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The Best, From the Best: Best of Chicago 2015

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Cover: Tristan Young

Cover: Tristan Young

It’s just a coincidence that this is Best of Chicago number 23, a number beloved in Chicago for its presence on a certain legend’s basketball jersey back in the day. But we kind of think of this issue as the Michael Jordan of Chicago journalism, humble as we are. But like His Airness, we’re not content to coast on our past accomplishments; instead we’re always looking to change our game in the interest of keeping it fresh for ourselves and our fans alike.

So careful students of the Best of Chicago will notice some big changes this year. We’ll let you discover what’s been discontinued and let us know if you miss it, because we’re too excited to discuss what’s new.

Over the course of each year, we devote enormous amounts of time and resources to chronicling the cultural leadership of Chicago, publishing seven distinct “Leaders of Chicago Culture” editions—Lit 50, Music 45, Players 50, Art 50, Design 50, Film 50 and the Big Heat 50. Given that unique relationship, we thought that it’d be interesting to hear from them—several hundred folks each year who determine what we see, hear and experience in Chicago—about some of the things that they love about our city. And interesting it is: fifty-eight players in our cultural lives—some household names, some more behind the scenes—offered up a wide range of passions and curiosities for this issue. In those cases, we’ve attached their name to their entry, as opposed to the group byline throughout the edition otherwise.

Ivan Brunetti’s been featured in our Lit 50, but he did not write for this issue. Instead he marshaled his entire illustration class at Columbia College to devote themselves to creating the artwork. More than a dozen students poured their talents into making work each for us. I visited a class and critiqued their work in process, and the best of what ultimately resulted is featured on our cover and on each of the section’s splash pages.

We didn’t really plan it this way, but by matching up the current cultural leadership of Chicago with some of the city’s artistic future, we touched on the dynamic at the core of Newcity. Add in almost two hundred additional entries by some of the city’s finest journalists, and you’ve got something special. At least we think we did. Perhaps you’ll agree.

—Brian Hieggelke, editor and publisher

Best of Chicago was written by Nick Cecchi, Zach Freeman, Isa Giallorenzo, Amber Gibson, Rae Gray, David Hammond, Ray Pride, Elliot Reichert, Robert Rodi, Bill Savage, Ben Schulman, John Wawrzaszek, David Witter and Michael Workman

With additional contributions by Alberto Aguilar, J.W. Basilo, Amy Danzer, Shay DeGrandis, Allison Glenn, John Greenfield, Jack Helbig, Sharon Hoyer, Lauren Knight, Hannah Lorenz, Raf Miaskowski, Cary Nathenson, Kathleen Rooney, Noel Schecter, Kim Steele

Leaders of Chicago Culture contributors are Joshua Abrams, Alberto Aguilar, J.W. Basilo, Jeffrey Brown, David Dastmalchian, Glenn Edgerton, Lori Felker, Bruce Finkelman, April Francis, Anthony Freud, Dianna Frid, Allison Glenn, Melissa Graham, Rae Gray, Sonat Birnecker Hart, Rhona Hoffman, Jac Jemc, Christopher Jobson, Christopher Johnson, Ayako Kato, Devin Kirk, Kim Knoll, Tom Leavens, Riva Lehrer, Ruth Leitman, Kelly Leonard, Greg Lunceford, David Manilow, Bonnie McDonald, John McNaughton, Stephen Melamed, Janine Mileaf, Rob Miller, Michele Morano, Ian Morris, Eugene Sun Park, Nicholas Photinos, Jason Pickelman, Ina Pinkney, Megha Ralapati, Stacy Ratner, Kathleen Rooney, Renee Rosen, Gordon Quinn, Chandra Ram, Roche Schulfer, Kimberly Senior, Jonathan Solomon, Megan Stielstra, Michael Tiknis, Dave Tolchinsky, Scott Turow, Nan Warshaw, Tom Weinberg, Irvine Welsh, Garry Wills, Tanner Woodford


Cover: Tristan Young

City Life: Owen LaMay

Culture & Nightlife: Zelda Galewsky

Food & Drink: Jessica Galbraith

Goods & Services: Kristine Prada

Best of Chicago 2015

Best gift shop in West Town

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RR#1 Chicago

Very high sense and not too expensive, gift shop RR#1 Chicago is the spot for me in the past ten years since I moved to Chicago. For any age range and gender, they have a wonderful selection. Plus, they wrap your gift so beautifully, so you don’t have to hustle around for wrapping supplies—it’s ready to go. The dimmed light and wooden shelves with beautiful and natural color goods make you feel like just staying there to look around longer. Inspiration…

814 N. Ashland, 312.421.9079,

—Ayako Kato, dancer/choreographer (Players)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best music school

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The Old Town School of Folk Music

Founded in 1957 by a Chicago blues giant, a folk singer and a socialist baritone turned children’s TV personality, the Old Town School of Folk Music favors an ethos of participation, community and inclusion. Students range demographically from infants in Wiggleworms classes to members of the Beatles Ensemble who are old enough remember when the songs they knit their graying brows to cover first topped the charts.

4544 North Lincoln, 773.728.6000,

—Ian Morris, co-founder and editor, Fifth Star Press (Lit 50)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best reimagined nachos

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Old Fifth’s Brazilian Nachos

At a bar known for its gourmet pizza and whiskey, it’s easy to overlook other sections of the menu like “snacks” and “bar bites.” The latter is certainly an understatement for their Brazilian Nachos—akin to a meal for four—but it’s worth ordering, because even just a bite feels like making love. Triangular tortilla chips topped with slow-roasted pork, aged white cheddar, Chihuahua cheese and Brazilian black beans, and drizzled with chipotle-lime and avocado puree, these nachos resemble something you’d find in the Art Institute’s Modern Wing. But this is art you can eat!

1027 W. Madison, 312.374.1672,

—Rae Gray, actor (Players)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best example of the failing of local television

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TV/media coverage of regular and genuine Chicago people, streets, communities and neighborhoods

White people are thirty-two percent of Chicago’s population (and just over half of all Chicagoland) but the ratio of people seen on TV is nowhere near those numbers. On Channels 2-5-7-9-32,  “local news” is overwhelmingly about crime and disaster, frequently African American. The stations’ rationale is to broadcast what sells commercials to consumers who have money. Similarly, on public TV, the emphasis is on programs that can maximize contributions. Financial considerations are the first priority, rather than responsibility to the local people they are required to by the FCC to “serve in the public interest, convenience and necessity.” I’ve been watching TV since it started and producing programs for decades, but now Chicagoans under forty almost never watch local TV. It’s mostly irrelevant to them. Local arts, performance, neighborhood personalities and works by local filmmakers are practically invisible.

In this era of corporate domination of all TV, on all channels, genuinely local is the exception, not the rule. It’s time to reevaluate priorities of local programing and commit resources to new ways to use the airwaves for genuine benefit of all the public. We all need to see our own worlds on TV.

—Tom Weinberg, President and founder, Media Burn Archive (Film 50)

Best of Chicago 2015


Best place to keep up with crime and mayhem

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DNAInfo Chicago

DNAInfo Chicago, an online news site covering Chicago, includes great local and neighborhood stories that harken back to the old neighborhood newspapers of yore. I especially appreciate stories about my old hood, Roseland and Pullman, which just aren’t covered by the mainstream media unless someone gets shot there. I especially like their “Crime and Mayhem” section which I read religiously every day.

—John McNaughton, filmmaker (Film 50)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best classic nachos

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Uncle Julio’s Nachos

As a kid, I looked forward to Uncle Julio’s because, if I asked politely, the waiter would bring a ball of tortilla dough for me to play with at the table; now, it’s all about the nachos: flat, circular corn tortilla chips topped individually with beans and cheese, and served open-faced so there’s no uneven distribution and no messy stacking. Top it off with Uncle Julio’s signature drink, The Swirl (frozen margarita layered with sangria), and a warm, festive atmosphere (children huddled around the tortilla machine, watching flattened dough bubble with heat), and you’ve got yourself a night of flavorful joviality.

855 W. North, 312.266.4222,

—Rae Gray, actor (Players)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best iconic landmark you could buy

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Tribune Tower

With the Tribune Tower up for sale, it’s time to reflect on this iconic landmark. In 1922 Colonel McCormick, the Tribune publisher, held an architectural competition for the construction of the paper’s new headquarters. The winners of the $50,000 prize, Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, completed the project in 1925 and today their spires, grotesques and gothic details loom thirty-six stories over Michigan Avenue. The lower exterior is adorned with 149 stones; remnants from places like the Great Wall of China, Westminster Abbey and the Union Stock Yards. The Hall of Inscriptions inside is equally impressive. Hopefully whoever buys The Tribune Tower will have the good sense not to rename it.  

—Renee Rosen, author (Lit 50)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best place to get orthopedic shoes

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Waxberg’s Walk Shoppe

There are places in a city that change how well your life will go. For me, the indispensable location is Waxberg’s shoes. It was on Wabash for many decades, in one of those buildings with floor after floor of tiny, mysterious shops—furriers, jewelers and beauty shops whose clientele drift inside on the winds of word-of-mouth. I began to use Waxberg’s experts more than thirty-five years ago, soon after I moved to the city (word of mouth from a doctor, most likely).

The walls were hung with black-and-white photos of the first Mr. Waxberg, Isaac, a Jewish immigrant from Germany, posing with the tools of his trade—knives, grinders, slabs of a dozen kinds of leather. Waxberg’s sold and built shoes, but most importantly, did orthopedic work for those who needed shoes suited to the way they walked. Mine have been built and rebuilt hundreds of times over the years. Each pair has been more customized, until now they’re knee-high black boots with peculiar, swooping soles that look impossible even to stand up in, much less do the two-mile runs I put them through every morning. These days Waxberg’s is in Niles, bracketed in a strip mall between a Dairy Queen and a Panera. It’s been owned and run for years by Isaac’s son, Ron. In the beginning, Ron handled my shoes, but since then, I’ve worked with many others, including Ed, Jay, George, Chuck and, now, Ed #2. Each one has been kind and patient and listened to the idiosyncrasies of my gait. Without them, I don’t think I would be walking at all. Everything I do depends on how well I move around. So this is a thank you to the center of my daily world.

7013 W. Dempster, Niles, 847.965.3338,

—Riva Lehrer, artist (Art 50)

Best of Chicago 2015

Best overall deal

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El Milagro Tortillas

These tortillas have been around Chicago since I could remember. We used to go to the El Milagro tortilleria to pick up a box for our family-owned grocery store. Not only are they the best tortilla in Chicago but the best overall bargain: you can buy them for as little as thirty-three cents a dozen. When relatives move away from Chicago to other states, the thing they most consistently ask for is El Milagro tortillas. Even when they move to the Southwest (which is closer to Mexico), they complain that they can’?t find a tortilla that compares. This is one of those things that is taken for granted and is never fully appreciated until one no longer has direct access to them. If you live in Chicago, these are always in abundance at any grocery store. At some stores they are delivered daily and you can get them while they are still warm. Make sure to reheat them on a hot comal or an iron griddle and use liberally as your daily bread.

3050 W. 26th, 773.579.6120; 1927 S. Blue Island, 312.421.7443,

—Alberto Aguilar, artist (Art 50)

Best of Chicago 2015