Local Chicago Pizzeria Wins a Slice of the Pie at National Pizza Competition

Proving no one knows Chicago flavors like Chicago folk, pizzaioli and pizza acrobats vied for glory in the U.S. Pizza Team’s competition at the National Pizza & Pasta Show.


The U.S. Pizza Team (USPT) and the National Pizza & Pasta Show (NPPS) hosted the 2022 Chicago U.S. Pizza Cup & Acrobatic Trials (CUSPC) August 24-25 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., and the best pizzaioli and pizza acrobats from Chicago, the surrounding areas and beyond answered the call to competition.

Celebrating one of America’s favorite styles of pizza, Chicago style, competitors were asked to demonstrate their pizza prowess with both deep-dish and tavern-style submissions. A panel of local pizza celebs, operators and pizza industry vendors helped decide who has the best deep-dish and tavern style in the Windy City. On the line: a trip to take part in an international competition in 2023.

It’s no surprise that top honors in both culinary categories went to a Chicago native. Lenny Rago of Panino’s Pizzeria in Evanston, Ill., swept the culinary competition, taking first place for both his deep-dish and tavern-style submissions. Starting with a six-hour, bulk-risen and 24-hour cold-fermented dough, the Panino’s Traditional Deep-Dish pie is built around the pizzeria’s homemade Italian sausage, Galbani’s Sliced Whole and Part-Skim Milk Cheeses, and Margherita Sliced Pepperoni. It also showcases a tomato sauce seasoned with Stanislaus Tomato Magic and sprinkled with a blend of oregano, Romano and Parmesan cheeses before the bake.

Rago’s winning tavern-style submission, Panino’s signature pizza, featured a thin-crust base topped with a blend of Galbani Whole and Part-Skim Milk and provolone cheeses, and homemade Italian sausage. The pie is baked, then topped with oregano. Rago also won the overall competition with his combined scores, earning him a trip to compete internationally in 2023.

Panino’s partners Lenny Rago, Bruno Brunetti and Gino Rago Celebrate the Double Win

“A winner never stops trying,” Rago said. “Before this competition came up, I was the first person to compete in Las Vegas with a tavern-style pizza, and no one understands it. I wanted to bring awareness to Chicago-style thin crust. This competition allowed me to stay in my lane!”

Coming in second and third places for the overall “Best Chicago Style” award were RC Gallegos of RC’s NYC Pizza & Pasta in Houston, Tex., and Miguel Gonzalez of Moretti Ristorante Pizzeria in Chicago.

Taking second and third places, respectively, in the deep-dish category were first-time competitors Chloe Czwerinsky of Uncle Jerry’s Pizza Company in Cary, Ill., for the Uncle Jerry’s Classic Sausage Pizza and Miguel Gonzalez for the Moretti’s Old School Sausage Pizza.

Grabbing second and third places in the tavern-style category were RC Gallegos with his House Award-winning Sausage and Pepperoni Tavern Pie, and local pizzaiolo Giovanni Labbate of Tievoli Pizza Bar in Palatine, Ill., with a pizza called The Chicago, featuring a butter crust, tomato sauce, fresh Italian sausage, whole-milk mozzarella, Parmesan and oregano.

The second day of the CUSPC brought the acrobatic events highlighting Largest Dough Stretch, Fastest Pie Maker and the always anticipated and visually stunning Freestyle Acrobatics.

First up was the Largest Dough Stretch. With each competitor having five minutes to stretch out an 18-ounce dough ball, patience is the key to success. First place went to Josh Owens of Mad Mushroom in Lafayette, Ind., with his stretch of 30.81”. Owens was closely followed by McKenna Carney and Kevin Knott, both of The Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor, Fla., with their stretches of 28.88” and 26.75” respectively.

Next up was Fastest Pie Maker. This event sees competitors stretching out 5-10-ounce dough balls as fast as they can to completely cover a 10” pizza screen. Veteran USPT speedster David Whisker of B.C. Pizza in Boyne City, Mich. won first place with a lightning-fast time of 48 seconds flat. Second and third places went to Kevin Knott with his time of 54.22 seconds and Josh Owens at 59.85 seconds.

McKenna Carney of the Nona Slice House in Safety Harbor, Florida spins into the win at the Chicago US Pizza Cup

Finally came the always exhilarating Freestyle Acrobatics. Taking top honors with her fast-paced, high-energy routine was McKenna Carney. Carney competed at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, earlier this year and is hungry for a second chance at glory. Following closely behind in second and third places were Kevin Knott and competitive spinning veteran Matt Hickey of Davide Pizzeria in Pittsburgh, Penn.

All competitors will have another chance to win the coveted grand prize trip to an international culinary and spinning competition in 2023 by competing at the East Coast U.S. Pizza Cup and Acrobatic Trials, taking place Nov. 9-10 at the Pizza Tomorrow Summit in Orlando.

Other competitors in the Chicago U.S. Pizza Cup included David Solum of Danger Von Dempsey’s in Aberdeen, S.D.; Maximus Durocher of Tiki Sam’s Pizza in Horton, Mich.; Peter Anderson of Gelsosomo’s Pizza in Crown Point, Ind.; and Candido Gonzalez of Moretti Ristorante Pizzeria in Chicago.

The CUSPC was sponsored by PizzaMaster, Grain Craft, Somerset, Dutchess Bakers and Perfect Crust Pizza Liners. The USPT is sponsored by Galbani Professionale US, Margherita Meats, La Nova, Real California Milk, Grain Craft, Burkett Restaurant Equipment and Supplies, Univex, MFG Tray, Perfect Crust Pizza Liners, Lillsun Peels, and Throw Dough.

Brian Hernandez

Brian Hernandez