Lakeshore East’s New Italian Neighbor From Wisconsin
Very recently we had a chance to pop by Lakeshore East. The New Eastside enclave was formerly a golf course, and before that a rail yard. But more importantly, I used to live there in the early 2000’s.
Back then, residents were constantly promised that new amenities were “coming soon.” “Two months, max” was the running joke, because that was always the response residents got when they inquired about the promised amenities like restaurants, a grocery store, cafes, and shops.
At the time I’m speaking of, there was only The Lancaster, and The Shoreham. The Tides, The Chandler, The Regatta, and 340 on the Park were just weed-choked lots. The Parkhomes were a long, deep ditch. The park was infested with suburban kids who would have sex in the giant plastic pirate ship. Aqua was a the site of a greasy spoon at the end of a parking lot punctuated by a rusting elevator turned public toilet.
LSE has come a long way since then. Today, it looks like a real neighborhood. The park’s trees have flourished from sickly twigs into a thick canopy of fat leaves. Thousands of new homes have been added, and thanks in large part to Aqua, the place has been photographed and showcased in magazines and newspapers around the world.
There is now a cafe, a bank, and most importantly — a proper grocery store.
The Roundy’s company, of Milwaukee, has opened a Mariano’s Fresh market on the park (officially at 333 East Benton Place). Gone are the days when Lakeshore East residents had to rely on either Peapod, or a tiny subterranean Potash Brothers market underneath Harbor Point Tower. Mariano’s is big. And very well done.
Downstairs is the main grocery, where you can find everything you’d expect from Dominick’s and Jewel. In addition, there is also a nice section of international fare, including British and German specialties. There’s also a large Italian section. This is a recurring theme throughout the Mariano’s store. The name is Italian (the C.E.O. of Roundy’s is Robert Mariano), and there are lots of little subtle Italian touches as you go through the store. It’s different enough to be interesting, but not “ethnic” enough to be a turn-off to Midwesterners.
In addition to its Italian flavor, Mariano’s also has more than a dash of Wisconsin influence. Unlike those homogenized national chains (Dominick’s is Safeway; Jewel is SuperValu/Albertson’s), Mariano’s carries lots of regional items, including a variety of cheese curds, and Top The Tater dips from Saint Paul. If you’ve ever lived in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you’ll notice a lot of familiar products.
Downstairs is where the business of grocery shopping is done. Upstairs is the place where people passionate about food can indulge themselves. There’s a huge fresh produce area which carries everything from cantaloupe to cactus. The bakery looks magnificent, though I’m reserving judgement on that until I’ve had a chance to sample some of its breads. If the huge selection of pedestrian cheeses downstairs isn’t enough, the fancy stuff gets a big front-and-center cooler up top. There’s even a confectionary where Mariano’s makes its own candies, and flavored popcorns.
Too tired after work to cook? Like most supermarkets, Mariano’s has a selection of high-fat, high-salt, high-profit ready-to-eat meal options. But for something more down home, head outside to the patio, where a Mariano’s employee is grilling up brats. A sausage, chips and a Coke will set you back six bucks, and you can eat it outside with the smell of grilled meats drifting over the park.
In all, I was very impressed by the market. It’s been close to ten years since the first time a Lakeshore East salesperson told me a grocery store would open there “any day now.” I won’t say it was worth the wait, because seriously — it’s been a decade! But this market is just the anchor point needed to turn what used to be an outpost for gritty urban pioneers into a homey neighborhood that any suburban housewife would be comfortable in. I’ll be back to sample all it has to offer since it’s just a short bus ride away.
- Mariano’s Fresh Market (2011)
- 333 East Benton Place, Chicago (CTA #60 Bus stops in front)
- Rating: 4/5
- Great selection
- International food goes beyond Mexican and Thai.
- Immense cheese selection
- Grilling on the patio
- It’s about freaking time it opened
- Prices slightly higher on many staples than Peapod, Wal-Mart, or Target
- A little hard to find
- Checkout is chaotic, even though there are plenty of people trying to help