When I first moved to Chicago in my early 20s, my aunt and uncle would visit and take me out for a wonderful dinner. It was a lovely change from the Hollywood Diner, which was all I could afford at the time. They travel quite frequently, so truly know the hot spots to go for excellent food and delicious wine. I recall dining at an Italian restaurant right off of Michigan avenue, and I had Frutti Di Mare; I recall thinking “Nothing could ever top this.” Well, last week at Merlo’s in Highland Park, almost exactly ten years later, I was proven wrong.
I have been in search of a truly divine and authentic Italian restaurant in the suburbs, and am thrilled to say that I finally found one! We arrived at Merlo’s and were promptly seated on the outdoor patio. The warm teak tables are surrounded by tall cypress trees and pots of colorful flowers, with chic heaters interspersed throughout to ensure a comfortable dining atmosphere. Italian music is piped in at a level that drowns outside noise but still contributes to the mellow experience.
The menu is complete without being overwhelming- there are the classic dishes such as Spaghetti & Meatballs, and unique offerings like the Brick Chicken. I find that asking the waitstaff what they recommend is a good indication of the food- our waiter practically gushed over his favorite dishes, and had so many favorites he ended up saying that truly everything on the menu is excellent.
I selected the Char-Grilled Calamari to start, and the presentation was pristine. Four large pieces of squid were grilled to perfection, which is difficult to do with this particular dish. You MUST order this if you like calamari- it is a “destination dish” in my book!
We then moved on to salads- Merlo’s Salad for me and Chopped Salad for my husband. Fresh, crisp vegetables mixed with lettuce and a type of honey vinaigrette. The wine menu is comprehensive- if you like Zinfandel, they have an amazing by the glass offering I highly recommend.
On to the main course- I ordered the Margherita Pizza- a 12 inch masterpiece baked in their brick oven, and my husband ordered the seafood linguini with shrimp and scallops. My pizza was incredibly flavorful, with fresh basil seasoning every bite.
The seafood was the true star- massive and succulent shrimp and scallops adorned al dente linguine, all smothered in a delicate yet robust tomato sauce. HEAVEN. After dining, the next day my husband and I both mentioned to friends that we had visited Merlo’s- EVERY single person declared that it is their favorite spot for Italian food. I can now honestly say I am in complete agreement!
I could have stayed on the patio all evening, but we were off to Ravinia to see Gipsy Kings. We took the train to the “Ravinia” stop where Merlo’s is located, and walked from the restaurant a block to a free shuttle that drops you off right at the Ravinia gates.
If you have never been to Ravinia, please make this a summer bucket list item! It is the oldest outdoor music festival in the United States- their doors officially opened in 1904 and they have been entertaining crowds ever since. Thirty six sprawling tree-covered acres offer an enchanted forest-like setting to enjoy some of the biggest names in music. You are allowed to bring your own food and drink into the park (but not the pavilion, so drink up!). We sat in the pavilion for this particular show, and loved seeing the ten-man talent that the Gipsy Kings deliver up close.
As for festival fashion, I chose a basic black dress with a sheer maxi overlay that I snagged for less than $20 at TJ Maxx years ago. My necklace is a an Iced Lariat Pendant from BaubleBar (on sale right now for $26 in gold), earrings are vintage obsidian surrounded by pavé that I purchased in Mexico. Bracelet is the Perry Street Sophia Bracelet from Rocksbox (head to rocksbox.com and enter the code cherylbff54 for a free month of jewelry rental!!).
I pulled my hair half back in a vintage rhinestone clip that was handed down from my grandma.
Shoes are Steve Madden low gladiators with hematite studded accents that I purchased years ago. These are a great offering this season, though:
What are you wearing this festival season? Are you planning a date night? Tell me about your summer!
Disclosure: A HUGE thank you to Merlo’s for providing an excellent dinner and to Ravinia for tickets for review purposes- all opinions are honest and my own.