It’s 7 a.m. on the Monday before opening day, and the chefs at Innovations Kitchen, Levy Restaurants’ sparkling Mag Mile food lab, are still discussing the “mouthfeel” of a humongous two-pound soft pretzel. They agree: Something’s not right. “Do we have any other salts?” asks Robin Rosenberg, Levy’s chef de cuisine, pulling off a hunk while it’s still warm. “Sea salt?” A fresh pretzel with sea salt goes into the oven and the guys move on to the three different mustard dips. Ron Krivosik, Levy’s VP of Culinary, wants to replace the standard yellow with beer cheese. He rushes to a fridge, and returns with a sharp, spreadable Cheddar. They dunk the new pretzel. Smiles. Enthusiastic nods of agreement. The “North Side Twist” is a walk-off home run. Two weeks later, fans at Wrigley Field will get their chance to tear into the same larger-than-life pretzel.
Rosenberg and Krivosik—along with David Burns and Olegario Soto, respectively, the executive chefs of Wrigley and U.S. Cellular Field—began this process six months before baseball season, dreaming up and tinkering with Levy’s famously oversized concessions. Last year this meant a two-foot Italian beef sandwich, transportable via a cardboard “beef-case,” and a $14 “doubleheader dog” so big it would give the legendary hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi a serious case of the meat sweats. Both were big hits. The giant corn dog experiment, alas, was not. How come? Turns out 24 inches of floppy, deep-fried batter on a stick proved way too much of a good thing.
This year, Soto spent three months perfecting his Grand Slam Meatball Sandwich, a majestic two-foot beast with 12 golf-ball-size meatballs in a crusty roll, topped by provolone, bright-red tomato sauce, and fresh Parmesan shavings. Rosenberg and Krivosik told him not to change a thing. When Rosenberg placed it on a scale, the readout said three pounds. “That’s 50 percent meat,” he bragged. It may sound obscene, but at $26, it’s meant to be split—and gaped at. Or, as Krivosik said, “If you see someone with a two-foot meatball sandwich [people will ask], ‘Where did you get that?’”
I decide to test Krivosik’s theory. As I walk down the aisle on an overcast April afternoon at the Cell, the eyes of the entire section follow my Grand Slam Meatball Sandwich. “You gonna eat that yourself?” a guy in a vintage Sox jacket cracks. I don’t laugh, because the section is crowded and the sandwich is the size of a water ski; I’m afraid I might drop an errant meatball over the balcony. After settling in without incident and devouring roughly a third of it, I share the rest with the group seated behind me. They give the sauce and the presentation high marks, but an Italian woman from Palos Heights seems genuinely hurt when her husband and daughter confess the meatballs are better than hers. A Hemingway look-alike visiting from California offers one suggestion: “They should make the carrying case out of pasta,” he says. “Then you could eat the whole thing.”
On the first Saturday of the season at Wrigley, with the crowd hanging on every pitch against the dreaded Cardinals, my gigantic $15 pretzel also commands attention. “What did they do to that poor pretzel?” a man asks just after I sit down at a table on the upper deck patio. “Is it on the juice?” Another fan declares that he could eat the whole thing if challenged; instead I offer him and his buddies a sample. They note the sea salt and declare the beer cheese a winner. But they also have some advice. “If you’re going to have a pretzel this big,” one of them says, “you should shape it like something more creative. Like a Cub [logo] or a baseball. That would be dope.”
Later, I spot Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers, the unofficial Cubs mascot, in the standing-room-only section, and ask if he wants a bite. “No way, man,” he says when I open the 12-inch pizza box housing the remains of my pretzel. “That thing’s too big.” To old-school fans like Woo Woo, such a monstrosity has no place in the Friendly Confines. I think it’s safe to say he’s in the minority.
Illustration: Jesse Hora