A few years back, I dined at Sabatino’s, the venerable Italian spot on West Irving Park Road. I don’t specifically recall what I ate (though I remember it being solid and the experience, as always, being pretty outstanding in a time warp sort of way), but I do recall this: I posted a photo of the restaurant to social media, and my mother (who rarely uses social media) called me almost immediately.
“Where was that picture taken?” she asked, somewhat frantically.
“Um… Sabatino’s? It’s this Italian place on the northwest…” I started to respond.
“I know where it is,” my mom exclaimed. “I went there with my parents when I was young!”
Especially if you’re Italian and with family in Chicago, you’ve probably have had this same conversation. She would have visited Sabatino’s when it was relatively new, but it made an impression on her that lasted to this day. Sadly, we’re approaching the last time when anyone will have that conversation, at least in the present tense; the restaurant announced on social media yesterday that it’s closing in December.
Sabatino’s is an icon; a spot that I’m willing to bet almost everyone on the north side has driven past, looked at the lit-up sign and thought either “we need to go back there” or “why haven’t I been there?” It’s a restaurant with an epic, special occasion feel, which is pretty much gone now in the days where all dining is casual dining. It’s housed in the sort of stand-alone large building (with a parking lot!) not found much inside the city limits, and it is a wonderful time capsule of late 1970s Chicago charm.
There’s wood, brick, fake vines, Christmas lights, a piano, a violinist, and a gigantic menu with every single American-Italian classic you can think of and, of course, a full page of enormous pasta dishes. I always ordered some dishes that weren’t Italian at all, like steak Diane or bananas Foster, because they were flambéed at the table, which practically no other restaurant in the city still does, probably because it’s such a liability risk. It’s been run by the same family since the late 1970s, and much of the staff has been there for decades. It’s the kind of place where families have favorite servers, and servers, I suspect, have some favorite families.
This has been a particularly bad year for closures in the Chicago restaurant scene, but this one cuts deep. By the virtue of simple attrition, there aren’t many places like this one left in operation, but it’s more than that – there aren’t many places that haven’t changed in so long, yet still make respectable food and are still full almost every night. Sabatino’s isn’t just running on nostalgia, like so many older joints; it’s got that special something that’s impossible to recreate or replicate.
The Tribune reports that the restaurant isn’t closing due to lack of business, which isn’t hard for me to believe, but that the owners want to retire and have sold the space to a developer. And it’s hard to blame them, since they’ve been in the restaurant business for a very long time doing incredible work and, honestly, deserve to do whatever the heck they want at this point. But I definitely shed an actual tear knowing that it wouldn’t be possible for a third generation of my family to feast on shrimp de jonghe and baked Alaska and call me to brag about this awesome place they found on West Irving Park Road.
Sabatino’s last day is December 23.