GT Prime steakhouse in Chicago bucks tradition with a focus on small portions and shared plates.
Whatever you do, don’t mess with tradition.
That’s a culinary mantra that’s particularly poignant in a historically foodie city like Chicago, which is credited with revolutionizing America’s meatpacking industry as early as 1865 (when Gustavus Swift developed a way to ship fresh beef in ice-cooled railroad cars—and eventually mechanically refrigerated cars—across the country).
While most of the meatpacking business had migrated elsewhere by the 1960s, the reputation of Chicago’s American fine dining steakhouses had already been cemented. Visitors and locals alike sought out their refined white tablecloths, cozy wooden accents and impeccably hospitable service. Businessmen, politicians and even mobsters were all attracted to the flavorful, oversized cuts of beef, cooked to perfection by a professional chef.
Today, Chicago boasts more than 40 steakhouses in its downtown area alone, with its oldest venue— local favorite Gene & Georgetti— dating back to 1941.
“I love Chicago,” says Chef Giuseppe Tentori, who left his hometown of Lodi, Italy, 25 years ago to live in the Second City. Since then, he has earned a reputation as one of the country’s great chefs, having trained for nearly 10 years under the infamous and late Chef Charlie Trotter (a Chicago native). In 2007, Tentori joined the acclaimed Boka Restaurant Group and was named one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2008. In 2011, he co-opened GT Fish & Oyster, which was named Best New Restaurant of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.
All of his hard work was put to the test in August 2016, when he completed his vision with the opening of GT Prime steakhouse, located just a few blocks from its seafood-centric counterpart.
But it’s also just blocks away from many of the city’s most prominent steakhouses, including the famed Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, which opened in 1989 and is the only steakhouse in the country to boast its own USDA certification (USDA Gibsons Prime Angus Beef). The simply named Chicago Chop House opened in 1986. There’s also spots for sports lovers (Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and Ditka’s Restaurant). In Chicago, even the chains hold their own, with powerhouses like Ruth’s Chris and the original location of Morton’s The Steakhouse.
These tried-and-true establishments have earned a fierce following in the city with big shoulders, and it has locals begging the question: Does Chicago really need another steakhouse?
“That’s what everyone is asking,” Tentori says. “But it’s not that we need another steakhouse in Chicago. It’s that there can always be a better steakhouse. And here, we want to present something different.” That’s an understatement when you consider the executive chef ‘s menu, which turns the very concept of an American steakhouse on its head.
Say goodbye to the 64-ounce porterhouse, 16-ounce New York strip steak and 24-ounce prime rib. In fact, Tentori’s weight limits don’t even break double digits. Instead, customers have the choice of either 4 or 8 ounces of six different kind of meats: beef tenderloin ($19/$38), Wagyu sirloin ($18/$36), skirt steak ($14/$28), rib eye ($18/$36), venison loin ($26/$52) and bison tenderloin ($28/$56). All meat is served medium rare unless otherwise requested.
Now here’s part that die-hard steak lovers may call controversial, or even blasphemous: all meat is served pre-sliced and ready for sharing. And for this break with tradition, Tentori is unapologetic.
“We want to be a lighter version of an American steakhouse,” he says. “It’s a version for people who want to share more items on the table, and that’s the new way of eating. This way, you can try 10 different things in one night.”
Even the wine menu was created to encourage sampling, with a unique 3-ounce tasting option offered alongside the typical 6-ounce glass and bottle prices. “So you’re not stuck with one meat or with one kind of wine,” Tentori says. “The typical diner drinks 12 ounces. But now you can have like four glasses of different types of wine and try them with different cuts of meat.”
These days, he says, consumers are eating smarter, and they don’t want to feel stuffed after leaving a steakhouse. While portion sizes are downsizing, however, diners still want an adventurous taste experience. Tentori’s shared plates cover both demands, and the concept was proven with the success of GT Fish & Oyster. Now he hopes to bring that same premise to meat. “I don’t know any other steakhouses that are doing it this way, so I think it’s definitely something that’s new on the scene,” he says.
Focusing on smaller cuts of meat also gives Tentori a huge advantage when it comes to purchasing product. “Everybody buys the prime cuts, but we are looking for smaller or different cuts that people don’t use that much.” That results in lower price points on the menu, which he hopes will attract more customers. “Now you don’t have to spend $150 or $160 a head on a steakhouse,” he says. “Our prices are very reasonable— you can get Wagyu beef for $18. With a vegetable and a wine, you can leave the restaurant spending like $65.” He’s also hoping that the new shared plates approach will attract more women customers who sometimes shy away from steakhouses.
The restaurant design is also meant to be more welcoming than the typical steakhouse scene. Yes, there’s a dramatic (reclaimed) wood theme, but it’s accented with cozier materials, such as fur-lined bar stools, heavy brass lighting fixtures and custom Renaissance-like still life paintings. Most original, though, is the open kitchen that aligns with the bar so diners can see the wood-burning grill.
While he may be pioneering a new kind of American steakhouse, Tentori remains a traditionalist when it comes to condiments, which he says only mask the flavor of meat. Instead, diners are given a choice of three salts: Fleur salt from France, pink salt from New Zealand and hibiscus salt from Australia. “One is very floral, one is classic mineral and the other one is a little lighter,” he says. “So as a guest, you have to figure out which one you like the best and try this meat with that salt.” However, for those who insist, he does offer his own version of the well-known A1 Steak Sauce, which he calls A2.
The menu itself is divided into three sections: cold, hot and meat. The latter includes branzino, King crab and scallops. There’s also The Carnivore, a sampler platter of 4-ounce cuts of tenderloin, ribeye, venison and Wagyu NY strip.
But it’s the hot and cold sections where Tentori really has his fun. Cold specialties include Beef Carpaccio that’s upgraded with sliced foie gras ($15) and Blue crab salad served in an avocado dome ($20). Hot creations include a homemade Bone Marrow custard with herb salad and sourdough ($13); Veal Cheek with lemon grits, escarole and miso ($19); and the GT Mac & Cheese with orecciette pasta, pork belly crouton and broccoli ($12). “When you open a restaurant, you cannot just cook food that people can make at home. You have to tweak it, you have to make it a bit more fun,” he says. “But you don’t want to go crazy, because it’s still a steakhouse.”
As for his beloved Windy City, Tentori has big shoes to fill now that he has entered into its famed steakhouse lineup. He has a brave and ambitious concept, but only time will tell if locals and tourists will take to it. “We’re still trying to figure out what kind of footprint we want to leave on Chicago, but we just want people to understand that this is a different version of a steakhouse,” he says. “And the goal is to just make sure that we keep everyone happy who walks through the door.”