Smile Politely

Four winning eats of Champaign-Urbana

Old Orchard pizza sliced tavern-style on a metal tray at the Lounge of the bowling alley.
Thin-crust pizza at Old Orchard; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

This year’s March Tournament has been total madness. Over the last two weeks, Smile Politely readers have voted on incredible local eats and drinks in head-to-head battles for the 2024 Food & Drink Championship. The number of competitors have gone from 32 foods and drinks to Sweet 16 to Elite Eight, and now it’s down to the reader-determined Final Four foods. Before the Championship round pits only two dishes against each other, I want to highlight the four winning foods because they’re already winners in my book. That, and writing bi-weekly bracket breakdowns of this delicious tournament has made me hungry for these most victorious bites.

Which four dishes have won reader respect? Here’s a look at the 2024 Final Four food fight: a Sicilian sandwich, diner French toast, barbecue brisket ends, and thin-crust pizza.

The porketta sandwich at Baldarotta's Porketta & Sicilian Sausage in Urbana.
Porketta at Baldarotta’s Porketta & Sicilian Sausage; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Porketta ︱ Baldarotta’s Porketta & Sicilian Sausage

The dark horse of this year’s tournament is the namesake sandwich of Baldarotta’s Porketta & Sicilian Sausage sandwich shop: the porketta ($14). Served hot off the sandwich press, the porketta has sliced pork, provolone, spinach, salsa verde, and pickled banana peppers on warm, homemade focaccia. Nobody else in town is making a sandwich like this. The focaccia is baked in-house, and their salsa verde is made from scratch. The Berkshire pork comes from Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, Illinois and gets slow-roasted with Sicilian herbs, so the slices of pork shoulder are tender and absolutely delicious.

Ranked seventh in its division, the Lincoln Square Mall restaurant’s porketta sandwich defeated Art Mart’s pumpkin cookie (9) in the first food round, BakeLab’s croissants (2) in the second round, and in the last round, the sando beat Manolo’s Spotted Goat (5). In the Final Four matchup, the porketta will battle Black Dog’s burnt ends, the reigning champ of SP’s last Food & Drink Tournament.

Baldarotta’s Porketta & Italian Sausage
300 S Broadway Ave
T-F 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Sa 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Su noon to 3 p.m.

Gus' French toast at Sam's Cafe, one of the final four foods for best in Champaign-Urbana.
Gus’ French toast at Sam’s Cafe; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Gus’ French Toast ︱ Sam’s Cafe

I really love Gus’ French toast at Sam’s Cafe ($4.90 for a half order), and I am beyond thrilled to see this diner breakfast make it to the Final Four round. Available all day, this unpretentious plate of delish costs less than $5 and hits hard every time. A crispy pancake-batter crust surrounds a cakey slice of white bread. It’s the textural contrast for me of the center’s soft, cinnamon-y slice and the ever-so-crisp, caramelized exterior that makes this so special. Add a patch of powdered sugar and a squeeze of syrup, and it’s toast dream come true.

When I went earlier this week, Sam himself made the French toast, and that’s absolutely the charm of a place like Sam’s Cafe. The open kitchen’s aromas and sounds fill the little diner, and the server knows all regulars. I truly adore this French toast, and I’m crossing my fingers that it moves on to the Championship round.

Sam’s Cafe
115 N Walnut Ave
M-W 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Th+F 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Sa 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Su 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Thin-crust pizza at Old Orchard in Savoy.
Thin-crust pizza at Old Orchard; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Last night’s vote was extremely close, but the bowling alley pizza squeaked by to the Final Four round, making it the sole pizza pie to make it this far in the tournament. It had been a while since I had Old Orchard’s thin-crust pizza, so I went for dinner last night with a friend and ordered the 14-inch thin-crust with pepperoni and onions ($19.17). I have to say, it was pretty damn good. On a fresh, homemade crust, the pizza had a sparing layer of sauce, then the toppings, plenty of mozzarella cheese, and a sprinkle of dried herbs. The super, super thin crust tasted crispy like a cracker especially along the circumference of the pie, and I loved how some grease deliciously pooled in the ripples of cheese.

Sliced tavern-style, each piece of pizza was bite-sized though in varying shapes (triangles, squares, and trapezoids, oh my) with some crunchy, saucy, and cheese-less while others were pretty much just squares of gooey cheese clinging to toppings and sauce — but every tiny slice was delicious.

Old Orchard Lounge
901 N Dunlap
M-F 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sa 11 a.m to 9 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Burnt ends platter at Black Dog in Champaign, Iliinois.
Burnt ends at Black Dog; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Burnt Ends ︱ Black Dog Smoke & Ale

Finally, the fourth food that readers have voted to win every round: Black Dog’s legendary burnt ends. The Champaign restaurant takes whole beef brisket and smokes that for 12-14 hours to make this delicious barbecue. The burnt ends that we all love are sliced from the point side of the brisket and are often sold out. This week, I went for lunch and ordered the burnt ends platter ($21.98 with a choice of two sides and two of the restaurant’s housemade sauces). With a barbecued edge, each thick slice of brisket had wonderful fatty ribbons and a delicious, smoky flavor. So tender, the burnt ends were soft, unctuous hunks of meat that cut apart easily with the side of a fork and practically melted in the mouth.

Named one of the best barbecue restaurants in the country by TimeOut New York, Black Dog Smoke & Ale opened their original location in Urbana in 2009 and the Champaign location in 2015. The burnt ends are my favorite thing to get at Black Dog (along with everyone else), but scandalously, I am kind of rooting for something else to win this year since burnt ends already won the last Food & Drink Tournament.

Black Dog Smoke and Ale House
320 N Chesnut Ave
11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily

Vote for which two foods advance to the 2024 Championship matchup here.

Voting for this round ends Sunday, March 31st at 5 p.m.

Food + Drink Editor / / instagram

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