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Eli's Cheesecake Factory Tour

Visiting the land of 12,000 cheesecakes.
Monday Nov 20, 2006.     By Kate Rockwood
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Anyone with a sweet tooth worth its weight in chocolate enamel knows that Chicago is home to the Eli's Cheesecake Company. But did you know that the factory, which pumps out upwards of 12,000 cheesecakes a day is open to the public for tours...and tastes?

Located on the Northwest Side, Eli's factory tour is a no-lose proposition: a bit of history, a belly of silky sweet cheesecake and a bevy of trivia bits mean even the most casual fan will find it well worth the trip.

Sign me up: The 30-minute Cheesecake Decorating tour costs $12.95 per person. A pared-down Sneak Peek bakery tour costs $3 for adults and $2 for children (must be at least five years old). The tours begin at 1 p.m. Monday-Friday, year-round. Rubber-soled, closed-toed shoes are required, as is donning a provided hair net.

Sites you'll see: This tour is as much about what you'll smell and taste as what you'll see. Following a slide show presentation, you'll walk through the factory doors, where you'll be slammed in the nose with the addictive aroma of thousands of cheesecakes baking and cooling. Check out the flats of cream cheese (more than 1,200 pounds are used daily) and gawk at the conveyer-belt oven that bakes each cheesecake before sending it up a 24-foot rotating cooling tower.

Watch a group of workers de-pan the cheesecakes by hand before you head to the decorating station, where the frozen cheesecakes get topped with fruit sauce, whipped cream or candy, all of it applied by hand. After attempting to decorate your own cake, you're led back into the cafe where you can kick back with a slice of complimentary cheesecake in your choice of flavor.

Golden nugget: After watching the pros pipe whipped cream onto a cake faster than most people can spell their name, it's humbling to try your hand at your very own cake. A station of colored icing, nuts, chocolate chips and sprinkles is available in the decorating station, with each person getting a small cheesecake to personalize and take home. After struggling for an embarrassing length of time to write "Eli's" across my cake, I made do with a scrawled, sprawling "E" and lots of chocolate chips.

Who's da guide: Tour guides are the same folks who work in the adjoining Eli's cafe, mainly twenty-somethings with a surprising knack for retaining trivia. My guide answered even the most minutiae-laden questions. (The most expensive ingredient Eli's uses? The vanilla, which is flown in from Madagascar at $100 per gallon.)

Fuel your tank: Go empty and go early. You can score an awesome lunch before the tour in the café, where sandwiches and melts make up the bulk of the menu (the chicken salad sandwich with pecans and grapes is craveable).

Two giant bakery cases are laden with goodies that Eli's doesn't sell elsewhere, like brownies, cupcakes and flourless chocolate cake (a favorite of nearly every staff person I quizzed on what, besides the cheesecake, was jaw-droppingly good). There are also plenty of free samples, a bounty of normally priced cakes and the "sweet imperfections," cheesecakes with cracked surfaces or smushed areas sold at a deep discount.

Snooze-fest or eye-opener: The sleepiness you'll feel as you leave the factory is more likely to be a sugar-induced food coma than a response to the tour itself. Short, informative and tasty, the tour is well worth the half-hour and couple of bucks that it costs.

Even locals will learn: That Eli's wasn't always famous for its cheesecake—the founder opened his first restaurant, the Ogden Huddle, in 1940 and his second, Eli's The Place for Steaks, in 1966, which was a popular hang-out for folks like Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. It wasn't until 1980 that Eli's Cheesecake Company was born, debuting at the first Taste of Chicago.

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