Max and Benny’s of Northbrook celebrates 30-years

It’s like we’re the only place to come to for people on the North Shore. We even have customers coming to us off the tollway from Wisconsin.” – Lester Schlan, owner of Max and Benny’s

by Long Hwa-shu & Tina Johansson

A stand-out eatery/deli/bakery/catering business all rolled into one, where service is key, and the food is addictive, is celebrating three decades of operation.

Max and Benny’s, named after the sons of owner Lester Schlan and his wife Rhea, is conveniently located in Northbrook near I-94, making it a destination place for those near and far.

Once you experience Max and Benny’s, you are sure to be back time and again.

For fresh bagels, come to Max and Benny’s which makes them every morning. – Tina Johansson photos

Not only does it offer American staples like buttermilk pancakes, burgers and an array of salads, the place is known for its Jewish delights: fresh-made bagels and bialys, matzo ball soup, kreplach, and mandel bread, among others.

Famous for its Reubens, all you need to do is try one and you’ll know why. The nearly three-inch tall grilled sandwich comes with one-half pound of corned beef on rye surrounded by Swiss cheese topped with sauerkraut, and a side of Thousand Island dressing. Accompanying it are a slice of dill pickle and a cup of cole slaw, which by the way, is tops in our book. Tangy and fresh, good cole slaw is a testament to any deli’s sides.

Another excellent choice is the No. 2, also called “Grandpa’s Favorite.” This sandwich includes a thick schmear of sweet chopped liver – the secret is a combination of chicken and beef for a smooth taste – corned beef, and pastrami on rye.

A "Grandpa's Favorite" sandwich with chopped liver, corned beef and pastrami.
A “Grandpa’s Favorite” sandwich with chopped liver, corned beef and pastrami.

You certainly don’t have to be Jewish or even be from New York to enjoy the food at this popular restaurant. There is literally something for everyone. Check out the seven-page menu jammed with hundreds of entrees, sides and beverages. (There are separate menus for desserts and alcoholic drinks).

“It’s like we’re the only place to come to for people on the North Shore. We even have customers coming to us off the tollway from Wisconsin,” said Schlan, patriarch of the place which resembles a big food mart spanning 12,000-square feet. The restaurant seats 280 and the entire operation employs 90 people.

The owner takes pride that everything is made on the premises from bread to bagels, cookies, and cakes; and from soups to sandwiches, burgers and dinner entrees like baked or fried chicken, grilled lamb chops, skirt steak or salmon. Schlan prides himself as having a passion for baking.

The quantity of certain foods it sells is truly amazing. It makes, for instance, chicken soup in a cooker which boasts a capacity of 80 gallons. Not to overload it, the soup maker churns out three batches a day with 50 gallons for each batch. That’s 150 gallons a day which is a lot of Matzo ball soup by any measure.

Schlan grew up on Chicago’s South Side where his late father, Julius, and an uncle owned a restaurant supply business which he said he practically ran in its final years before it was sold in 1984. Entrepreneur-minded, Schlan always wanted to strike it out of the ballpark on his own.

While a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign studying European history, Schlan got his feet wet selling records at a discount as a service of the student government, which he called another “good experience in learning how to run a business.”

Lester Schlan thumbing through clippings and photos of Max and Benny’s 30-year history.

He remembers it well, laughing: “I had to stuff weekend receipts of cash and checks under my mattress because the banks were closed.”

At one point he even made cardboard circles for pizza pies. “Pizza was starting to become really popular in those days,” he said.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1971, he opened a coffee shop on campus that featured different flavors, a rarity then. With his passion for baking, he made cheese cake and muffins in several flavors that were selling for 25 cents each.

Ever enterprising, he saw a new use for an empty Montgomery Ward store and wanted to turn it into an entertainment center with restaurants and bands playing. His plans were scotched when the Small Business Administration rejected his loan application, which ironically turned out to be his lucky break. It paved the way for opening the restaurant.

In 1986 the Schlans founded Max and Benny’s at the corner of Pfingsten and Willow roads in Glenview. After eight years, they found the need for a place bigger than the 4,700 square feet they had, in order to accommodate the burgeoning clientele.

They moved to Northbrook, and leased 8,000 square feet in May 1994. Still not big enough, later they took over another 4,000 square feet in an adjoining room and merged it into one sprawling operation spanning a whopping 12,000 square feet. The place was busy with diners and shoppers at noon on one recent Tuesday.

“I feel for my employees. Obamacare saved one of them who had lung cancer,” said Schlan as customers kept on streaming in, many of whom he greeted by their first names.

In the kitchen, it was a beehive of activity with workers cooking, grilling and filling orders. One man was making coleslaw by the bucketful. Another was shaping dough into bagels at a bagel-making machine. Close by was a huge pot where bagels are boiled first before being baked, the traditional way of making them.

Several employees were decorating big cookies shaped like the insignias of the Chicago Bulls and the Blackhawks. Schlan pointed out that the cookies sell like hot cakes. In fact in 2008 when Barak Obama was running for president, the place made cookies that looked like him. They sold hundreds of them and were inundated with calls from the press, including those as far away as Germany.

“They are designed by Ben and are big sellers,” said Schlan with obvious pride of his younger son who is the manager. The cookies do sell like hot cakes. In fact in 2008 when Barak Obama was running for president, the place made cookies that looked like him. They sold hundreds of them and were inundated with calls from people as far away as Germany.

Ben, 31, is a 2007 graduate of Bradley University where he received his B.A. in fine arts. Max, the elder son, 35, lives in Long Island, and is a bankruptcy attorney with a law degree from Hofstra University School of Law. He also has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality from Boston University.

Schlan, who is 67, said he used to put in 90 hours a week. With his son Ben as the manager, these days he works about 7 hours a day. “I’m the CEO and he’s the president,” he said, adding, “It’s good to have someone you love and trust to work by your side.”

One of the joys of visiting Max and Benny's is getting to enjoy their fresh-baked rolls and bagel chips.
One of the joys of visiting Max and Benny’s is enjoying its fresh-baked rolls and bagel chips.

With Passover nearing, an important Jewish holiday which commemorates the emancipation of Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, the restaurant is doubly busy to prepare for the traditional meals. The menu features matzo ball soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish, brisket, chicken, tsimme (a sweet stew made from carrots and dried fruits), potato and matzo kugels, and assorted desserts.

“We’re pretty much booked for the first two nights of Passover, April 22-23,” said Schlan as he prepared to take a drive with Ben to Maywood to have the restaurant’s liquor license renewed.

“I have to be finger-printed for that,” he added as he smoothed out a fresh shirt for the ritual.

For people wishing to eat at home, the restaurant offers an extensive “To Go” menu.

“Many of our Passover recipes have been passed down from one generation to the next including several from my grandmother, Bubbie Gussie. Her secret ingredients for making kugel and gefilte fish are still being used in our kitchen,” Schlan gushed.

To celebrate Passover at Max and Benny’s call 847.272.9490 for reservations. Meals will take place Friday April 22 and Saturday April 23. The first seating is at 4 p.m. Cost for adults is $32.95, and $15.95 for children 10 and under. Hurry! There are a still some spots available.

Max and Benny’s is at 461 Waukegan Road, Northbrook. Phone: 847.272.9490. Visit: info@maxandbennys.com. Hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Breakfast is served all day. There are gluten-free specialties and daily vegetarian soups. Specials are offered each day of the week. The owner is working to put vegan dishes on the menu.

The bakery at Max and Benny’s offers delicious cookies and pastries including mandel bread.

 

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