Nini’s Deli – Not Your Average Mom & Pop
What does Chicago, art, Cuban-Mexican food and friendly service all have in common? If you answered Nini’s Deli, than you’d be right. Located in the beautiful Noble Square near West Town Chicago lives the most wonderful gem in the history of gems: Nini’s Deli.
Behind the counter you’ll find none other than the hardest working man in the biz – Juan-Elias Riesco aka Juany Worldwide. I have never seen this man frown and he serves up sandwiches just as big as his smile. A family shop through and through, Nini’s was opened in 2011 by his parents, but Juan has been running it for a solid three years strong.
Every time you walk into Nini’s there’s a real sense of freshness in the air. There are fresh flowers always on the table (a nod to his mother who always wanted to own a flower shop), and natural lighting and wooden rustic aesthetic. On top of that there’s Juan always waiting for you at the front counter. A smiling face to remind you that there’s still great food and more importantly great people in the world.
Nini’s primarily markets their restaurant through their profile on Instagram. And with nearly 11K followers, you could say they’re doing a great job. Between the locals, including local artists like Joey Purp and Taylor Bennett and the occasional tourists, Nini’s has a constant influx of customers. It’s a rare occasion on a beautiful summer weekend to not see a line wrapped around the corner. The beauty of Nini’s is that they’re constantly evolving while embracing their native cuisines by balancing the right amount of Cuban and Mexican flavors with a creative spin. For instance, their latest special featured a Mexican classic, elotes (street corn), with a modern take – hot Cheetos powder dusted on top. Are you kidding me? I imagine Juan has an idea board at home that just lists his favorite foods and each week he works with his staff, parents and friends to make unique and tasty combos come to life.
Their Instagram account is consistently full of new specials and food pics that will make you drool. Legit, I can’t look at their Instagram posts before I go to bed, because all I’ll want to eat is Nini’s and I won’t be satisfied until I get it! If you want to engage in self-torture, watch their Insta-stories when you’re really hungry.
I could go on and on about everything I love about Nini’s, but nobody has time for that so I’ll cut to the chase.
Nini’s is more than a restaurant, it’s an experience. One of the last true neighborhood spots that really make you feel at home. That whole Cheers, “Everybody knows your name” type of feeling. When you walk in – whether the music playing in the background is more traditional or Drake or Kanye – you feel welcomed. Maybe it’s the flowers, or the smell of Cubanos cooking in the kitchen, but most likely it’s the welcoming you feel once Juan greets you. He legitimately knows almost every person that walks through the door and it makes you feel oh so special. Whether there’s a line out of the door or you’re one of the few people in the restaurant, Juan always makes time to say hello, catch up, introduce himself to you, tell the restaurant’s story and offer you the week’s specials.
Nini’s is probably best known for their sandwiches, empanadas and probably a tie between their café con leche and hibiscus lemonade. I could literally eat one of everything and their specials and any of their desserts, but again I’m getting carried away.
My first visit to Nini’s was almost two years ago, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Juan introduced himself to my friend and I and we instantly felt at home and got even more excited for the food we were about to share.
We split a media noche with avocado, el Cubanito, chicken and beef empanada and got both the hibiscus lemonade and the café con leche to drink. Once we had finished our very filling and satisfying meal we vowed that we would come back to Nini’s as often as possible. And that’s a promise we haven’t broken. The great part about Nini’s is that yes, it has its classics that you fell in love with from the beginning available always, but the genius behind Nini’s is its ever-evolving menu. For adventurous regulars like myself, it’s a godsend, because I can have the comforts of foods I know I’ll love and the thrill of trying something new – although I can honestly say from the bottom of my heart that I have never had anything I didn’t like at Nini’s.
The media noche, add avocado. A classic. Other than a Cubano, this sandwich has to top the list of hits when it comes to Cuban cuisine. What Nini’s does with this sandwich, however, is adds their sweet guava jelly to the classic grilled turkey, melted swiss, pickles, mustard and egg and it completely transforms it. I honestly could eat anything if you added Nini’s homemade guava jelly to it. Then you add the avocado and just when you couldn’t raise the sandwich bar any higher, boom, they did. Balancing all of the ingredients – the salty turkey, the tang of the pickles and mustard and that sweet delicious guava jelly and you’ve got the perfect sandwich. I could go on about their kitchen-sink sandwich or their ropa vieja burrito (because they’re all delicious and I could), but I won’t. And when they bring back their famous steak sandwich it’s a full-fledged event.
Let’s just take a second to talk about Nini’s empanadas. My original favorite was the chicken, with its pulled chicken and cheese filling it goes absolutely perfectly with their homemade salsita verde. Honest to god this homemade salsa gives me life. But hold up. Remember me mentioning a rotating menu? A recent add on (not sure how long it will last people!) is their goat cheese and guava empanada. Also remember me saying I could and will eat everything their homemade guava touches? This is no exception. Similar to my favorite (potential forever off the menu) flavor of ice cream at Jeni’s, goat cheese and red cherries, the empanada has the perfect way of balancing the two flavors with its crispy crunchiness. Not only does the empanada have guava in the filling, you get a side of guava jelly, because I’m telling you all there’s not enough Nini’s homemade guava jelly on this earth!
Wash down whatever delicious delicacy you just had with their signature hibiscus lemonade or treat yourself to a sweet café con leche. Both are delicious in their own rights, the hibiscus lemonade is perfect to cool off on a hot summer day, with the strong hibiscus flavor marrying the tart lemonade. The café con leche is a classic with espresso, sugar, milk topped off with whipped cream and cinnamon if you please.
Nini’s is also transforming the dessert game, when they introduced paletas to the menu not too long ago. Paletas are a Mexican popsicle generally made with fresh fruit, and at Nini’s they have a strawberry kiwi combo as well as a horchata flavor. I’ve yet to try these, but they’re next on my list. Another great dessert is their besitos de Cuba which is like dessert nachos with crispy fresh-fried tortilla chips, dusted with powdered sugar and of course my favorite, guava jelly.
The beauty of Nini’s is no matter what you order you’re getting quality food. You’ll always feel comfortable there, you’ll eat delicious food, have a great dining experience and you’ll leave feeling full and happy with life once again. I love Nini’s and I will stand by that until the day I die. Sincerely try this place out if you’ve never been and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about it. Thanks Nini’s for giving us such a gift. Truly, come for the food, stay for the company and keep coming back to see what new creations Juan has come up with.
All photos come from @ninisdeli Follow them on Instagram!