WEST LOOP — The funk is growing nicely at 1111 W. Randolph St.
Inside the drying chamber at West Loop Salumi, coppa, guanciale and other bundles of cured meat hang from racks, their outsides covered in the healthy kind of mold that's crucial to the aging process.
Chicago's first USDA-certified salumeria — the only one in the state approved to use the Old World, nonheat-treated method for dry-curing raw meat — on Thursday began distribution to its wholesale clients and launched its online business. The walk-in retail side should open by early to mid-July.
Charcuterie lovers soon will see the company's products at Half Acre Beer Co. in North Center and Provenance Food and Wine shops. The salumi selection at the forthcoming CH Distillery, 564 W. Randolph St., and the new Langham Hotel, 330 N. Wabash Ave., and the breakfast sausage at the latter, will come from West Loop Salumi.
For 28-year-old owner Greg Laketek, the business has been a few years in the making.
Laketek's background is in blast mitigation, not bresaola-making. He studied international business at the University of Kansas and started a consulting firm to advise contractors specializing in bomb-resistant materials.
But Italy, and eating like an Italian, were in his blood. His family is from Italy, so visits there were part of growing up. He even studied abroad while at KU.
Consulting got old quickly, and the desire to work in food grew stronger. Laketek enrolled at Kendall College, taking night classes. Opening a salumeria, he realized while talking with a fellow student at a bar one night, would fill a void in Chicago.
"Nobody does proper salami," he said.
Finding his grandfather's butcher's union card sealed the deal. He died when Laketek was a baby; until he saw the card, Laketek had no idea his grandpa had been a butcher in Chicago.
After graduating from Kendall in 2010, Laketek went back to Italy to train under Massimo Spigaroli, considered Italy's salumi master.
"He's the culatello king," Laketek said. (Culatello is made from the best part of prosciutto — the front muscle — and cured for up to six years.)
Laketek secured the West Randolph space and started salumi production in October 2010, using recipes he's developed along the way.
Working with him is Jesse Katzman, 30, who has cooked at Avec, the Publican and Blackbird.
Their method for making salumi is how it's been done in Italy for generations. They start with whole animals (from mostly Midwestern farms), cutting, grinding and mixing the meat with spices and wine, depending on the recipe.
Mass-market cured meats often contain added sugars, which speed up the fermenting process and result in a sour flavor. Not so at West Loop Salumi's.
"We'll take four to five days to ferment slowly," Laketek said. "We don't use any sugars at all. Drying can take from a few months up to 18 months."
The finished salumi are shelf-stable for up to a year. On a recent morning, with Kanye West blasting on the speakers, Laketek sliced into finocchiona, or fennel salami — he uses highly prized fennel pollen, "basically the most expensive way of making salami" — revealing a moist, fragrant interior.
Having USDA certification means West Loop Salumi can sell nationally, but maintaining that status requires daily visits from a federal inspector. Laketek and Katzman can process meat only between 6 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. For each new product they make, they first must send the recipe to the USDA for approval, a process than takes about a month, Laketek said.
They have 12 products approved so far, and 3,000 pounds of finished salumi ready for customers.
They plan on making a salami for Half Acre using one of the brewery's beers, and they might team up to make a Half Acre beer that pairs with West Loop salumi, Laketek said.
Jim Graziano, owner of J.P. Graziano Grocery at 901 W. Randolph St., just down the street from the salumeria, has talked to Katzman and Laketek about collaborating on a salami for his shop, to sell by the pound and stuff into piadina, an Italian flatbread sandwich.
Graziano said the pair had scrapped plans to offer sandwiches, knowing his shop and neighbors Little Goat Diner and Publican Quality Meats, already do a brisk business in them.
"I love to see the forethought and consideration going into that decision of continuing to improve the West Loop and not just throwing something out there to get it on the street," Graziano said.
The retail part of West Loop Salumi — really, just the 300-square-foot front room of the 1,100-square-foot storefront, unmarked but for its fire engine-red exterior — will be open only on Saturdays and Sundays, the two days Laketek and Katzman aren't processing meat.
Laketek said he is in the process of getting a cafe license so customers can nosh on charcuterie and wine outside.
In keeping with Old World traditions, Laketek lives in the apartment above the shop. Plans, he said, involve turning his bedroom into another salumi drying chamber.