Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a look at how Puerto Rican mainstay Jibaritos y Más turned into a Chicago essential.
When Jibaritos y Más opened on an unassuming corner of Chicago’s Logan Square in 2016, it would have been easy to assume it was a holdover from pre-gentrified Logan Square.
By then, Chicago was making a name for itself as a hot dining destination. Bon Appétit and Condé Nast Traveler magazines were only moments away from crowning the Second City as the number-one restaurant city. And no neighborhood was more in demand than Logan Square. The area exuded effortless cool, even being named as one of the nation’s top 15 hottest neighborhoods by real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield in 2016. Award-winning restaurants sprouted on the tree-lined boulevards, hipster cafés dotted every corner, and bars boasted about their resident mixologist.
But dining wasn’t the only buzzworthy word surrounding Logan Square. The new businesses were a sign that the neighborhood was gentrifying rapidly, from a majority Latinx community with a sizable Puerto Rican population to one that was whiter and wealthier.
It’s against this complicated backdrop that Yelitza Rivera opened her tiny Puerto Rican restaurant. With its busy take-out counter and no-frills tables, Jibaritos y Más chased no trends. Instead, it honored the longstanding community that had kept the neighborhood going before the “cool” factor came into play.
How a Venezuelan immigrant ended up creating one of the city’s iconic Puerto Rican restaurants is a tale shaped by the city’s own history of immigration, gentrification, and food.
From megamall to mini chain
Rivera arrived in Chicago from her native Maracaibo, Venezuela 20 years ago. She first worked at a Puerto Rican food stall in Logan Square’s infamous Megamall, an indoor flea market that served as a hub for the Latinx community. A few years later, she moved on to Ponce Restaurant, another neighborhood fixture, where she continued to immerse herself in the island’s culinary traditions.
“She got good at it and that’s what she dedicated her life to,” her son Jesús Arrieta — who also manages the family business — says. “She worked here, she worked there, saved a little money. She knew all the tricks and whistles to open a restaurant.”
After 15 years of working for others, Rivera fulfilled her dream of opening her own place in 2016 when she took over an old Puerto Rican restaurant on Fullerton Avenue. Her concept was simple: Use her finely honed expertise to put out Puerto Rican dishes with fresh ingredients at affordable prices.
Though the neighborhood was transforming, Arrieta says there was never any concern about whether a restaurant like Jibaritos would work in gentrifying Logan Square. “We never thought about that,” he says. “We were so busy trying to make it happen and working nonstop that we didn’t have time to stress.”
It would have also been unnecessary. Customers filed in the minute Rivera opened the doors. Business was so good that they opened a second location on Harlem Avenue just two years later. A year after that, they opened a third location right next to their original spot. Even during the pandemic, the Jibaritos y Más mini chain has continued to expand, this time into Lincoln Park.
When thinking about their rapid success, Arrieta hearkens back to his mother’s strong ties to the neighborhood. “My mom built a really good relationship with the community,” he says. “People like her food and it started off from there.”
A Chicago legacy
While diners flock to Jibaritos for criollo hits such as garlicky mofongo (mashed and fried plantain balls), succulent lechon (roasted pork), and crisp alcapurrias (plantain fritters), there is one very Chicago specialty that the restaurant prides itself on: the jibarito.
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint the original mastermind, the plantain sandwich is as Chicagoan as a shot of a malort after a Cubs game. A classic jibarito consists of beef, tomatoes, and lettuce held between two fried, pressed plantains, with mayo and minced garlic as its main condiment. It was a popular item back in Rivera’s Megamall days and one of their biggest sellers today.
At Jibaritos y Más, customers can choose from traditional fillings like steak and roasted pork or opt for less obvious choices such as morcilla (blood sausage) made in-house or octopus and shrimp. “We try to innovate, to change things up,” Arrieta says. “We want to go in a little different direction as everybody else does.”
The wide selection of jibaritos reflects one of Arrieta’s goals: to solidify the sandwich’s reputation as a Chicago original. “We’re trying to make it a staple of Chicago. Italian beef, deep dish pizza, and now jibaritos. Something that you come to Chicago to eat,” he says.
It’s a dream he maintains even as the restaurant faces the challenges the pandemic has wrought. Takeout has always been a big part of the business, but delivery fees have taken a toll. Opening a new location in the middle of the crisis was, as Arrieta puts it, “a nightmare. We didn’t even get a bailout from the government,” he adds. Nevertheless, the ongoing popularity of the other locations helped them pull through the rough start.
Any of these factors — gentrification, lack of government support, a global pandemic — could have easily shuttered one or all of their locations. Yet the foundation Rivera created by immersing herself in the neighborhood has proven more powerful. As a self-identified “adopted Puerto Rican,” Rivera leaned into the community that gave her a first taste of the American Dream. In return, they’ve remained loyal to her food.
“Since the day we first opened, Logan Square has been changing non-stop,” Arrieta says. “But it’s a beautiful community, a beautiful neighborhood.”
Ines Bellina is a Chicago-based freelance writer, storyteller, and bon vivant. Follow her on Twitter: @ibwrites.