolled, stuffed, or extruded in-house—dip into the holy trinity of age-old tradition, farm fresh ingredients, and luscious carbs. (Pro tip: don’t skip pastry chef Kim Mok’s fantastic desserts at Alla Vita—especially the swoon-worthy Nutella Sundae.)

The newest and perhaps most inconspicuous of this recent red sauce uprising is River West’s 48-seat Elina’s, which quietly appeared in mid-September as chefs and co-owners Ian Rusnak, 32, and Eric Safin, 29, fired up the stately stoves. Named after Safin’s mom—she cried when he told her—the intimate BYOB-for-now neighborhood spot is serving up casual comforts in an old-school setting.

Elina’s interior | Photo courtesy of Elina’s

Rusnak (who hails from Elmhurst) and Safin (from outside Philadelphia) met while cooking under Marc Forgione in New York City. Safin, who’s been working in kitchens since signing on as a dishwasher at age 15, credits each restaurant on his ample resume for teaching him different skills, from the fundamentals of cooking a la minute at Restaurant Marc Forgione, to the discipline and organization of Restaurant Jean Georges. Rusnak, who helped open the now-defunct Pump Room in Chicago before moving to New York and manning the kitchen at famed red sauce emporium Carbone among other noteworthy outposts, served as Culinary Director for Hogsalt when 4 Charles Prime Rib and Bavette’s Steakhouse and Bar expanded to New York.

The two joined forces when the pandemic started, establishing a catering business and cleverly creating three restaurant-style pop-up concepts for their dine-at-home clients to choose from, including an Italian-American themed experience they dubbed Paisan’s. They travelled the country in a Honda CRV, charting a course from the Hamptons to the Jersey Shore, Miami, Chicago, Montana—wherever their clients resided, stopping at antique malls to pick up vintage china and flatware along the way. “We realized you have to put a show on,” says Safin. “And Lenox just makes the food look so much better.”

Photo courtesy of Elina's

The pair’s globetrotting enterprise allowed them to assemble a solid repertoire of dishes and a roster of stellar suppliers, essential components when it came time to settle down in Chicago and lease the Grand Avenue storefront. Formerly Gringo’s, Grandview Tap, and the beloved Cafe Fresco, the space looks and feels like a tavern, evoking fixtures like Il Vicinato and Bruna’s in the Heart of Chicago’s Little Italy, or a miniature version of Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in River North. Elina’s particular stretch of Grand Avenue similarly holds onto its history as an Italian enclave—deli mainstays Bari Foods and D’amato’s bakery (where the chefs source their bread) are just down the block, while La Scarola, Tempesta, and several top pizza spots also sit nearby. And from the gilt antique world map on the ceiling, to the tufted turquoise booths, to the star tile floors—plus the aroma of fresh garlic and the sounds of Billy Joel playing on Rusnak’s granddad’s hi-fi—you know from the second you step inside this newcomer that you’re going to eat good.

The menu is stacked with amped-up versions of “food you might see on the Sopranos,” explains Safin. “It’s Jersey-style Italian with a couple of flourishes,” adds Rusnak. A basket of Garlic Bread and Tomato Focaccia kicks things off, accompanied by a bowl of vinegary Eggplant Agrodolce. A vintage dinner plate crowded with Clams Casino might come next, followed by rich house-extruded Rigatoni alla Vodka or a delicately executed Angel Hair with Crab. A towering Eggplant Parmesan or a fileted-to-order Dover Sole Piccata served with Vesuvio Potatoes and Peas waits on the wings, “‘cause they’re the best part of Chicken Vesuvio,” say Rusnak. The food feels elevated in technique yet grounded in tradition, pitch-perfect for a neighborhood joint, and indicative of their combined years of culinary experience.

Elina's chopped salad | Photo courtesy of Elina's

What’s the chefs’ explanation for Chicago’s recent tomato- and mozzarella-fueled onslaught? “Italian comes in so many different flavors,” says Safin, noting that this “return to red sauce” hits like comfort food for their lucky diners and that Italian food “is also timeless.” Rusnak agrees: “Right now we are just really enjoying cooking.”

Come Spring, the duo will unveil a big back patio plus a full bar and wine list, both of which promise to breathe seasonal life into the project. “Out there, we want to channel the Amalfi Coast,” explains Rusnak. For now, though, the cozy and inviting dining room, brimming with warmth, familiarity, and impeccable cuisine, is just what the city’s still-recovering restaurant scene needs to emerge from a rough year and change stateside. Buon appetito, Chicago.

Elina’s is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 11 pm. Reservations can be made via Resy.

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Lisa Futterman is a contributor for Thrillist.