by Suzanne Deveney, Foodable Contributor
Read the menu on their website and you’d expect Leadbelly to be located in an ultra-hip restaurant neighborhood such as Bucktown or River North, but both Leadbelly locations are in decidedly “unhip” parts of town: Portage Park and Gladstone Park.
But don’t let these locations fool you. Steve O’Brien, a professionally trained chef with an impressive list of kitchen credentials including Charlie Trotter’s and Carlos’ in Highland Park, and wife Nicole Masse O’Brien have placed Leadbelly smack in the intersection of two of the hottest food trends: Fast Casual and gourmet burgers.
Nicole O'Brien, a former schoolteacher, and husband Steve opened the original location in Portage Park in 2013, adding the second location in Gladstone Park less than a year ago. Music plays a major theme in the décor and the menu. The restaurant is named for Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, a famous folk and blues artist from the 1930s whose influence on classic rock is legendary. George Harrison is quoted as saying, “No Leadbelly, no Beatles.”
The walls are filled with rock photography and large screens in the dining area play rock concert footage blasting music throughout the space. This gourmet burger place offers an interactive dining experience. Think you know rock ‘n roll? You can test your knowledge and keep yourself entertained while waiting for your food with the rock trivia cards located at each table.
All the burgers are named after Leadbelly songs, including Black Betty, Old Time Religion, Easy Rider, Midnight Special, and The Gallows Pole – 10 choices in all. Toppings run the gamut from homemade sriracha pickles to smoked bacon to a fried egg, and pretty much everything in between.
Order and pay at the front, take the number back to your table, and after an appropriate wait depending on the time and day of the week, the food is delivered to your table on trays – complete with one of their signature butter cookies in a waxed bag.
From the first bite, the freshness of the ingredients is apparent. Every day, the folks at Leadbelly grind the meat for the burgers, make fresh, homemade buns, and bake the butter cookies. All sauces are made from scratch using locally sourced ingredients.
Leadbelly uses a blend of chuck and smoked pork belly to produce a juicy and flavorful burger. Patties are first seared on a high heat griddle and then moved to a slow heat griddle to finish cooking before toppings are piled sky high.
Their “24 hour fries” are cut and cooked at a low temp, allowed to sit overnight, then refried for incredible crispness – which holds up even when smothered with toppings such as blue cheese crumbles and buffalo bleu sauce, Leon’s polish sausage and sauerkraut, or Chili Cheese Fritos® and chipotle cream sauce. Fries can also be ordered plain, sprinkled only with sea salt and pepper.
If the burgers and toppings are the stars, the freshly baked buns are the all-important supporting cast without which the main attraction fails. You may want to get to Leadbelly when they open, because they have a saying: “When our homemade buns are gone, so are we.”
These are two-hander burgers, and the buttery and slightly crisp bun is more than up to the task. The bottom of the bun is thick enough to hold the weight of what’s on top of it, but it doesn’t get soggy. The top, sprinkled with sesame seeds, is the perfect ratio of bun to the mountain of burger and toppings.
There is a nice selection of craft beers available and a few wines that change monthly. Chocolate, vanilla, or berry milkshakes arrive diner-style: topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. Be sure to try the seasonally spiked “adult” shake, which can include cinnamon sugar vodka, pecan pie flavored vodka, or coffee liquor.
A Leadbelly butter cookie comes with every burger and shake. (Bonus: order a burger AND a shake and you end up with two of these buttery morsels!) Topped with crushed pecans and drizzled with white and milk chocolate, these flakey cookies are also available for takeout.
For those who don’t eat meat, they will gladly substitute a Portobello mushroom or hand-breaded chicken breast for any burger, and there are gluten-free options available.
This is definitely destination dining, but well worth the trek. The restaurant caters to families, 20- and 30-somethings, senior citizens, and neighborhood regulars. It’s cool enough to come with a group of friends or welcoming enough to eat alone.
All this goodness comes at a price, however. A meal for two, including burgers, fries, and shakes, will set you back about $40. If you love big, sloppy burgers and perfectly crisped fries, it’s well worth it.