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  • Deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • The meatball sub from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • The Luau pizza from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Cannonball Combo with Italian Beef and spicy sausagefrom Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • The rib basket from Sweet Lou's Pizza in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • A thin-crust pie from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Chief Mac & Cheese from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Garlic knots from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Mozarella slices from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Knot Wings from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

  • Key lime pie from Sweet Lou's in the former Rib Room on East State Boulevard.

Sunday, October 07, 2018 1:00 am

Italian beef steals show at former Rib Room

RYAN DUVALL | The Journal Gazette

Sweet Lou's Pizza

★★★

Out of a possible five

$$

When I first heard about Sweet Lou's Pizza, I was skeptical.

It was the dream of owner Lou Henry, the nephew of building owners Matt, Kurt and Chris Henry who took over the former Rib Room and ran it as an updated version for less than two years before closing the legendary spot at the end of 2017. He was a newbie to the restaurant game but had rave reviews from family and friends about his pizzas.

A lot of people open restaurants based on the high opinions of those close to them, only to find out those opinions are biased. When family and friends stop coming in as often, many don't last because the public has different standards.

But Sweet Lou's has been going strong since January, so that clearly wasn't the case.

The other reason was that Henry was going to specialize in deep-dish, Chicago-style pizza. I have seen many try to do it in Fort Wayne, and few do it well.

Henry made a decent version of the Chicago classic, but it wasn't what I liked best about Sweet Lou's. As a matter of fact, the pizzas were way down on the list of things that made this place worth checking out.

Another Chicago classic that I have struggled to find a good version of here is what I think Henry should hang his reputation on, because it is one of the best versions I have had in the Summit City.

Sweet Lou's Italian beef was tremendous. Instead of thin sliced beef that can easily be overcooked and dry, Henry uses chuck roast and slow-cooks it for hours in a vibrant blend of spices. It was super-tender, dripping wet and worked beautifully in the Cannonball Combo, which included a spicy Italian sausage from Pio Market and a perfectly executed house-made giardiniera to give it plenty of kick.

The most unique taste at Sweet Lou's came from the appetizer menu. The Knot Wings were a clever play on words because they were not chicken wings; they were dough knots that were baked, then flash-fried to make the outside super-crispy before being tossed in sauce.

They held their texture well even when heavily coated in buffalo sauce, and I can't wait to try all the flavors Henry offers. The regular garlic butter knots were also better than your normal knots.

Another nice starter was the fried cheese, which had hand-breaded mozzarella slices instead of sticks. They were crunchy, the breading was nicely seasoned and the cheese was stringy and delicious.

The salads at Sweet Lou's were also top-notch. The spring spinach salad had sliced strawberries, bleu cheese crumbles and walnuts on the fresh greens, along with a tasty vinaigrette. The Greek paid homage to the Rib Room as it had the pineapple, feta, beets, pepperoncini, cherry peppers and Kalamata olives that were the hallmark of the old place.

The Rib Basket appetizer – another Rib Room throwback – had four bones with the right tangy sauce, and the hand-cut fries really made me think of the old place.

There were better fried potatoes, however. The house-made chips that came with sandwiches were super-thin and crispy, and had just enough of a seasoning mix to make them interesting without overdoing it.

I disliked the meatball sub as much as I liked that Italian beef. It was made on a big hunk of Italian bread with cheese and sauce, but it had only four of the rather smallish “house-blend” meatballs which had to be sliced in half to cover the roll. It needed twice as many meatballs to be worth ordering.

I also did not care for the Chief Mac & Cheese side. Its noodles were al dente, but its cheesy sauce was way too runny to cling to those noodles, so it came off bland. It was not “Chief” in any way. Maybe he should rename the Italian beef, which is oddly dubbed the Wabash Cannonball, to the Chief Beef because it is clearly the best thing Henry makes.

Which brings me to the pizza.

The deep-dish Sicilian was made with a cornmeal-heavy crust that became very crunchy in the pan and had a nice flavor. There was plenty of cheese, and it was sauced on top as a good Chicago pie should be, but the sauce was the issue. It was loaded with chopped onions that could not be ignored and that overpowered the tomatoes.

Had there been half the onions, and had those onions been finely diced, it might have had a chance. I was so puzzled there were so many of the onions – an ingredient that most folks ask to be left off of dishes – that I inquired to my server about it.

“Yeah, a lot of people say there are too many onions,” she said. “We started making sauce without them because so many people were asking for it that way.”

If so many people are asking for it without onions that you have gone to the effort to make a second sauce without them, perhaps it is time to look at your recipe.

I tried the onion-free sauce on one of Sweet Lou's thin-crust pizzas and I actually missed the onions.

The plain sauce was just too plain and tasted like basic crushed tomatoes with no seasoning or manipulation. I hope Henry finds a balance between the two sauces, because I think that would make it a winner.

I did like the Luau pizza. Topped with prosciutto, pineapple, pepperoncini and goat cheese, it was wonderfully diverse. The pineapple hit you with sweet-sour goodness, the crumbled goat cheese added creaminess and a little funk, and the peppers gave it zest. The only thing I might have wanted was more prosciutto, but I almost always want more of the yummy Italian ham.

Henry kept the yummy beignets that the Rib Room offered for dessert, but the best dessert was the key lime pie. This individual mini pie had a graham cracker crust and a dusting of lime zest and was sweet, tart and had zero flaws.

The service was a bit flawed. The deep-dish, which the menu warned would take 30 to 45 minutes, arrived after 32, which was great, but one of my servers knew nothing about the menu and wasn't interested in going to get answers to my questions.

The atmosphere at Sweet Lou's was nice, as it had not been altered since the Rib Room closed save for a few minor wall art tweaks and the addition of a table hockey game.

Restaurant: Sweet Lou's Pizza

Address: 1235 E. State Blvd.

Phone: 483-7220

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Pizza

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Knot wings ($6), fried cheese ($8), rib basket ($13), Greek salad ($6 small; $9 large), spinach salad ($5; $8), deep-dish (cheese only $12 for 10-inch; $18 for 14-inch), Luau ($12; $16), Cannonball Combo ($13), meatball sub ($9), key lime ($6)

Rating breakdown: Food: ★1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: ★ (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall's past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.