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Apr 22, 2010 11:08 AM

Casual/cheap meals for a group?

I'm traveling to Chicago with a group of 40 teens and parents for a school trip in early May. We're staying downtown and will be doing lots of touristy things. I'd like to have pizza one meal (sort of a "must do")-any recommendations for something downtown?

Also, what about other options that are not too pricey? I'm from New Orleans so we like local institutions and I know there must be many in Chicago. Any ideas?

Finally, someone suggested Foodlife which sounds like a possibility-yes?

835 N Michigan Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

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  1. You can't walk into a place with 40 people and expect to be seated together and served at the same time, so you definitely want to plan all your meals ahead, making reservations with the places you will go. You may want to order the food ahead of time, so it's ready shortly after your arrival (such as the pizza).

    Downtown Chicago covers a wide area, roughly three miles from the Gold Coast to the South Loop. Where will you be staying (what hotel) and what activities do you plan to do (which "touristy things")? Knowing this will enable us to recommend places that are within a few blocks of where you'll already be, which will make things a lot easier than choosing places that might be a couple of miles away.

    Foodlife is basically a food court concept, located in Water Tower Place; they have rooms for private parties, as noted on the Foodlife website at Foodlife is part of Lettuce Entertain You, a local group of restaurants that is well-organized to do a great job with private parties. If you decide to go to this or any other of the LEY restaurants, their party organization offers one point of contact; see their website at

    3 Replies
    1. re: nsxtasy

      My thoughts exactly-planning ahead is key. We are staying at the Fairfield Inn on East Ontario. Saturday we arrive in the am at Midway and are going to the Field Museum. A friend suggested we stop for lunch on the way (bus that day only) or maybe just eat in the cafe there. Dinner that night is Medieval Times (teenagers-go figure). Over the next few days we'll visit the Art Institute and the Navy Pier and go to a Cubs game. Possibly hit Hancock Tower and/or the Museum of Science and Industry.

      Medieval Times
      2001 N Roselle Rd, Schaumburg, IL 60195

      1. re: GTCmom

        If you're busing in from Midway, you might want to stop by at Connie's Pizza on the way in. Not the best version of Chicago Pizza in the world (but far from the worst--plus other Italian stuff that kids like on the menu), and they are set up for this kind of thing (40 parents & teens, usually no problema). The cafe in the Field is not exceptionally large:

        1. re: GTCmom

          First, about pizza. Chicago is the home of our delicious deep-dish pizza, a local specialty you can't get anywhere else. There are two main styles: single-crust "pizza in the pan" served at Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, Gino's East, and the original Uno and Due downtown, and double-crust "stuffed pizza" served at Giordano's. Here are the closest locations to where you'll be. The original Uno and Due are three blocks west of your hotel. Gino's East has a location on Superior three blocks north of your hotel. Pizano's has a location on Madison two blocks from the main entrance to the Art Institute, and one on State two blocks west of the Hancock. Giordano's has a location on Cicero half a mile south of the main terminal building at Midway, a location on Belmont half a mile south of Wrigley Field, a location in the Prudential Building a few blocks north of the Art Institute, and a location in Hyde Park half a mile north of the Museum of Science and Industry. I don't know which of these have rooms to accommodate large groups; you'll have to check with them.

          You will want to order the pizza ahead of time, so you don't have to wait 30-60 minutes for the pizzas to be prepped and baked. Follow their advice regarding how many people each pizza feeds. (I've had people doubt that a large pizza serves four people, until they actually try it.)

          Water Tower Place, home of Foodlife, is across the street from the Hancock.

          Emilio's Sol y Nieve ( ) is near your hotel and serves tapas, and is not terribly expensive. They have banquet facilities so they can probably serve a group your size.

          Another place worth considering is Grand Lux Cafe ( ). It's huge and it's only a block from your hotel.

          I don't know if you need to plan anything for breakfast, but this topic may be helpful, as it has places near your hotel (all of which might work for lunch as well):

          River North Breakfast Ideas -

      2. if any of your group are fans of saturday night live: billy goat tavern. cheezborger, cheezborger...)

        1 Reply
        1. re: appycamper

          The kids might love that! Can they handle a large group?

        2. Portillo's - at 100 W. Ontario St. (at Clark St.) - offers something for everyone (I don't think pizza is served here, though other "Italian food" items are if I'm recalling correctly) and I see lots of student groups there when I visit a couple of times monthly; great Chicago-style hot dogs, excellent beef sandwiches, salads, etc. A stop there won't break your budget. And there's a lot of seating, certainly more than enough to accommodate the size of your group.

          1 Reply
          1. re: gomexico

            Portillo's is a good suggestion. This is a semi-fast-food-made-to-order type of place, and they do a huge business. Even at lunchtime when they are very busy, the operation works very efficiently. This is one of the few places where you CAN walk in with 40 people without prior arrangements and they can take and fill everyone's order on the spot. If you call them in advance, they may section off some tables so everyone can sit together in one area.

            Regarding the Italian food items, Portillo's has another "brand" called Barnelli's Pasta Bowl, which is also located at this location. Both restaurants are in one building; as you enter, you stand in the line to one side to order off the Portillo's menu, and in the line to the other side to order off the Barnelli's menu. Once you receive your food at the end of the line, you proceed to a common seating area. You can view the Barnelli's menu at

            They are located six blocks (half a mile) directly west of the hotel.