Every once in a while I have the privilege of visiting some place else. Eventhough American cities are becoming more and more homogenized, not everything is a Starbucks. When it comes to espresso, Chicago has a few notable exceptions that I experienced this year.

Name Address Neighborhood Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Intelligentsia 53 W. Jackson Blvd. Loop 9.00 9.00 9.000
Intelligentsia 3123 N. Broadway St. Lakeview 8.80 8.80 8.800
Metropolis Coffee Company 104 W. Granville Ave. Edgewater 8.40 7.30 7.850
Lavazza 111 W. Jackson Blvd. Loop 6.30 7.80 7.050

Intelligentsia

One of the finest roasters east of Seattle, Intelligentsia even supplies the coffee for Canada’s world-class Caffè Artigiano. Few in the Bay Area realize their preeminent status as a roaster when they saddle up to any one of the Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery chains. Probably because Intelligentsia coffee in the hands of Specialty’s staff and equipment is like putting a cello in the hands of Tim McGraw.

Thankfully, Intelligentsia exhibits the clasically trained approach with their coffee at their very own cafés, with one located downtown on Jackston Street and the original café on Broadway Street in the Lakeside District.

The downtown location is inside the historic Monadnock Building, which is complete with a classic dark wood interior adorned with cool retro espresso machine posters.

Intelligentsia entrance from Federal St. Espresso menu and the yellow La Marzocco at the bar Facing Jackson St. with various Victoria Arduino posters

As for the espresso, it’s some of the best in the U.S.: highly-skilled baristas use beautiful La Marzocco machines to pull a short, potent, but sweet espresso like you may have never had east of Seattle. Certainly one of the best aromas I’ve had off a cup anywhere.

Read the review.

The Intelligentsia ristretto: note how a true espresso should look Is that a dark crema or what? The Black Cat cappuccino

Equally worth a visit is their original Lakeview/Broadway St. location, where their methodical approach to great espresso is even more pronounced … and espresso lovers seem to pack it in all day long. (Read the review.)

Metropolis Coffee Company

Perhaps the only other Chicago area roaster/café worth writing home about is the Metropolis Coffee Company, far up north in the Lakeview District. Sure, the decor is a little worn and the coffee aesthetics could be better, but the espresso is great and it’s a lively literary scene. (And given what everyone will likely be reading, bring your Che Guevara T-shirt for bonus points with the locals.)

Read the review.

Lavazza

Illy no longer seems to be the “in” thing for pre-packaged coffee that Europhiles and restaurants like to brag about these days. That trendy crown — both here and in Rome, mind you — has gone to Torino, Italy’s Lavazza.

Just in time for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino (a grossly underrated city, btw, and one of my favorite escapes from tourists when in Italy), Lavazza has brought their high-end chain café concept to the U.S. this year. Modeled after the original Lavazza Caffè, the excellent San Tommaso café in Torino, the decor of these chains brings a modern industrial chic to the States.

Lavazza's modernist menu But you must have accessories! Hey, if she likes Lavazza...

As always, here: so what about the coffee? Well, some coffee lovers in the know will tell you that Lavazza strikes people as an “either-or” taste — you either like it or you don’t. I’m one of the few coffee snobs that falls in the “like it” camp — at least for pre-packaged coffee.

That said, I’m not impressed with the standards at this Chicago café — as I’ve had arguably better espresso from their beans in San Francisco at the humblest of places. More concerning is that I expected their standards to improve after reviewing them soon after they first opened. Yet upon my revisit earlier this week, I found their espresso to be more watery and less flavorful than before.

Read the review.

Unfortunately not as good as its crema might suggest... All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Well, I suppose that won’t necessarily stop the trend mavens from accessorizing with the Lavazza logo.

Happy New Year, all!