Finger food. A cozy blanket. Space for kids to run around. No dishes to wash. Clearly, picnics were invented by a parent. In Chicago, we take advantage of the sunshine when we can, so pack up the family and move mealtime outdoors. If you want to skip sandwich-making duty, grab your grub on the way. Here are suggestions on local grocers and nearby parks that, paired together, add up to easy-breezy urban picnicking.
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Gene’s is a neighborhood gem with German roots, and it attracts loyal patrons from all over the city. It’s easy to see why: The one-stop shop offers exotic meats (like boar sausage), fresh produce, wine and spirits, and hard-to-find European sweet treats at unpretentious prices. Pack your picnic basket with homemade potato or pasta salad for under $5 a pound and some deli meats and pretzel rolls; or, go for a pre-made pretzel bread sandwich for $4.99. If your stomach is really rumbling, branch out with authentic staples like schnitzel, potato pancakes and pierogi. Dessert is a must: Chocolate-covered Bahlsen biscuits will elate the kiddies and whole cherry pies are ample enough for everyone to share. Be a good Chicagoan and return later to grab brats to grill for dinner.
For your picnic, walk a few blocks south on Lincoln Avenue to Welles Park, where green space abounds. Stake out your spot close to the north end where you’ll find a charming gazebo and a new toddler-friendly playground — you know, the kind with cushy rubber mats and those swanky bucket swings. After your meal, let your little monkeys loose on the jungle gym. The water play area comes in handy for hosing off sticky hands and faces.
Tip: Venture to the south end of the 15-acre park at Montrose Avenue to find more picnic-perfect space. There’s an older playground there, complete with wood chips and all.
Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen
4750 N. Lincoln Ave.
2333 W. Sunnyside Ave.
Randolph Row may be home to culinary heavyweights like Avec and Girl and the Goat, but just a few blocks west sits J.P. Graziano Grocery, a 75-year-old family-run business that’s a Chicago foodie’s best-kept secret. The hefty Italian sandwiches have ingredients like artisan-cured salame and truffle-mustard balsamic vinaigrette; and simple but tasty classics like turkey or ham please picky eaters. The line to pay gets long, mainly due to the motherly cashier chatting with customers. While you wait, grab a carton of imported Aliseo blood orange juice from the fridge to wash down the sammies. Browse the pre-packed olive salads, Miele Thun honey flavors, homemade giardiniera, and barrels of dried herbs and beans to stock your pantry. Soak up the humble family atmosphere and count how many times you hear an affectionate, “How you doin’?”
Head four blocks south on Peoria Street to Mary Bartelme Park for your picnic, but be forewarned: Once your kids see the industrial-cool playground they’ll be deaf to your pleas to “Stop running” or “Eat first.” Thankfully, a few tables and chairs welcome you right next to the play structure so you can refuel and keep watch. This isn’t your red-checkered picnic blanket scene, but what the park lacks in grassy knolls it makes up in edgy urban details, like sculptural metal archways that spray a cooling mist on warm days. Even the furriest of your family members can stretch his legs in the attached dog park.
Tip: If you’re driving, breeze past the metered streets and park on Adams Street between Peoria and Morgan streets; it’s free.
J.P Graziano Grocery
901 W. Randolph St.
Mary Bartelme Park
115 S. Sangamon St.
After a morning of shopping downtown, you and your squirmy sidekick deserve a break. Take a two-minute walk from Water Tower Place to The Goddess and Grocer and plan a feast with prepped food like crab cakes, butternut squash ravioli and carrot ginger soup. Or put in an order for the signature Goddess Garden Wrap, brie and apple panini, or chorizo torta. Sound too fancy-pants? The kids’ menu has failsafe favorites like PB&J and grilled cheese. If you lose sight of your tot while you’re ordering, don’t be alarmed; he’s glued to the baked goods case, eyeing the dreamy rainbow cake.
Afterward, walk two blocks west on Delaware Place to picturesque Washington Square Park. Lay out your spread close to the fountain in front of Newberry Library for Instagram-worthy shots. It’s a great people-watching spot loaded with history as Chicago’s oldest small park as well as the site of famous soapbox debates.
Tip: Time your visit to take advantage of events at Newberry: It hosts free tours Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and an annual used book fair the last weekend of July.
The Goddess and Grocer
25 E. Delaware Pl.
Washington Square Park
901 N. Clark St.
Load the family bikes and soccer balls and head to Hyde Park for a fresh view of your favorite skyline. But first, stop at Hyde Park Produce and fill up on fresh produce and deli staples. While the foodstuffs here are basic, standouts include house-made guacamole and plantains. If you’re sandwiched out, hot meals like jerk chicken or barbecued ribs will satisfy.
Drive just over a mile to Burnham Park/Promontory Point Park, which was home to Chicago’s second World’s Fair in the early 1930s. Similar to other lakeshore oases around the city, this place wins thanks to its dense, lush greenery and castle-like tower monument. Enjoy hours of unplugged fun on the bike trails or exploring the rocks along the shore.
Tip: There are fire pits, so grab s’mores ingredients and matches from the store. You can also make a full day of it and bring a mini grill and stock up on meats accordingly. The fire pits were originally designed as council rings, so consider the grilling time as a teaching moment for your tribe.
Hyde Park Produce
1226 E. 53rd St.
Burnham Park/Promontory Point Park
5491 S. South Shore Dr.
What do you like to pack in your picnic basket? Let us know in the Comments section below.
— Selena Kohngx
Photos (from top to bottom): @Ron Chapple|Dreamstime.com, Gene’s Sausage Shop & Delicatessen, Chicago Park District, J.P. Graziano Grocery, Chicago Park District, The Goddess and Grocer, Chicago Park District, Hyde Park Produce, Chicago Park District