Last year, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans became a Class A-Minor League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, and with that affiliation, it brought the idea of capturing Chicago food in a market several states away.
Now Chicago is known for many things, including its architecture, its history, its politics and, of course, its food. So just how was a minor league team going to pull off bringing a major city’s fare to an area known for seafood and steakhouses?
The Pelicans named its concession area Clark and Addison Grille, signifying the intersecting streets of Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play in Chicago.
Brad Leininger, director of food and beverage for the Pelicans, began with the Pelicans in 2010, which is just about the same time the team left its third party food vendor and brought its food in-house. At the time, the Pelicans were affiliated with the Texas Rangers.
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“When we decided to do the Wrigley-themed menu... and as we got the menu items, we started tasting them and looking to see how we could make them as authentic to Chicago as we could,” Leininger said. “I think we get pretty darn close. We’re not exactly there, but I think people who come from Chicago are happy with it.”
Being from Chicago and having owned a bar and grill for several years south of the city, I decided to give their food a Chicago authenticity test. There are a few staple items — including florescent green relish, celery salt, poppy seed buns, giardiniera, and deep dish pizza — that every “Chicago” menu needs, and the Pelicans deliver on their authentic taste.
Italian beef with giardiniera peppers
Sure you’ve likely heard of an Italian beef sandwich, but many are probably questioning what that second word is. Giardiniera is a medley of pickled vegetables, usually green and red bell peppers, onions, jalepenos, and celery, in an oil or vinegar. Similar jarred giadiniera is found in local grocery stores, but usually they include cauliflower and are in bigger chunks. Not this. This medley is smaller and perfect for beef, sausages, pizza and more.
The Pelicans bring that taste to the ballpark. But a beef sandwich is more than just finding the giardiniera to put on top of it. Leininger said his crew order its beef from Vienna — a huge Chicago name for beef, sausages and hot dogs — which means it comes with their au jus. The quality of the meat paired with the au jus from the same company shows it has years to perfect the combination, which is also sold online.
“A lot of people are surprised at the Italian beef and how we’ve made it so close,” Leininger said. “We’ve made some tweaks with the au jus, whether you pour it on top or put it on the side with a cup.”
But having the right tender meat, warm au jus and cripsy giardiniera topping still doesn’t create the perfect Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich. The bread plays an important role, as well.
Companies like Gonnella and S. Rosen’s have built empires in the Windy City by simply baking bread. The bread used at TicketReturn.com Field is an amoroso bun as opposed to the traditional French bread, but that does not sway the taste too far from one you’d order in Chicago.
The bun has to be firm enough to hold the beef as well as a good dip of au jus. The Pelicans’ staff nailed this sandwich with a good, hearty portion of meat and an option to have the cook dip the bread or the customer to do it themselves.
Deep Dish Pizza burger
Chicago is very well known for its deep dish-style pizza. The difference between deep dish and regular pizza, outside of the pizza’s depth, is the cheese is traditionally placed on the bottom with the sauce on top.
“Something that a chef from U.S. Foods came up with was a deep-dish pizza burger,” Leininger said. “We wanted to do some kind of Chicago pizza, but we’re partnered with Papa Johns. So we went to them and said ‘Hey is there anything you have?’ and they said, ‘No.’ Then we asked, ‘Would you mind if we went out and about to see if there was something we could do,’ which we really couldn’t find anything per se.”
That’s when the chef from U.S. Foods took two six-inch deep dish pepperoni pizzas and put a burger between them.
“So, it’s not really probably found in Chicago, but we think it’s probably a Chicago-type thing.”
The sandwich is actually very good. The crust on the 6-inch pizza resembles that of Home Run Inn pizza or Chesdan’s pizza on the city’s southside. The burger can be dressed any way the customer likes it.
Leininger said the sandwich was a huge hit last year, and once someone ordered the deep-dish pizza burger, it didn’t take long for others to follow. And for good reason, but it has great taste. Beware: The sandwich is very filling.
Chicago-style hot dog
Hot dogs are a big part of baseball and a big part of the Windy City. The hot dogs need to be all beef, which these are, and then the focus shifts to what is put on them. The Pelicans really aced this one, with florescent green relish, mustard, half-sliced tomatoees, pickles, sport peppers and a drizzle of celery salt on a poppy-seed bun. Notice there is no ketchup on this dog? It’s a Chicago sin to ask for ketchup on a hot dog.
And hot dog stands, not only carts, but actual restaurants, have made a killing for decades selling hot dogs just like this, with some variation. (Still no ketchup.)
The Pelicans get their poppy seed buns, and non-seeded buns, from Benjamin’s Bakery & Cafe in Surfside Beach. The hot dogs are good — very good. The buns are a little big for the dog, but it’s not a taste killer. The condiments create a taste of home for those of us who love Chicago food. The Pelicans brought their ‘A’ game when they made sure to use a poppy seed bun and florescent green relish.
The Double Play (Or a Combo, if you’re from Chicago)
The Pelicans are excited to provide a sandwich that includes an Italian sausage with Italian beef and they’re calling it a double play. The same sandwich offered in Chicago is also known as a combo.
The sandwich still offers au jus sauce and giardiniera, which adds great taste to this one too. The Italian sausage on this sandwich is a little mismatched with the beef. Because the two taste different, it makes the marriage of the two tastes a bit more challenging. Also, the sausage comes with a little stronger casing around the actual meat, which impacts the overall enjoyment of this sandwich. Outside of the Pelicans changing the sausage to match the beef, personally, I likely won’t order the double play again.
The Pelicans also offer bratwursts and polish sausage, which are also Chicago favorites. But don’t think the organization has abandoned their menu altogether. In fact, that’s far from the truth.
“People who come year-in and year-out, they can pretty much get the staples they’ve had in the past,” Leininger said. “And then every year, we try to add something new.”
He said the reaction to the new ballpark food last year was, “all positive,” and he looks forward to hearing more about how fans enjoy their Chicago-inspired menu items.
“Come hungry when you come to the ballpark,” Leininger said.
The Pelicans open their season at 7:05 p.m. Thursday against the Frederick Keys.