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A Father-and-Daughter Deli Team Hope to Reclaim Their Jewish History

Helfeld’s Deli will bring pastrami, matzo ball soup, and knishes to Wicker Park

Coming Attractions
A traditional Ashkenazi Jewish deli is coming to Wicker Park.

A father-daughter team with deep roots in Chicago’s Jewish deli scene aim to soon open a restaurant of their own with favorites like pastrami and corned beef sandwiches, cured fish like lox and sable, knishes, and more. Helfeld’s Deli, a passion project from Chicago deli veteran Mark Grutz and his daughter, Emily, is slated to open this winter at 1750 W. North Avenue in Wicker Park.

Grutz’s decades of experience at various restaurants and well known Ashkenazi delis around town, including JB’s Deli in Andersonville and suburban stalwart Kaufman’s Bakery and Delicatessen. “I figured I could take that backache I had every day and make it my own backache,” a wry Grutz says.

Ashkenazi deli classics are notoriously labor-intensive to make and serve, and the team at Helfeld’s Deli will embrace that tradition by making most of its menu items on-site, including corned beef, pastrami, knishes, whitefish salad, and more — Grutz also promises four takes on a Reuben sandwich. They’ll bring in bagels from the iconic New York Bagel & Bialy in Lincolnwood, challah and rye bread from Tel-Aviv Kosher Bakery in West Rogers Park, and import hand-cut lox and other smoked fish from a New York vendor. In Grutz’s experience, patrons are quick to identify pretenders. “If it’s not labor intensive and you get pre-made product, you won’t be busy,” he says.

Nostalgia plays a significant role in the success of Jewish delis, sparking memories of family outings for hefty sandwiches and bowls of matzo ball soup. Despite the rosy memories, some modern diners are put off by a reputation for greasy food — a concern that Grutz and Helfeld will address by including items like fresh salads and desserts from wife and mom Sally Grutz, such as banana bread and lemon bars.

Designed with a sleek and simple aesthetic, the blue-and-white space will prominently feature a gleaming deli case and primarily offer takeout. Though owners had hoped to open earlier this year, a series of costly alterations required by the city pushed back the restaurant’s debut. They’ve sought some donations from the community to help keep the project on track, raising more than $4,000 via GoFundMe.

Beyond an adherence told old-school technique, Helfeld’s Deli will also carry on a family tradition that dates back to the 1960s when Grutz’s father, Jakub Grutz, arrived in Chicago. Born Jakub Helfeld in 1928, in what was then Poland, he changed his last name to hide his Jewish identity from Nazis occupiers. Nonetheless, he was imprisoned by the Third Reich at age 15 but went on to escape the Janowska concentration camp and join the Soviet Army.

In the decades following his arrival in the U.S., Jakub Grutz became a partial owner of Mort’s Deli, a cozy spot at Broadway and Stratford on the North Side. The deli introduced Mark Grutz to the restaurant business, setting a course for what would become a career in Ashkenazi cuisine.

Deli operators and aficionados across the country are grappling with the future of Ashkenazi food and culinary culture, engaging with perception problems and the impact of increasingly diverse Jewish communities. Chicago has lately seen an uptick in modern Jewish delis that draw on tradition but aren’t married to it, ranging from Southern-influenced Jeff & Judes in West Town, to West Loop’s highly technical Rye, to vegan destination Sam & Gertie’s in Uptown.

As they work toward an opening in November or December, father and daughter are getting increasingly excited to start serving patrons and making new memories. “It’s a way for us to be part of the community in a deeper way,” says Helfeld. “Not just the Jewish community, but in the community in Wicker Park.”

Grutz is also anticipating the satisfaction that comes from healthy banter with his patrons. “You see happy people coming out and kibitzing all the time,” he says. “The more I insult the customers, the more they love me and want to come back.”

Block Club Chicago first reported this story.

Helfeld’s Deli, 1750 W. North Avenue, Scheduled to open in November or December.