Who: Greg Laketek of West Loop Salumi
Where: Chicago, IL
Greg Laketek grew up spending his summers in northern Italy surrounded by family, beautiful scenery and all the other things that make you wonder why you haven’t packed your bags and played out your own version of Under the Tuscan Sun. "My grandfather would take me around to his friends’ farms where they would make salumi, cheese, bread, wine — that’s what I remember growing up."
Greg's appreciation for food began early during those family summers, but during the rest of the year he was back in the Midwest. After graduating from Kansas University with a business degree and starting a consulting company the restlessness set in. He enrolled in culinary school, graduated, but still wasn’t sure what his his next step was. One night while out with a friend, inspiration came to him at the bar (as it often does) while discussing Chicago’s lack of good salumi.
Greg's Salumi Story
Salumi is the broad category of cured meats that includes some of Italy's most signature products: prosciutto, pancetta, guanciale, and many more regional specialties. And Chicago lacked what Greg considered great makers of salumi. Was it his calling? "It just made sense,” said Laketek. Inspired and committed he sold his company and booked a one way ticket to Italy. "I had no idea who to get in contact with — all my initial emails had gone unanswered. I was asking people on the street."
His calling arrived through some plucky research. "I kept seeing this guy’s picture in front of all the salumerias in Italy. I did some research and found out it was Massimo Spigaroli, who has two Michelin rated restaurants at his castle and makes the world’s best salumi."
Greg was welcomed to the castle, given a tour, a 12-course meal, and invited to speak with Massimo. "He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Italian." With the help of a translator Greg requested an internship. Massimo said it had never been done before and that he would need some time to think about it. "The next day he called and said ‘You start Monday’."
Four years later, in April 2013, Greg Laketek opened the doors of his own salumi shop in Chicago’s West Loop.
What makes Old World Italian methods so special?
Extra attention to ingredients and aging go a long way in creating the most delicious cured meats. "That’s why we rely on really high quality meat and ingredients — just because we don’t want to mask anything. We’re considered non heat-treated, shelf stable, which means none of our product gets cooked at all."
Greg and his team are also one of the few producers that still use natural casings (often sourced from Germany). "We don’t use any additional sugars to ferment. Fermentation needs sugar to feed the PH level but we rely only on the sugars that occur naturally in the meat and wine. It takes about 4-5 days to ferment — most places only ferment for 14-70 hours. There aren’t many people in the country that are making it this way."
:We’re the only ones in Illinois who are making salumi like this."
The Many Styles of Salumi
While living between Milan and Parma, Greg would take weekend trips to other Italian towns. "Each town has their own style of salumi. When I was training in Parma, I never saw soppressata out there because soppressata is from Calabria so they don’t don’t make it (in Parma). Same with Ciauscolo — Ciauscolo is from my family’s region — Marche — which is 3 hours north. They had no idea what I was talking about. Barolo would only be produced in Piedmont. They’re using their local resources in the different salumi they make."
"In Parma they also make prosciutto, gentile which is a regular salami made from Lambrusco and really fatty casings, and Crespone which is also made with Lambrusco. Lambrusco is the wine to drink out in Emilia-Romagna and it’s just really cheap. They do have great wine and great makers but, since it’s easy to come by they use it for everything."
A Guide to Salumi by Region
- Culatello - Emilia-Romagna - One of the most prized salume. Made by the Italian traditions which date back to the 15th century in Zibello Italy. Culatello (little back side, or "little ass" as Massimo puts it) is a boneless back ham muscle seasoned with wine, salt and pepper. After curing for 10 days, the culatello is stuffed in a hog bladder and aged for at least 12 months. Greg and West Loop prefer to age their culatello for 16+ months.
- Pancetta - Almost all regions of Italy - West Loop makes their pancetta from Berkshire pork belly which is carefully massaged with spices, cured and air dried. Seasoned with salt, pepper and other spices then dried for a minimum of four months.
- Finocchiona - Tuscany - At West Loop, this salame is cured and seasoned with fresh fennel pollen. The 100% Heritage Berkshire pork is slowly fermented then dried for at least one month.
- Barolo - Piedmont - A Berkshire and Barolo wine salami. Seasoned with Barolo wines with a minimal 93pt rating.
- Bresaola - Lombardy - Air dried beef eye of round which is massaged with fresh thyme, rosemary, juniper berries, red wine, salt and pepper. It is then stuffed in natural beef casings, trussed by hand and hung to dry for a minimum of 90 days. Very lean, soft and full of flavor.