In my life, I have a fair amount of precious memories — my first day of school, my first kiss, my first crush, graduations, my first college internship, my most hurtful and disappointing relationship, moving away from home after college, countless trips abroad, watching the most beautiful sunsets from Table Mountain in South Africa, my first North Side flat in Chicago, my decision to practice narcissism, numerous bad situations I walked away from, my first authentic ethnic dining experience, the first time saying “No” and not regretting it, and starting Chicago Alphabet Soup. This weekend was one that I found myself in a continuous state of reminiscing. There was a draw to my old neighbourhood in Chicago, the area known as Rogers Park. I had the most fantastic one-bedroom flat with hardwood floors, easy access to the elevated train, close proximity to plenty of fun and happening locales, and colourful neighbours that kept me in constant laughter. There was the pick of Ma-and-Pop restaurants that never failed to satisfy my appetite. So after a moment of deliberation, I decided that I would go back to see how things had changed since I was last in Rogers Park visiting — which was only five months past.
One restaurant that still has a draw is Leona’s Italian restaurant at 6935 N. Sheridan Road. Leona’s is a Chicago staple chain restaurant. I have been to several other locations, but there is something about the Rogers Park location on Sheridan Road that keeps me coming back. It could be that this was the first location where I got introduced to Leona’s fine Italian-American cuisine. It could be that the food is always top — always-good garlic bread, tasty ravioli, delicious lasagna, delectable fettucine, awesome pizzas, and a long list of other culinary delights that keeps one’s lips smacking. And once I found myself walking through the door to enter, I knew that I had made a fine decision to return to my manufactured roots that I had set up in Rogers Park.
For this Sunday afternoon, the restaurant was not as congested as it has been in my days past. Then again, Chicago had a recent cold spell along with snow and the temperatures had warmed considerably. People were probably outside enjoying the moderate chilly temperatures instead of being inside avoiding Arctic blasts. That was just fine with me, as I had my pick of seats. Not being conspicuous about what I was going to do while eating, I told the host that I was going to photograph my food, so I got a window seat. Since I had not eaten any breakfast, I was incredibly ravenous. That meant I had the propensity to order way more than I could tackle. But I forced myself to temper my ridiculous craving. As much as I love to overeat, the hours thereafter are sometimes very uncomfortable.
I started with a Cesar salad and a complementary loaf of Italian bread. One thing that I must admit is that I have never had a Cesar salad with sun-dried tomatoes on it. Talk about improvising. It was delicious, but I had an initial shock of “something having changed” rather than “this is a different take on Cesar salad.” I smiled with every bite, nevertheless. As to the bread, the loaf was warm, dusted with Parmesan cheese, and served with honey butter. Satisfying. Gratifying. Food bliss. And then came the shrimp scampi that I had ordered. This scampi was not loaded with garlic the way scampi dishes are. A moderate amount of garlic, fresh tomatoes, and plump shrimp made for a wonderful appetizer dish. And I was good not to take any of the bread and sop the remaining scampi. I had eaten all of the bread anyway, so there was none to use to wipe down the bowl of scampi.
What I have always loved from Leona’s menu was the lasagna. If I did not order lasagna for dining in, I would order some for take-away. Today I had decided that I would enjoy some of the dish and in the smaller portion rather than trying to be bold. I ordered the five-cheese lasagna with marinara sauce. Oh was I a happy man. The smaller portion was still filling. Then again, it may have been from me gobbling the loaf of bread, the entire Cesar salad, and the shrimp scampi before the lasagna came to the table. This entrée was definitely more than I had expected, although I ordered it with moderation in mind. I spaced the entrée and dessert so that I could enjoy the dessert to completion. The dessert menu was full of items that have nuts in them. Not being a fan of pecans or walnuts, I opted for the common Italian dessert of tiramisu. Stacked high and about as large as the small-portion lasagna, I was in Italian heaven as I slowly worked over the tiramisu with a cup of coffee.
Now I will admit that Leona’s seems to have a habit of serving too much food. Chances are you will eat until your eyes bulge and your belly swells, only to request a take-away box for what you do not finish eating. You receive more than what you pay for in the end. For me, there are times when I find myself saying, Leona’s, your good loving deserves and encore, and I am back at the restaurant with heavy anticipation of gnashing away at something perfectly flavourful from the menu. Moments like today leave me wishing that I was living in Rogers Park again, enjoying the surroundings and amenities. But I can take the bus, the elevated train, or drive back to my old familiar neighbourhood when I want to recapture my earlier days of living in Chicago. What would we do without precious memories?