Nonna’s Sandwiches and Sundries (photo credit: Kailley Lindman)

9 unexpected local Chicago treats to bring to a dinner party

By Nicole Schnitzler

There’s nothing we love more than a good dinner party, and nothing our hosts love more than our fine company—except, perhaps, when we knock their socks off with rad gifts. And thanks to a handful of to-go products from the city’s top talent, we now have little reason for falling back on the old reliable bottle of wine. From bread and olive oil to caramels and gin, here are nine of the best local bets for making an impression at your next dinner fete.

Caramels from ¡Caramelo!
What started as gifts for her friends and family quickly grew into a full-blown line of from-scratch caramels, which pastry chef Ana Ramos officially launched in November 2013. Since then, the offerings have grown to include six seasonal flavors—fleur de sel, pepita, lavender, apple cider, chocolate, and gingerbread—all of which are made from locally sourced and natural ingredients.

Beer from Aquanaut
Founder Eric McNeil began brewing about 10 years ago, and in 2012 he launched Aquanaut, a local line of English-inspired beers that include year-round and seasonal offerings. Currently in seasonal rotation is The Misterioso, a coffee porter brewed with beans from local coffee roaster Bow Truss. Beyond the beer itself, the captivating label art—courtesy of McNeil’s graphic design background—is bound to break the ice at any party.

Spent Grain bread from Hewn Bakery
This Evanston-based bakery teamed up with Sketchbook Brewing Company for their spent grain bread, a dinner starter that requires the brewery’s spent grains to be folded into the dough pre-oven. The result—a nutty and hoppy loaf—is the perfect accompaniment to a triple cream or sharp cheese.

Toffee from KP Toffee
This handcrafted, small-batch toffee company foregoes preservatives and focuses on high-quality ingredients for its many different flavors of crunch, from milk chocolate and peppermint, to pumpkin and coffee. The team even hand breaks the toffee before it meets the bag, making it shareable from the start.

Olive oil and balsamic vinegar from Piccolo Sogno
The best gifts are the ones with a story, and this olive oil, which packs aromas of citrus and fennel, has a great one: It’s made by chef Tony Priolo’s cousin, who has a grove of Biancolilla and Cerasuola olives in Sicily. Don’t forget to pair it up with the restaurant’s vinegar, a 15-year aged balsamic from Modena, to enhance everything from cheeses and berries, to fish and pasta.

The Sunday Gravy from Nonna’s Sandwiches and Sundries
At Nonna's, the sister sandwich and sundries shop next to Formento's, they focus on to-go eats and a handful of retail finds, including wine, giardiniera, and marinara. For a surefire crowd pleaser, opt for the Sunday gravy—a sauce of pancetta, sweet fennel sausage, and roasted pork neck bones that pairs up perfectly with noodles and big red wines.

GT Hot Sauces from GT Fish & Oyster
When the demand for the sauces he offered at GT Fish & Oyster reached critical mass, Michelin-starred chef Giuseppe Tentori decided to launch the bottles in retail form. The line consists of two flavors right now—Smoulder, with coal-fired red chiles, and Burn, a medium heat salsa verde—and soon enough you’ll see Scorch, a limited edition and high heat expression.

CH Key gin from CH Distillery
The team at this local distillery set out to create a gin that would be lighter and more floral than others out there, thereby giving guests a chance to experience the positive possibilities of the spirit. Aptly referred to as their “gateway gin,” this bottle is full of flavors ranging from key limes and lavender, to white pepper and juniper.

Exotic truffles and caramel marshmallows from Vosges Haut Chocolate
Founder Katrina Markoff’s time spent in Paris, Spain, Southeast Asia, and Australia has served as research for her exotic truffle line, the company’s signature collection of chocolates that reflects locations spanning the globe. For something a bit closer to home, check out the caramel marshmallows, which come in three fluffy flavors: blood orange-hibiscus, roasted walnut-pecan, and black salt-coconut.

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