For its 75th birthday five years ago, Manny’s unveiled an expansion and embraced a new identity: a full-service Jewish deli with a larger assortment of prepared foods. For fourth-generation owner Danny Raskin, it was a way he could better serve the Chicago area’s Jewish community and supply them with all the food they needed to celebrate holidays and special events. Flash forward to this August when Manny’s celebrated its 80th birthday without as much fanfare. Raskin still invited luminaries, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, to have some cake and, more importantly, taste a new sandwich.
After 80 years, Manny’s has a new pastrami sandwich. Using the same spices and cure as the original, the new meat is cut from the brisket, rather than the navel. But the most significant difference is that it’s smoked using hickory; the original is oven roasted. Rankin doesn’t want to rile up loyal fans, but he feels the new sandwich, called the 80, tastes better. And though the deli will always offer the original pastrami, he’s hoping to complement his menu by making the 80 a fixture. Is the new sandwich heresy or something worth making a special trip to try? Read on.
Below is a slightly edited transcript of a Slack conversation between Eater Chicago Editor Ashok Selvam and Reporter Naomi Waxman about said sandwich.
Ashok: Manny’s is certainly a Chicago cultural institution with politicians, families, and celebrities gathering at the deli for decades. Naomi, you didn’t grow up in Chicago, but I want to know what Manny’s, and these Jewish delis, mean to you?
Naomi: It’s true, I originally hail from Wisconsin, which is not seen as a hub of Jewish life but does have thriving communities from many denominations. I grew up making occasional pilgrimages from Milwaukee to Manny’s with my dad (a native New Yorker), and Ashkenazi deli food has always been an important point of connection to our identity as Jewish Americans. Though execution and ingredients have evolved — often for the better, in my opinion — the food makes me think of my great-grandfather, who arrived at Ellis Island as a 13-year-old fleeing Russian conscription. It’s the food of survival, of celebration, of mourning. I think that’s the kind of emotional connection to food a lot of Chicagoans can relate to.
Ashok: The connection is so key. I remember as we were talking to owner Dan Raskin, an old-time customer came up to him and started talking about how Manny’s is the greatest restaurant ever. Manny’s is selling Chicago more than a good sandwich. It’s selling history and tradition. Without that connection, you’re just a Subway or worse, Jimmy John’s.
Naomi: In true Jewish style, Dan has the blessing and the curse of being a fourth-generation restaurant owner, which comes with both opportunities and high expectations. Watching him stroll around the dining room, it’s clear that he’s worked hard to keep the community at the center of Manny’s. People of all backgrounds can find joy in a bowl of matzo ball soup or a big, meaty sandwich, and the food can be a wonderful introduction for folks who don’t know many (or any) Jews in their day-to-day lives. There are lots of other types of Jewish cuisine, but deli food is a great on-ramp for the uninitiated.
Ashok: There’s such a tricky balance in managing tradition and keeping yourself relevant. And that includes introducing new menu items, like the 80. Is it gimmicky? A little, but the smoke really does add a new dimension to the pastrami. Some folks, presumably those who love barbecue and are more attuned to the difference, will love the nuanced taste. But I’m not sure everyone will detect the change.
Naomi: It is a difficult fence to ride, and I think this move makes sense for Manny’s. Tradition matters a lot but the restaurant is still a service business in 2022 — patrons’ tastes broaden and change, and so must the menu. Personally, the thick-cut texture of the 80 was a welcome shift. The smoke was pleasant without overwhelming the pastrami flavor and with a slight nod to Southern barbecue. It’s a sandwich avatar for Kinky Friedman, the Chicago-born musician now known as “the most outrageous Jewish cowboy in Texas.”
Ashok: Well, I’m sure Kinky would dig the sandwich, even though it’s not outrageous. It’s still on rye. It’s got the same flavorings and mustard. It’s just somehow better. Rankin says his pastrami supplier in Detroit recently added a smokehouse, so they went about and gave the smoke a whirl. The demand, so far, has been intense. They’ve sold out a few times. But also, for a new item like this, it has to be executed. I remember my own introduction to pastrami as a child, and it was just a hunk of overly gray and under-seasoned meat. It’s nightmare fuel for a kid, and I shunned pastrami for a bit not knowing what a good slice tastes like. The 80, right off the bat, doesn’t suffer from that. Obviously, Manny’s has a track record, but it’s nice to see those lessons applied.
Naomi: That’s true, modern diners won’t find it outrageous, but a new approach can feel like a seismic change when it comes to Jewish delis. I think devotees will be pleased with the result, which does far better justice to our culinary history than the sad, off-color rendition you unfortunately encountered. Manny’s unfussy cafeteria-style service and dining room are well-suited to families, so I’m hopeful that the youth of today will get to skip right to the good stuff.
Ashok: I agree with that, I also think the sandwich is a great way to bring old customers back into the fold. Not that Manny’s needs to pay TikTok influencers to help build the business, but the restaurant business is so volatile. Anything helps. I’d be more than happy to visit Manny’s to enjoy another of these sandwiches. I definitely see it as a “must try” for Chicagoans.
Naomi: It’s clear that Manny’s has a hit on its hands, and if the team keeps up the good work, I’d go so far as to recommend it to the toughest pastrami critic I know — my father. If Dan’s decision to skip the fancy anniversary party for a low-key, open-to-all celebration is any indication, Manny’s next chapter will be an exciting one.
Ashok: As you pointed out, critics of Jewish deli are fairly… let’s call them “tough.” I don’t think this will offend that group, but who knows? I’m rooting for the sandwich to stay on the menu!
Naomi: As the cliche goes, “two Jews, three opinions.” Vigorous debate is a cultural value, and I imagine there will be plenty of discussion about the 80 and its possible implications. My vote is cast: it’s a keeper.