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Chicago's First Olive Garden Opens and Reveals Garlic Schism in Governor's Race

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It's all about garlic and new menu items at the ribbon cutting ceremony today.

Ashok Selvam
Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

"It's the American Dream."

That's what Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn told a small crowd gathered Monday morning outside the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Chicago's first Olive Garden.

Sure, the governor was talking about the 12-year career progression of the restaurant's general manager, Remoun Abraham. But "the American Dream" could easily refer to the Olive Garden's never-ending pasta bowls or unlimited breadsticks. These are signatures at other locations like the one in Grand Forks, N.D., but hallmarks that are finally making it to Chicago.

Staff started seating customers at 11 a.m. at the 7,780-square foot restaurant at 3555 W. Addison St. Openings like Monday's contribute to the variety of restaurants that make Chicago and Illinois "a food destination" Quinn added. This marks Darden Restaurant Inc.'s fourth Chicago restaurant, joining Seasons 52, Eddie V's and The Capitol Grille.

"It's a huge milestone for us, and we are committed to be a strong supporter of our local community," said Abraham, who started as a server before working his way as head of the Olive Garden.

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Restaurant officials wouldn't go into detail about any challenges which prevented them from entering the Chicago market; there are 10 Olive Gardens in the surrounding suburbs. Instead they touted the chain's new menu, logo and decor, all of which were unveiled in July. The Chicago location is one of about 30 new restaurants nationally which feature the new logo, a restaurant spokeswoman added.

Among the 20 or so new items served are spicy Calabrian wings—chicken wings flavored with garlic and chili peppers; a smashed chicken meatball sandwich; and pappardelle pescatore.

The wings are probably not Quinn's favorite as the governor told Eater that he's not a fan of garlic. He said he usually orders the lasagna or spaghetti.

"I'm not a garlic guy," said Quinn, a Democrat running for re-election in November. "I'm sure there's garlic in the food I'm eating, but I never ask for extra garlic that's for sure."

In the name of equal time, Eater contacted Republican challenger Bruce Rauner's office and discovered a wedge issue. Via a campaign spokesman, Rauner said that his position on garlic is "there is no such thing as too much garlic." Rauner's camp added that his favorite dish is chicken parmigiana.

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The restaurant shares a parking lot with Kmart. Darden delayed the opening, originally scheduled for summer 2013. Chicago's 35th Ward Ald. Rey Colon said the site's oversized dimensions made it difficult to lure a tenant and in part contributed to the snarl. However, the delay only increased demand, Colon said. The city needs more family-friendly businesses to keep families from patronizing the suburbs, Colon said, and luring a familiar national brand name - like the Olive Garden - was a big win.

"Unlike a restaurant where people have to give it a review first and say ‘oh I'll let you know if it's a good place to come to,' this one people already knew they liked," Colon said.

So as the neighborhood loses Hot Doug's, it gains an Olive Garden. But it appears the two serve radically different demographics.