Not many of us can say that we learned all we need to know as a fifth grader. But we're not Danny Lena. Every fall from the age of 10, Lena helped his grandfather string peppers at their Des Plaines farm. Come December he and Papa dressed the now crispy peppers in minimal seasoning and served them to the family as an Italian delicacy. Lena has continued the tradition over the past 40 years, seasoning the old method with a few up-to-date adjustments in preparation (like using an oven instead of hang-drying). It was strictly a labor of love, with his family members and friends as the sole beneficiaries, until he realized that he was sitting on his life's calling.
Three kitchens, one patent and many recipes later, Lena and his wife, Marie, now spend their days churning out roasted beet, sweet potato and poblano chips for wholesale orders from Foodstuffs, East Bank Club, various farmers markets and a handful of high-end restaurants, including Avec and Blackbird.
Weekends welcome over-the-counter business at the pint-size Ukrainian Village storefront. (If you're looking for anything other than beet chips, which are available by the busload, place an order ahead of time.) In addition to Lena's various dips, sauces and dressings, which incorporate the roasted pepper as their key ingredient, the team whips up made-to-order coconut, limoncello lemon and chocolate chip banana cakes (about $30). Impress your party with a tray of chips and dip, serving 14-20 guests, or Italian sausage-topped, Sicilian pizzas ($40-$55), slathered with the signature pepper-chip-infused sauce.
Average cost: $10-$20
Centerstage Reviewer: Jessica Herman