In the ‘90s, Chicago was the basketball capital of the world and Lou Canellis was in the middle of it all. Canellis worked for SportsChannel, the cable TV network that broadcasted most of the Bulls games during an era when the team won six NBA championships in eight years. He’s now a co-owner of the trio of Avli modern Greek restaurants. But from 1991 to 1998, Canellis had a sports fan’s dream job covering what many consider the greatest basketball team of all time.
Canellis took private charters with the players in a plane designed to fly the Rolling Stones. He’d watch Bulls coach Phil Jackson and his staff break down film on flights. He’d see Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen playing cards in another section of the plane.
“I remember thinking if I could stop time,” Canellis says, who’s also a sports anchor for Fox 32 Chicago. “Because I knew how lucky I was to be part of that.”
The Bulls success in the ‘90s was a cultural phenomena that impacted all aspects of the city, including its hospitality industry. Canellis and others are eager to relive those glory years starting on Sunday when ESPN will release the first two episodes of a 10-part documentary series focusing on the dynasty’s final championship season.
With many Americans bound by stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus crisis, ESPN executives hope the Last Dance draws a large viewership. Meanwhile, restaurants with takeout and delivery options have an opportunity. Marc Malnati, owner of Chicago’s renown Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, says during significant games in the ‘90s, sales increased by 20 percent. Malnati capitalized on the team’s popularity in 1998 when he opened a Lincoln Park location centered around Jordan, who many consider the best basketball player of all time. The space was decorated with Jordan-related artifacts, including rare Sports Illustrated covers.
“For someone to build their whole sit-down restaurant around one character?” Malnati says. “That’s pretty impressive.”
The team’s home arena, United Center and its predecessor Chicago Stadium, are short drives to Randolph Street where French restaurant Marché became a favorite among players. Marché chef Michael Kornick (the “K” in DMK Restaurants) remembers serving Jordan. A pioneer in many aspects of the game, Jordan may have also paved the path in making wine popular among current NBA players, including LeBron James. Jordan has a real love for reds, Kornick says.
“He’s got a terrific wine palate with tons of wine energy,” Kornick adds.
Kornick and others went out of their ways to ensure all Bulls players were treated well. There was no Yelp, but word would get around if a celebrity was unhappy with an experience. Marché’s owners had another Randolph Street restaurant, Red Light. Kornick says that Pippen and teammate Horace Grant would visit Red Light and ask servers to walk across the street to Marché to bring them french fries in the upscale Asian restaurant.
James Beard Award winner Mindy Segal (Mindy’s Hot Chocolate) was Marché’s pastry chef. She grew up in Highland Park and was a Bulls fan dating back to the ‘80s with players like Artis Gilmore and Bob Love. She didn’t have much direct contact with the players at Marché, but remembers Jordan would come and he had a favorite dessert: sorbet. Marché closed in 2010 as restaurants like Gibsons and Chicago Cut Steakhouse established themselves as celebrity hotspots.
Kornick would go on to open MK the restaurant in River North. That’s where Erick Williams worked before he opened Virtue in Hyde Park. Williams watched YouTube clips of old games while in MK’s kitchen to pump himself up.
“The idea that he is exerting so much energy, energy his teammates could feed on once they really understood how to play with him? Well, that’s a pretty incredible thing to watch,” Williams says.
Jordan also entered the restaurant world. His first, Michael Jordan’s Restaurant, lasted from 1993 to 1999 in River North; the Tribune’s Phil Vettel didn’t care for it much. In 1998, he opened another, One SixtyBlue, in West Loop and it closed in 2012. That same year, he opened Michael Jordan’s Steak House in downtown Chicago. It’s closed during the pandemic, but a suburban Oak Brook location is offering a pickup special for the documentary.
Food plays a large part in sports nostalgia. Chicago hip-hop artist Serengeti calls out out deep-dish pizza, Italian beefs, and more in his classic (and now very timely) song Dennehy. A new version was released last year in conjunction with the Bulls.
With that in mind, Eater Chicago asked a few of the city’s biggest super fans from the restaurant world about their memories. Several also provided suggestions for what fans should eat while watching the documentary.
The Last Dance’s first two episodes debut at 8 p.m. Sunday on ESPN. The network will drop new episodes every Sunday through May 17.
Covering the Bulls, Canellis was dependent on the United Center’s media spread. Canellis has high compliments for the UC’s meat and vegetarian lasagnas. The pregame spread even included sandwiches from Mr. Submarine, the Chicago chain that hired Pippen as a spokesperson.
Sunday marks Greek Easter, and Canellis will be watching the first episode with a special order from Avli. Recently, he’s been trading texts with Bulls star Dennis Rodman’s former bodyguard, George Triantafillo. Triantafillo will also be enjoying Avli’s roasted lamb Sunday after securing an order with Canellis before the special sold out.
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Vicki Kim is the co-owner of Mott St in West Town where her brother, chef Edward Kim, dazzles with Korean-Ameican fare. The family also runs Mini Mott, a fast-casual burger spot with locations in Logan Square and Time Out Market Chicago in Fulton Market. The Kims grew up in Long Grove, and their mother would from time to time get Bulls tickets through her job.
Pizza and wings were the Kims’s food of choice while watching game. Their parents would allow them a special treat: soda. “There had to be Coke, in our household there was no soda-pop, we weren’t allowed to drink pop,” Vicki Kim says. “You know you were having a party if you had Coke.”
The Kims are obsessed with deep dish from Lou Malanti’s and partial to sausage wheels, not the customary crumbles that tops most pizzas. For the documentary, Kim suggests ordering wings. Mini Mott has two varieties, including “Hangry Wings” (sambal butter, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, jalapeno).
Jeff Mauro, a co-host of Food Network’s the Kitchen. As a youngster who grew up watching the Bulls, Mauro recalls visiting his local White Hen Pantry in River Forest. That’s where a teenage “Sandwich King” routinely ordered a coppa sandwich on an onion roll and entering store contests for Bulls tickets. Mauro was enamored by Chicago Stadium dogs, the kind wrapped in foil. The pillowy bun kind of fuses with the sausage, which remains snappy, Mauro says. There’s no need for toppings.
For Sunday’s documentary debut, Mauro imagines ordering a medium, thin-crust pizza (well done) with half pepperoni and half sausage from Jimmy’s Place in Forest Park.
Darnell Reed is chef and owner at Luella’s Southern Kitchen in Lincoln Square. Reed would watch ‘90s games with his father and uncle in Dolton. They’d order pizza from Shakey’s on game day, but homemade nachos are one of Reed’s favorites. Home cooks could amp up their nachos with ingredients liked smoked brisket or beef short rib and customize them in a variety of ways.
While pizza is an easy pick for Chicagoans watching any games — Reed is a fan of the thin crusts at Villa Nova in Stickney — Reed suggests Mexican food. He’s recommends of Más Allá Del Sol in Rogers Park. Reed is a fan of the queso fundido and sopes.
Gerardo and Victoria Salamanca co-own Cafe Tola, a mini-chain with several locations across the city. Victoria Salamanca is the chef behind the restaurants, which serve empanadas, tacos, and more. Gerardo Salamanca ran a vintage store in Logan Square called 84 Chicago. It was named for the year Jordan joined the Bulls: “I grew up a huge, huge basketball fan,” Salamanca says. “Obviously, Jordan being the spark — he literally sparked the whole city, if not the country, if not the whole world.”
Salamanca remembers hanging out in the Bucktown and Logan Square areas in the ‘90s. He and his friends frequented spots like Arturo’s Tacos and Father & Son’s Pizza. For the Last Dance, Salamanca will call on his all-time favorite pizza spot. He’ll order wings and thin-crust pizzas from Renaldi’s Pizza in Lakeview.
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Erick Williams is the chef and owner Eater Chicago’s Restaurant of the Year, Virtue. An ex-chef at MK, Williams can’t appreciate other legendary basketball players, like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, in the same way as Jordan: ”It’s hard, your first takes up so much space,” Williams says. “It’s hard to squeeze anyone else in.”
After Jordan left the Bulls in 1998, Williams cooked for him at MK. Jordan ordered a whole-roasted chicken for himself. The simplest items are the toughest to prepare, so Williams focused on execution, he says, making sure the skin was crispy and that the meat was as moist as if the bird had been deep fried.
Jordan would sign a jersey for Williams, but he made the chef sweat first. Jordan, infamously, only signs merchandise that he endorses. He’s a Nike man, and made a big deal in the 1992 Olympics of covering the Reebok logo on Team USA’s clothing as he stood on the gold medal podium. Nike was not the manufacturer of the jersey Williams presented Jordan. At first, Jordan declined to sign, leaving Williams flustered. But Jordan laughed and eventually adorned the jersey with a personalized message creating one of the chef’s most cherished possessions.
Williams plans on watching the documentary at home on Sunday with a bottle of champagne and homemade fried chicken accompanied by macaroni and cheese. Fans can order their own chicken from Cleo’s Southern Cuisine, Harold’s or Uncle Remus, but Williams prefers to make his own.
“I will binge the documentary,” Williams says. “I’m going to watch it no less than three times.”