CHICAGO — The Chicago Architectural Tour gets a lot of glory, rightfully so, but there’s also a downtown tour of one of the city’s other staples — pizza.
Jonathan Porter grew up eating pizza all around the city and became addicted to all the various delicacies Chicago has to offer.
After a career in sales, Porter admitted he was doing it more “for the paycheck” and wanted to find something he truly loved.
“Once the economy took a downturn in 2008, I didn’t have the passion for what I was doing. I told myself at that time, if I was going to have to work the rest of my life, I wanted to make sure it was something that I truly loved,” he told WGN News.
Porter, who describes himself as a “pizza nerd,” knew how popular tours are for Chicago tourists and locals, but noticed no one was doing pizza tours. So in 2010, he bought a bus and established Chicago Pizza Tours.
He has no plans to slow down anytime soon.
“I am now 13 and a half years into it — I still feel like this is my baby and I don’t have plans to stop anytime soon,” he said.
Porter offers three tours; his original Chicago pizza tour which involves the bus, a neighborhood pizza crawl in Bucktown and the downtown pizza walk. WGN News tagged along on the pizza walk downtown.
It began at a newer spot near Navy Pier in which boaters can actually dock to pick up a pie.
Robert’s Pizza, which opened up in 2019, was born from the creative mind of Robert Garvey — who started as an amateur pizza maker baking “thousands” of pies for several years to find the perfect recipe.
Garvey, a native New Yorker, had quite the journey to Chicago before opening his restaurant, located at 465 N. McClurg Ct.
Porter will explain it more on the tour, but his journey involves selling hot dogs in front of the world-famous New York punk club CBGB’s as members of the Ramones would be passed out nearby.
By the time he got to Chicago, Garvey started a “pizza speakeasy” out of his residence. Eventually as word spread, he didn’t recognize anyone showing up and his wife told him to plan what would become Robert’s.
As far as the pizza, sourdough starter plays a big role with every single dough ball getting its own proofer.
Robert’s was a favorite among those on the tour.
It’s not just pizza history Porter is a master of, on the way to the second location, Labriola, located at 535 N. Michigan Ave., he gave the tour a Streeterville history lesson.
Labriola is brain child of Rich Labriola, a “serial entrepreneur” who grew up in Blue Island.
His background is bread and after college, Rich started the Labriola Bread Company, which was sold in 2003.
That money allowed Labriola to start a cafe in Oak Brook and in 2012 he pounced on Labriola’s “Magnificent Mile” location.
The bread man is also known for expanding a Los Angeles staple into Chicago — Stan’s Donuts.
Porter opted to order Labriola’s burrata and basil deep dish, which features a delicious carmalized crust — a direct ode to Pequod’s. The crust was more “bready” like Pequod’s and less “biscuit-like” from other known deep dish staples.
“The way the cheese is encrusted on the pan was really incredible, that’s what I like about deep dish pizza,” said Darren Dickson. “The burrata was interesting but it’s always about the way the cheese is encrusted.”
While good, Porter knows he doesn’t want to overfill his guests.
“I know you probably thought when you signed up for a Chicago pizza tour you’d get four slices of deep dish – that’s a bit much. It’s kinda like a tennis shoe kicking around in a dryer trying to digest all that,” joked Porter.
After visiting two American pizzerias, Porter wanted to show tour-goers how global pizza is by tracing it back to its homeland — Italy.
He brought the group to the popular Italian market Eataly, which opened up at 43 E. Ohio St. in a 60,000 square foot space, in 2013.
While you can get all types of Italian food and products, they have quite the setup to bake one of the original styles in the world —Margherita.
It dates back to the late 19th century in Naples and only bakes in their wood-fired oven for up to 90 seconds.
A pizza master slowed down the “slap technique” for the tour to show how they perfect the dough.
The lightness of the dough was perfect snack after eating a deep dish slice at Labriola.
The final stop on the tour featured a unique space that features shipping container architecture — Bar Cargo, located at 605 N. Wells St.
The shipping containers are a nod to when the owners, Anthony and Phil, used to pick up flour from Italy directly from shipping containers.
In 2016, they noticed Chicago was lacking options for Roman-style pizza and dove in head first.
Sticking with the method used in Rome, Bar Cargo imported a Roman electric oven — which provides flexibility for temperature control.
From Quebec, to the suburbs, to Texas, those on the tour had fun and seemed to enjoy Porter’s deep knowledge of pizza history. That’s how one couple from the Dallas-area found the tour.
“Chicago is truly one of my favorite cities and there’s one pizza place we always go to, Quartino on Ontario, and we did a pizza tour in Boston and we loved it so much we wanted to try it here to learn about the Pizza history,” said Lesly Charanza.
The Dicksons, of Barrington Hills, have been baking their own pizzas since the pandemic and said they picked up some great tips.
“My favorite part of the tour was learning all of the special details from all of the pizza masters at Eataly,” said Deborah Dickson.” Now we are going to perfect everything with the pizzas we make at home.
Not all tours feature the same pizza places. Porter works with around 12 restaurants and is looking to mix in other ones that were featured prior to COVID-19.
For more information on Chicago Pizza Tours, visit here.