Meyerâ€™s Delicatessen Re-opens Under New Ownership
For thousands of German families in the Chicago area, the closing of Meyer's Delicatessen in Lincoln Square made it seem as though the Grinch had stollen Christmas.
GRINCH NARRATOR: Then he slunk to the icebox. He took the Whos' feast. He took the Who pudding! He took the roast beast! He cleaned out that icebox as quick as a flash. Why, that Grinch even took their last can of Who hash.
It's almost unimaginable for Germans to celebrate Christmas without certain ritual foods, and Meyer's was one of the last surviving old-world delicatessens that carried them. The spicy cookies called lebkuchen. The herring salad. All that liverwurst.
But this year, Advent season brought an Annuciation:
FROM HANDEL'S MESSIAH: And the angel said unto them, fear not: For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, Which shall be to all people.
After a year and a half of construction, the old space at 4750 North Lincoln Avenue was re-opening. So was Delicatessen Meyer returning unto us?
DEREK LUSZCZ: The official name is Gene's Sausage Shop at Delicatessen Meyer. Delicatessen Meyer was a very well known delicatessen, and we wanted to keep that as part of our name, in order to keep some of the past history of this locationâ€”not only for the German clientele, but for everyone involved.
That's Derek Luszcz. The Gene he refers to is his father Gene Luszcz, an immigrant from Poland who has owned Gene's Sausage Shop on Belmont Avenue for 37 years along with his wife Alice. They make 40 different kinds of sausage and ham on the premises and import specialty items for a largely Eastern European clientele. It's possible that Derek and his sister Yolanda have the business in their genes, so to speak. But as their dad points out, they were also raised in it.
GENE LUSZCZ: They been raised with this business since they were like this. See this job over here, like he's doing, he's getting paid for? She was six years old, five years old, and was cutting breads and putting out stock. Or no money for ice cream!
Derek got an engineering degree and spent seven years designing exhibits for the Shedd Aquarium. Yolanda built a successful advertising and marketing career. Still, opening a new, Next-Generation Gene's in the old Meyer's location seemed like an irresistible opportunity.
As Yolanda says, their intention was never so much to re-create the original Meyer's as it was to honor the culinary tradition that gave birth to it in the first place.
YOLANDA LUSZCZ: And that's a very European style of shopping. Typically, people would shop in small quantities and get fresh foods on a daily basis, versus stocking up Cosco-style. We're more focused on high volume and fresh products, versus being a specialty store that someone just comes to visit you on the holidays.
The new store features two stories of glamorous retail space. The shelves are piled high with international specialty products: jars of mustards and pickles and jams, tins of fish, a whole wall of wines and spirits, and a rotating selection of more than 400 kinds of foreign and domestic beers. A big, bright meat counter is stocked fresh daily with cuts the butchers break down in-house. A sausage-stuffer and two custom smokehouses in the basement let them to turn every last scrap into something delicious. Derek learned old-style European butchering from his father Gene, and there's no doubt about the Luszcz family's affection for cattle.
DEREK: [MOOOOOO] We have a small produce section. [MOOOOOO] That's part of our misting system for our produce. So when the mist comes on, the cow moos.
Since local sourcing is part of that European tradition, Yolanda's been cultivating local producers. A Wisconsin farmer sells them 10-pound slabs of fresh butter that they portion out to customers by hand. And a downstate Illinois farmer sells them cream and milk.
YOLANDA: It's pasteurized, but not homogeonized. And honestly, I tried it, and it's like drinking the milk straight out of the cow.
Traces of the old Meyer's are still there, incorporated into the décor. The exposed brick walls feature 275 pallets of old brick from the original store that were cleaned and recycled. And the original neon Meyer's sign beams down on the retail floor from above the grand staircase.
And a pair of guardian angels watches over the new store, as well. Klaus and Renate Koetke, who owned Delicatessen Meyer for 15 years after taking it over from Klaus's parents, have been advising the new owners.
RENATE KOETKE: We were shopping on Lincoln Avenue and we saw someone in here, and we introduced ourselves.
KLAUS KOETKE: Derek and Gene were tearing out the old counters, and he said, once you get it up and running, could we ask you questions about what you carried and who you used.
RENATE: Because we would like to see the European tradition back in this area. And a lot of customers were disappointed that Delicatessen Meyer was closed.
As Christmas approaches, those old customers are already finding their way back, like Uta Dubravik, who has made the 90-mile trip in from the Kankakee area twice already since the store opened in mid-November.
UTA DUBRAVIK: I'm really happy that they have a new store here. I really missed Meyers. I just bought liver sausage and Cabanossi. That sounds Polish, but we eat it too in Germany. Two weeks ago I came here and bought vanilla sugar and different things which I use for my Christmas baking.
So, sorry about that, Grinch. Maybe you can't ruin Christmas just by stealing the feast. But bringing it back sure makes everyone feel a lot more like rejoicing.
“WELCOME CHRISTMAS” SONG FROM 1966 CARTOON “HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS”
Live accordian music heard throughout performed by Heather Riordan.