DUNNING — Eli's Cheesecake is set to redefine sweet home Chicago as the Windy City institution celebrates its new vegan cheesecake during National Cheesecake Week.
The idea was born when actress Gwyneth Paltrow — whose disdain for dairy and other animal products is famous — asked the family-run company if it could create one that didn't taste like cardboard.
"We said, 'We can do that,' " said Debbie Marchok, the vice president of marketing for Eli's. "We found there was a real need for a vegan dessert that tastes good."
It took a while for Eli's research and development team to perfect the recipe and get the right balance of silken tofu and daiya cheese, Marchok said.
"It is something new for us," said Marc Schulman, whose father, Eli, founded the company in 1980. "But that ability to adapt an idea into a product and get it right, that's what's going to help us grow and continue our business."
And a good deal of that business involves giving back to the Far Northwest Side community that nurtured the bakery and helped it grow into one of Chicago's iconic food companies, Schulman said.
"Our mission is to be more than a factory," Schulman said. "We have an obligation to the community."
Schulman tries to make the most of Chicago's "too short" summers by hosting a variety of events, including a weekly farmers market from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays through Oct. 25 and a classic car show from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday to cap off National Cheesecake Week.
"Summers at Eli's are pretty special," Schulman said.
The car show will benefit the New Horizon Center for the Disabled, 6737 W. Forest Preserve Drive.
Eli's partners with the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, providing its students with job shadowing, mentor programs and internships. Its cakes are made with honey harvested by the school's student beekeepers, and a portion of the proceeds goes toward scholarships for the students.
"We appreciate our roots," Schulman said.
Schulman said he isn't content to coast on Eli's name and reputation, which got a boost recently when the Chicago Tribune reported that Mayor Rahm Emanuel spent more than $50,000 on cheesecakes for friends and political associates.
And to keep the 230-employee Dunning-based company growing, Schulman has turned to social media to keep in touch with his customers.
"We've discovered that a lot of young people are foodies and are into sustainability," Marchok said. "It is a good way to communicate our message to a new generation."
Starting Wednesday, Eli's will celebrate National Cheesecake Week with a host of events, including a roving Twitter giveaway, with the Eli's Cheesecake Mobile giving away free slices at locations revealed at @ElisCheesecake.
Also on Wednesday, a different flavor of cheesecake will be given away every hour at Eli's Bakery Cafe, 6701 W. Forest Preserve Drive.
On Thursday, free cheesecake samples will be available from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the cafe, and The Happiness Club, and students from After School Matters will perform from noon-1 p.m.
On Friday, live music will accompany a free cheesecake buffet from 3-5 p.m. on the cafe's patio.
On Saturday, free cheesecake samples will be available from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. at the cafe, and from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. attendees can play family-friendly cheesecake games, including bingo and hula hoop.
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