West Loop: Chicago's hottest foodie 'hood

Story by Marnie Hunter, video by Channon Hodge, Robert Sevilla and Joshua Sarlo • Updated 18th August 2017

Chicago (CNN) —

Dodging a forklift is getting less and less likely in Chicago's trendy West Loop neighborhood.

The once-ubiquitous vehicles whizzing around with pallets of raw meat, vegetables and dry goods in this historic meatpacking and wholesale market district have almost completely given way to cranes, construction crews and restaurants -- lots of them.

Goat empanadas, Roman lamb ravioli, craft cocktails and expensive real estate are what's for sale now in this neighborhood west of Chicago's downtown Loop.

In the past eight or nine years, the area west of the Kennedy Expressway has seen a who's who of Chicago chefs open new spots along Randolph Street's Restaurant Row and on streets a few blocks to the north and south.

Sarah Grueneberg, the James Beard Foundation's newly minted Best Chef of the Great Lakes, fits right into this neighborhood with a very high concentration of very good eating.

"It's a neighborhood that has a lot of roots and history and is also now kind of being reborn into the new restaurant epicenter of Chicago," said Grueneberg.

National acclaim for Grueneberg's lovingly crafted pastas and inventive small plates came quickly, and diners won't be disappointed.

Behind Monteverde's bar, a pasta-making station outfitted with a mirror reflects hands hard at work on ravioli and tortelli verdi, showing the attention to detail that sets these pastas apart. Add ingredients from roasted white miso to crispy artichoke and candied lemon, and you have dishes as nuanced as they are delicious.

We spent a day with Grueneberg in the West Loop and asked her to point us toward some of the tasty neighborhood spots she frequents when she's off work.

It wouldn't be a West Loop dining tour without a stop at one of celebrity chef Stephanie Izard's restaurants.

Izard was the first woman to win "Top Chef" in 2008, and Grueneberg competed with her on "Iron Chef Gauntlet" in 2017. Izard won Iron Chef status, knocking her friend out of the running in an egg challenge. (Grueneberg was a finalist in 2012 on a different season of "Top Chef.")

Touting "bold foods with global influence," Girl & the Goat lives up to its name with a section of the menu devoted to goat -- from goat carpaccio to goat liver mousse. Preparations throughout the menu highlight Izard's skill in layering flavors, brightness and crunch.

"It's like the best complete breakfast you could ever want or have," said Grueneberg.

Izard is amazed at how the neighborhood has grown and changed. "On a Thursday or Friday or Saturday night going out onto the street, I don't feel cool enough to be here," she said.

Izard's restaurants are Randolph Street anchors, but there are many more to sample along the corridor.

Despite the influx of new businesses, there are still a few places to get a taste of the old neighborhood.

The top-selling sandwich, the Mr. G, -- a pile of Italian meats and imported provolone topped with marinated artichokes and a truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette -- is named after fourth-generation owner Jim Graziano's late father.

Graziano's sister also works in the shop and his mother sits behind an old-fashioned cashier's window, ringing customers up as their sandwich toppings are sliced to order and piled onto local D'Amato's Italian bread. Pro tip: Ask for a side of spicy giardiniera, a typical Chicago pickled vegetable condiment.

Graziano has been working on Randolph Street for 25 years, since he was a kid. He's seen the transformation of the neighborhood from market to foodie haven firsthand, and for his part, he's OK with it.

"The heart of the neighborhood has stayed with the people who have come into it, and that's the one thing I was a little anxious about," he said.

"I owe a lot of who I am as a chef now to chef Bill Kim," Grueneberg said. Kim helped Grueneberg prepare for her 2012 "Top Chef" finale by taking her to Asian markets across the city, giving her a better understanding of the kinship between noodles and pasta.

Grueneberg likes to have business meetings on Urban Belly's funky patio over savory noodle and rice bowls.

"It's really one of the most fun patios in the West Loop. You can sit out there and see really what the West Loop has become," she said.

Nowhere is the West Loop's metamorphosis more apparent than on West Fulton Market Street, the neighborhood's former meatpacking hub.

On weekdays, forklifts from the last meatpacker on the corridor, Nealey Foods, still whip around with cases of raw chicken and pork. But by the end of September, Nealey Foods expects to have moved away.

But meat will always play a huge role in the neighborhood.

The lounge requires prepaid reservations, and it would be a mistake not to get there early to watch a line of cocktail magicians wield blow-torches, fill plastic bags with oat-infused air and otherwise push the boundaries of cocktail complexity.

Along the way Grueneberg ran into fellow chefs, fans and farmers who provide some of her restaurant's seasonal ingredients -- all members of the food community that's defining today's West Loop.

The neighborhood is also in the throes of a boutique hotel boom.

Also in the works: A Nobu Hotel and a Hoxton Hotel.