Upon graduating college in California, I took a friend home to my native Chicago on a road trip that wove through dramatic desert landscapes and weepy southern tree canopies. When we crossed into my home state of Illinois, my co-pilot was dumbfounded—out either window, cornfields and power lines stretched to the ends of the earth in a flat, featureless expanse unlike anything he’d ever seen. I think he half expected a tornado to barrel toward us across the plains.
Illinois is situated squarely in the shadow of Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, which boasts over 9,000 dairy farms relative to our 630—but quantity isn’t everything. That much is obvious in the farmstead tours offered amid prairie cropland, the Mexican and Italian cheesemakers sustaining traditions in Chicago, and a generation of mongers keeping the state hip to industry trends—and even setting them. From resident cheese preacher Erika Kubick of @cheesesexdeath to all-day cafe/cheese counter All Together Now, curd entrepreneurs are making the place a hub of innovation. They’re also demonstrating how a city can #pivot its way into cheese fame with resilient mongers like Alisha Norris Jones (@_immortalmilk) and Randall Felts, who opened his cheese shop Beautiful Rind in the midst of the pandemic.
The cheeses made here are also uniquely Midwestern. That unbroken horizon, the rows and rows of soy and wheat, are a microclimate all their own, where water is filtered through limestone bedrock and cows can be grass-grazed nearly year-round. I grew up taking this prairie landscape for granted—I thought every town looked like this. Viewing it through the eyes of a newcomer, I got for the first time how weird it is. It’s a world all its own, and one you might have to see to believe.
Cheesemakers To Visit
Prairie Fruits is Illinois’s first farmstead cheesemaking operation, and easily the most well-known. “The most famous Illinois cheesemakers are probably Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell,” says Chicago cheese professional and Cheese Culture Coalition board member Agela Abdullah of the folks behind Prairie Fruits. “They do farm dinners, have a babies-and-brunch program during kidding season, and make decadent goat milk gelato.” The popular Champaign destination welcomes visitors to tour the grounds, visit with goats, pick in-season fruits, and witness the cheesemaking process. Their Fleur de la Prairie and Little Bloom on the Prairie cheeses lean into the region’s terroir, as do gelatos that feature Thai basil, lemon verbena, and other mix-ins grown on the property.
Just east of Prairie Fruits, the Ludwig Farmstead Creamery crafts fresh and often raw milk cheeses on the 150-acre grounds of Feathercreek Farm, a fifth-generation family farm settled in 1866. Visitors can tour the grounds to see how their 80 Holstein cattle live, visit with the calves in the milking parlor, see how the cheese is made and taste samples in the creamery, and take home wedges like triple cream Vermilion River Blue and alpine-style Feather Ridge from the farm store.
Seven generations of Marcoots have raised Jersey cows on this farm just over the border from St. Louis. They started making cheese in 2010 and now offer over a dozen types, including tommes, cheddars, goudas, and alpines aged in their underground caves. Visitors can tour these caves and visit with the beautiful brown Jerseys in the calf barn and milking parlor, see cheeses being made behind the creamery’s large windows, or shop the red-and-white country store for some hand-dipped ice cream, fruit-and-whey Extreme Ice, grass-fed beef, and cheesy dog treats.
When I was growing up in Chicago in the ‘90s, there were Wisconsin cheesemakers at the city farmer’s markets, and then there was Stamper Cheese. Owner Brett Stamper’s operation is a hybridized mongering-making-aging model—he sells other people’s cheese, but also crafts modified specialties like triple creme brie layered with apricots and toasted almonds, a soft pistachio log, applewood-smoked cheese sticks, and extra-aged cheddar. He now offers cheese drops and home deliveries, too, proving that not even a pandemic can get in the way of Chicago’s Stamper supply.
The original Caputo’s is a bit of a drive outside Chicago proper, but it’s a trip most deem worth it for the experience provided by this well-stocked Italian market. (They’ve added six more locations throughout the state, though, just in case.) Cheeses from the Bel Paese are sold beside an enormous selection of domestic and international wheels, but the main attractions are the cheeses made on site—Caputo’s crafts their own ricotta, burrata, and mozzarella, the latter sold in many forms including fresh hand tied bocconcini knots. They also have an in-house line of Italian condiments, oils, pastas, and tomato products.
Other Noteworthy Stops
All Together Now! exists for anyone who has ever found themselves utterly overwhelmed at a cheese counter, wishing they could sit down right there and try everything in sight. This all-day eatery, wine shop, and cheese counter in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village will make you a cheese plate with anything in their case; accent it with house-made granola, creamy raw honey, or a malted chocolate sandwich cookie; and let you pick a bottle out of their wine fridge. And they don’t stop at this instant-picnic perfection—ATN is open for brunch, lunch, and dinner, and you can supplement your cheese with things like radicchio blood orange salad, crispy fingerlings topped with lemon powder and malt vinegar mayo, and brothy gigante beans in berbere cream.
Randall Felts opened this Logan Square cheese and wine shop at the start of the pandemic, and it is thriving despite all odds. This is no doubt due to Felts’s dedication to education and access—he hadn’t even been open a year before he began offering virtual education classes, a cheese club, private events, and online ordering for pick-up and delivery. In a city that has seen names like Pastoral Artisan and Marion Street Cheese Market come and go, Felts wants to establish a lasting hub for cheese lovers and cheese professionals alike. “My goal with the shop is to foster a great, diverse monger community that reflects Chicago’s standing as an amazing diverse food city,” says Felts.
The city is lucky to have not one, not two, but three locations of this Guerrerense grocery, started by Nicolas Aguado and Luciano Dominquez. Though they’ve gained a reputation for their selection of over a dozen moles, these shops are cremerias at heart. You can find cheese varieties hailing from Durango to Michoacan to Oaxaca, including queso de cabra, requeson, jocoque, several types of crema, three cajetas, two xinchos, and nata (the cream that forms on the top of boiling milk). Come for the dairy, leave with bags full of huitlacoche, canary seeds, purple tomatillos, lime-flavored grasshoppers, dried guamuchiles, and as many varieties of mole as you can carry.
The Blind Pig is a working brewery with several locations to whet your whistle. Opened by a British ex-pat who moved to the state’s twin cities in the 1990s to join University of Illinois’s School of Chemical Sciences, BP has been experimenting with rotating drafts ever since. Lately, that’s included a grilled pineapple sour called Sponge-Pig Sour-Pants and a DIPA featuring strawberry-forward Strata hops. Blind Pig has made it onto Beer Advocate’s list of best beer bars in the country and is definitely worth a stop after visiting the nearby creameries at Prairie Fruits and Ludwig.
Where To Stay
This restored Italianate mansion is right in the middle of the state, perfect for a historic stopover on your way to or from Chicago. Built in 1869, it’s now a B&B where you’ll eat breakfast at a hand-carved table that once sat U.S.presidents and Eleanor Roosevelt. Rotating menus emphasize seasonality—think spring asparagus frittatas, summer grilled peach mousse, autumnal pecan pumpkin waffles, and wintry brûléed orange French toast. Common areas include a restored library, parlor, and foyer where you can cozy up in inglenooks beside the fireplace.
If you’re looking to see the Windy City in style, this is your spot. The spoils begin outside in the jaw-dropping Gothic exterior of this former athletic club, directly across from the Bean at Millennium Park. The lobby of this late 18th-century hotel will transport you to another time, mosaic tile and terrazzo flooring carrying you from one dining experience to the next (Fairgrounds coffee in the lobby, Cindy’s rooftop atrium, Milk Room bar, and Cherry Circle Room restaurant, to name a few). Or you can skip all that, order Shake Shack to your room, and eat it in the cloth boxing robe that comes with your digs while gazing out over Lake Michigan. When that gets boring, there are indoor bocce courts.
Want to keep traveling? See what other stops are on our cheesy road trip here.