Heading to Wheeling for
a meal is no longer reserved for special occasions at Le Francais.
When Jean Banchet built it, they came. It was 1973, and Banchet quickly rose to become one of the best French chefs in America. His restaurant, Le Francais, was the top dining destination in the Chicago area. And while it hasn’t retained that status since Banchet retired in 2001, there’s now a new reason to return to Wheeling.
Launching their restaurant group Cenitare, Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand (the team behind TRU, for those more familiar with char dogs than foie gras) recently opened Osteria di Tramonto in the brand-spanking-new, 400-room Westin Hotel. It’s by far the tallest building within miles, and is less than a mile from Chicago Executive Airport, the same small-jet airport celebrities and gajillionaires used to get to Le Francais in its heyday. Tramonto and Gand may not have created a restaurant worthy of gassing up the jet, but they’ve definitely given Westin a leg up for anyone spending the night in Wheeling.
The concept is rustic Italian. The room is giant, loud-as-hell, flanked by a TV-outfitted bar that could be “Hotel Bar Anywhere USA” and is designed like an upscale take on Romano’s Macaroni Grill. But, the food is great and the service is pro. And, similar to chain restaurants, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that if anything goes wrong, an empowered manager with the suaveness to soothe and the code to comp will swoop in and save the day.
Luckily, no soothing or comping is needed. The only challenging part of the evening is narrowing down picks from the overwhelming menu and wine list. Wine director Belinda Chang has put together endless options: quartinos (quarter-liter carafes), mezze (half) liters and bottles and a quartet of four-ounce pours for either $16 or $40 (wine snobs will definitely want to go for the pricier tasting; the less expensive one isn’t so hot).
There’s a small menu on the table listing salumi and antipasti—don’t miss the peppery house-made copa paired with persimmon or the imported bresaola and finnochiona. The main menu is jam-packed. Of the crudo, the house-smoked salmon with cracked coriander and radish is stellar. A baked pecorino custard topped with tomato sauce is the deliciously gluttonous sleeper hit of the appetizers. House-made ravioli pockets are butter-soft packages of cheesy decadence, and the freshly made cavatelli is perfect, tossed with crumbly lamb sausage, softened rapini and roasted garlic (a similar combo can be had on a tasty, cheesy, hand-tossed pizza).
When it comes to entrees, both the braised bone-in pork shoulder and the balsamic-marinated skirt steak are flavorful, but they could each use a bit of pan juices alongside. The monkfish, on the other hand, arrives in a cast-iron crock surrounded by a buttery, fennel-laced broth studded with bits of tomato, carrots and onion. And while the veal saltimbocca may not be traditional (the crispy breading and melted cheese technically make it more of a parmigiana), it’s tasty and accessible enough to put neighboring Buca di Beppo out of business.
The sole disappointment of the meal comes at the end, a surprise given Gale Gand’s status as “the pastry queen of Chicago.” Tiramisu, panna cotta, profiteroles (at an Italian restaurant?) and apple crostada are all as simple—and boring—as they sound. The crostada’s crust is flaky and the vanilla bean ice cream alongside is obviously housemade, but there isn’t any of the trademark Gand personality to be found, and Tramonto’s savory creations outshine them. It’s probably for the best, though—if we cleaned our dessert plates at the same rate as the rest of the meal, we’d have to crash in Wheeling for the night. At least now there’s somewhere to eat.
601 N Milwaukee Ave, Wheeling (847-777-6570). Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Average main course: $19.