Mario’s Italian Lemonade (Chicago, IL)

I’ve always liked Italian Ice as a treat. While I’ve always had a love for ice cream, there are times when I really am not craving a dairy treat, primarily due to weather or activity (others may vary in this, but for me, the combination of “parched” and “dairy” isn’t at all pleasant). A simple frozen dessert made with fruit, water, sugar, and little else, this dessert goes by a lot of names. Around the East coast it’s often called “water ice”. Growing up in Arizona, there was no standard name for it, but I always fondly remember trips to Sno Oasis (in Tempe, now long gone), or Eegee’s (in Tucson, still a solid regional chain) for a nice frozen snack with real fruit flavors (and possibly some food coloring…). In Chicago (and most of the Midwest), however, these go by the names “Italian Ice” or “Italian Lemonade”… and there’s one well-recognized place to get them in Little Italy/Taylor Street, and that’s Mario’s Italian Lemonade, which was Stop #4 on the Death March.

We stopped at Mario’s for several reasons. First, Mario’s has location. Located in what used to be the front yard of one of four townhouses, Mario’s is literally across the street from Al’s #1 Italian Beef, and makes a perfect stop for a light dessert to offset the rather heavy, and somewhat messy, Italian Beef sandwich that you just ate from Mario’s. Indeed, more than a few people I know from the Chicago area have told me the same story about applying a divide-and-conquer strategy when coming to Taylor Street, in which one half of the group will wait in line at Al’s for the Italian Beefs, and the other half will wait in line at Mario’s, and then both groups will reconvene at the car and eat dinner on the trunk.

Well, in any case, we didn’t have to apply such advanced strategic planning, since we arrived at both Al’s and Mario’s before they opened. Indeed, as I mentioned in the Al’s review, Mario was nice enough to come out and talk to us as we were waiting for both places to open. And indeed, after satisfying my Italian Beef cravings at Al’s, a lemon Italian Ice was the perfect answer, so we wandered across the street.

Al’s has a decent selection, by my count they had at least a dozen flavors on the menu board and back in the freezer case, so there was a variety for most every taste (I know that not everyone is into citrus flavors). But I had to go for the classic lemonade flavor.

What really worked here was the overall texture. Italian Ice should be smooth and wet, like actual ice, and not particularly creamy. Mario’s delivered nicely on this front, with a soft and refreshing texture that was almost, but not quite, liquid. It also had the distinct flavors you get from real lemons instead of bottled or fake lemon juice, with a hint of lemon peel taste in there as well (reinforced by the presences of more than a few little wedges of sliced lemon dispersed in the drink).

It also wasn’t overly sweetened, so this stayed a light dessert and not a heavy one. My only (minor) complaint is that I usually like these to be a little stronger on the lemon side, and a little more sour, but this was a rather pleasant dessert all around. Carol and the other Death Marchers did well with their treats as well (I recall Carol getting Strawberry, and Martin also getting Lemonade, although he wasn’t a fan of the lemon chunks). I’ll certainly agree that most of the locals have a good idea going here: getting an Italian Ice from Mario’s right after Al’s is about as good a pairing as they come.

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