Chicago is the epicenter of eating out in the Midwest, but despite the abundance of international options, it’s always been hard to find favorite dishes from other Midwestern states on menus around the city.
Chris Cunningham is out to change that. The chef, who was raised in the Quad Cities region, attended culinary school in Chicago before working for a few local restaurant groups, including Gibsons. In November, he opened JT's Genuine Sandwich Shop in Irving Park, where he serves up Midwestern favorites with a cheffy touch.
The breaded pork tenderloin, a staple in both Iowa and Indiana, is one of the country's most polarizing sandwiches: It’s frequently served in comically large portions, in which the bun covers a fraction of the tenderloin. JT's version is much more manageable, featuring fresh Iowa pork loin that’s hand-trimmed and pounded out fresh before being bathed in buttermilk brine. Then, it's breaded and fried to order.
Another Midwest favorite you'll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere in the city is a classic loose meat sandwich. (You know the one Roseanne Conner used to sling at the fictional Lanford Lunch Box?) Loose meat sandwiches — or taverns, as they're called in some parts — are basically a sloppy joe minus the slop. It's similar to a steamed hamburger, but the beef is served loose.
Cunningham also serves regional dishes from elsewhere in the country. Sample a Philly-style roast pork sandwich with grilled rapini and provolone cheese, or JT’s chili, a classic Midwestern blend with beans that’s seasoned more like a Texas red. He also offers American classics, like the fried chicken sandwich, which stands out from the many others around town since the fried thigh also begins with a buttermilk brine.
The space, which was once a dim old pizza parlor, has been transformed into a bright and airy spot. It’s also a family affair — JT's name comes from the first letter of Cunningham's kids' names, Johnny and Tyler — and the chef honors his wife’s Detroit roots with a Coney dog. He makes his own Coney sauce but gives it a Chicago touch: The hot dogs he uses are from Vienna Beef.
JT's Genuine Sandwich Shop is located at 3970 N. Elston Ave., Irving Park.