Ian Rusnak and Eric Safin, the chef-owners of the new Elina’s in West Town have worked in dozens of restaurants — steakhouses, Chinese restaurants, cafes, high-end spots with Michelin stars. But when they finally opened their own place, they decided on a small neighborhood joint where they would run the kitchen themselves, cooking the sort of comfortable Italian-American classics that they hope will make people want to come back again and again: chicken and eggplant parmesan, rigatoni a la vodka, linguine and clams. There’s also ribeye steak and Dover sole for special occasions, because sometimes it’s nice to celebrate right in your neighborhood.
“We’re not trying to change the game in terms of offerings,” says Rusnak. “I feel like there can be times when restaurants are creative for the sake of being creative, and you leave your experience there and say, ‘That was interesting,’ and then don’t go back. We want to be provide something craveable.”
Despite its lack of a liquor license — it’s BYOB for now — reservations for tables at the 28-seat space, which opened in mid-September, are already hard to come by; there are ten more first-come, first-serve seats at the bar, but, says Rusnak, “it can feel awkward sitting at the bar with no booze.”
The two chefs met working at Restaurant Marc Forgione, a new American restaurant in New York City run by the Top Chef winner, and became close friends, frequent colleagues in different restaurant kitchens, and occasional roommates. Rusnak eventually became culinary director at Brandon Sodikoff’s restaurant group Hogsalt Hospitality, while Safin was the opening chef de cuisine at Verōnika, Stephen Starr’s opulent Eastern European spot that opened in New York in January 2020 and closed two months later.
When the pandemic hit, Safin and Rusnak teamed up to start a catering business, working at private events along the East Coast and in and around Chicago. They offered a choice of three menus: Italian-American, French bistro/brasserie, and steakhouse. Eighty percent of their clients chose the Italian-American option. Rusnak and Safin knew they were onto something. They also realized that, after spending so much time in management roles, they missed cooking and regular interaction with customers.
Last November, they began searching for location for a permanent restaurant in Chicago, which they liked for its density and because it was less expensive than New York; to afford the rent on a similarly-sized place in Manhattan, they figured they would have to charge four times as much for entrees, which would make it impossible to run the sort of small neighborhood spot they’d dreamed of. They signed a lease on the space in West Town in June and spent the summer doing most of the renovations themselves. They borrowed the name from Safin’s mother, which, Safin says, makes her very happy.
Because The Gringo, the space’s former tenant, had its liquor license revoked, the city placed a 12-month hold on further applications from that address, so Elina’s won’t be able to apply for its own license until next May. Sometime next year, Rusnak and Safin also plan to fix up the restaurant’s backyard and open up a patio.
But for now, they’re happy with what they’ve created. “We touch literally every aspect of the restaurant from beginning to end,” Rusnak says, “from when it comes in the door to when it lands on the plate. That’s what sets us apart.”
Take a closer look at dishes from Elina’s menu below.
Elina’s, 1202 W. Grand Avenue, Open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.