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CJ Jacobson’s Cali-Influenced Spot Ēma Will Debut This Summer

The Lettuce Entertain You project will have heavy Mediterranean influences, too.

CJ Jacobson   Photo: Anjali Pinto

Two-and-a-half years after gifting Chicagoans with a California getaway in Lincoln Park (or at least a taste of coastal cuisine in a convincing beachy setting) with Summer House Santa Monica, the restaurant-opening machine Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises has announced plans for Ēma (Hyatt Place, 74 W. Illinois St., River North), another Cali-inspired oasis slated to open this summer.

Intro’s first chef-in-residence, California transplant CJ Jacobson (who has clocked time at Michelin-starred Campanile in Los Angeles), teamed up with Lettuce Entertain You’s founder Rich Melman and executive vice president Marc Jacobs to dream up the group’s latest casual dining concept.

Like Summer House Santa Monica, the space will be awash in white accents and flooded with natural light. “It will be very California, but will also feel like you’re sitting in a Mediterranean café,” Jacobson says.

Expect a menu emphasizing mezze—Mediterranean small plates meant to be passed around the table—created in a healthful California-style of cooking that utilizes the grill and rotisserie for both vegetable and meat dishes. “All the flavors work together so the small plates can intermingle,” says Jacobson, who tosses out potential examples including grilled meat skewers and caramelized rotisserie kale, plus labneh (creamy, strained yogurt) and hummus meant to be slathered on fluffy bread that’s a naan/pita hybrid.

In addition to the full-service restaurant, Ēma will sport a grab-and-go area with a “boutiquey feel,” according to Jacobson. Offerings will include rotisserie chicken, salads, salsas, and housemade frozen Greek yogurt.

The menu will evolve seasonally, and while Jacobson will cull ingredients locally, he’ll also tap California farmers during the Midwest’s lull in produce-production. “[The lack of fresh ingredients] was a rude awakening when I moved to Chicago in the middle of winter,” says the Orange County-reared chef, who now happily resides in a Ukrainian Village loft with a Ping-Pong table.

Fortunately for Jacobson, whenever he feels a pang of homesickness, all he’ll have to do is go to work.

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