Iliana Regan | Jeff Manes/For Sun-Times Media
If you go ...
Elizabeth Restaurant is at 4835 N. Western Ave., Chicago. For more information, visit
www.elizabeth-restaurant.com or call (773) 681-0651.
Updated: August 31, 2014 6:16AM
“My love affair with nature is so deep that I am not satisfied with being a mere onlooker, or nature tourist. I crave a more real and meaningful relationship. The spicy teas and tasty delicacies I prepare from wild ingredients are the bread and wine in which I have communion and fellowship with nature, and with the Author of that nature.”
— Euell Gibbons
Iliana Regan forages for things such as acorns, wood sorrel and milkweed silk from the wild. She pickles elm leaves and fries maple leaves. And then she feeds such items to people.
And they love it.
Regan, 34, is the owner of Elizabeth Restaurant in Chicago. She is single and lives on the North Side of Chicago in the Edgewater community, but she was raised in Hobart.
Regan also possesses one of the sweetest-sounding voices I’ve ever heard. Grizzly, her shih tzu, sat in on our conversation.
I remember a Larry Regan. He was president of Local 1014 when the United Steelworkers and U.S. Steel were engaged in that long strike back in ’87.
“That’s my father,” Iliana said.
Really? He and your grandmother were mentioned in a recent column of mine. Small world.
“Yes, my grandmother ran Jenny’s Cafe in Gary. My parents worked there as well.”
Are you originally from Gary?
“No, I was born and raised on 73rd Avenue. ... well, it was called Old Lincolnway. It was near Deep River County Park.”
That’s a scenic area to grow up in.
“Yes, particularly the woods over there. We had a little 10-acre farm. My mom was always canning vegetables and making food from scratch. I just grew up with that kind of homesteading way of life. We had chickens and pigs.”
“Andrean. It wasn’t like big news to most people. My friends didn’t mind, but there were some bad seeds who tried to pick on me or cause trouble.”
What are you talking about?
“The fact that I’m a lesbian. That was ultimately one of the deciding factors in moving to a larger city where I knew it was more acceptable to be yourself.”
Iliana, I have found one thing in life that has proven to be a given.
There will always be bad seeds. College?
“I started at (Indiana University Northwest) before transferring to Bloomington (Indiana University) for a semester. I finished school at Columbia College in Chicago with a degree in liberal arts — writing.”
You didn’t attend culinary school?
“No, but when I was 15, I worked as a busgirl and in the kitchen at an Italian restaurant called Villa Victoria near Lake of the Four Seasons. I asked a lot of questions.
“When I was 18, I worked in the kitchen at Bon Femme, which was in Merrillville at the time. While there, I learned how to make pies, quiches, pastries, crepes, soups and stuff like that. While living in Bloomington, I worked at a pizza place where I learned how to make pizza dough from scratch.”
“After moving to Chicago, I worked at some very nice restaurants that had received a lot of national accolades. I’d work at some of those places for free.
“At the age of 28, I decided to apply what I knew and create my own business. I started working farmers markets. My dad had moved from Hobart to Crown Point. I started a garden there and would take my produce to the markets. Plus, I’d make pierogies, and that was a big hit. Some people in Chicago heard about my pierogies made with natural ingredients and asked if they could sell them in their stores.”
“I eventually started an underground restaurant in my house in the city where I’d make multicourse meals, showing people what kind of food I wanted to have in my restaurant some day. That’s how I gained investors and eventually opened Elizabeth Restaurant in the fall of 2012.”
Where did you get the name “Elizabeth Restaurant?”
“I have three sisters. When I was born, they were 16, 15 and 13. My oldest sister, Elizabeth, passed away in 2003 at the age of 39. She had a stroke.”
Your restaurant is very unique in that you incorporate plants from the wild. Examples, please.
“I make a milkweed flower soup; it’s a chilled soup. We also use lamb’s quarters.”
You’re referring to the weed, not the animal.
“Correct. There’s also Queen Anne’s lace. I make a soda and use the little flowers as garnishes on stuff. I also make a sorbet out of green pine and ice cream from sassafras leaves. Wild chamomile is used to make streusel. Sumac juice is a staple ingredient in my cooking.”
“When they’re in season, I use morel and oyster mushrooms. Geez, you name it, if it’s edible. ... Cattails roots are good.”
Can a customer order meat loaf, mashed potatoes and green beans?
“No, not really. We make 15 courses for you when you come in. Everything is from small bites to something that’s more substantial. It takes about three hours to have dinner.”
“Oh, no. It’s everything. An evening at Elizabeth Restaurant is like going to the theater for the night to see a play. In our case, it’s a play of food.
“We use a lot of the local farms and things from my garden in Indiana. We get most of our meat from Slagel Family Farm, which is in Illinois. They don’t use hormones or any of that kind of stuff. We get our shrimp from a man who has a shrimp farm in Indiana.”
One of your favorite items on the menu?
“I think right now it’s the main course that we’re serving. It’s about the 12th course of the meal, and the last savory course right before you hit the sweets. We take some lamb legs from Slagel Family Farm and ... ”
You’re referring to the animal, not the weed.
“Correct. We braise it. I get cherries from one of our local farmers that we lightly pickle. Then we use braised turnip greens from our garden in Chicago that are grown on our rooftop. Then we fry some maple leaves, which go on the dish as a garnish. The butter which goes on the lamb has mushrooms that I collected in the spring blended into it.”
Let me get this straight. If couples show up on a Saturday night from, say, Winnetka, Wilmington, Woodlawn, Watseka, Wheatfield or Walla Walla, Washington, they’re going to be served the exact same meal.
“Yes. There is a spring, summer, fall and winter meal.”
The lamb with the cherries, greens and maple leaves is the summer meal?
“Yes. I’m already preserving things for the winter menu. It’s very grain- and tuber vegetable-focused and a little bit more meat heavy.”
How many people can you seat?
“About 24. We’re open Tuesday through Saturday. Around 5:30 p.m. is when we take our first reservations and we stop taking reservations at 9:30 p.m. We don’t take walk-ins. We know exactly how many people we’re serving every day.”
Mushroom butter. Great concept.
And in my book, Iliana Regan is a good seed.