Sunday, June 23, 2019

The History of D.B. Kaplan's, the legendary Chicago Delicatessen & Restaurant. (1976-1995)

In 1976, brothers Larry and Mark Levy opened D.B. Kaplan's Delicatessen with a third partner, Donald Berton Kaplan, on the 7th floor of Chicago's Water Tower Place at 835 North Michigan Avenue.
Eadie Levy had her work cut out for her in 1978 when her sons, Larry and Mark, called her in her native city of St. Louis, Missouri, for help. They had to. Patrons at their first restaurant were making comments like, “Are you trying to kill me with that food?” The matzo balls were as hard as a new, finger-breaking Chicago 16" Clincher softball. The chopped liver was made from beef instead of chicken. Oy vey!

Mrs. Levy traveled to Chicago armed with treasured family recipes for chicken soup, potato salad, and blintzes. The kitchen turnaround was dramatic. Within two weeks after my mom arrived, people said, ‘Wow!’ This food is great. D.B. Kaplan's diners couldn’t get enough of her noshes. And they loved how she remembered their names, asked about their families and gave advice.

Employees found they could always go to Mrs. Levy with a problem. Quietly, she did good deeds. A woman struggled to keep a job, and Mrs. Levy paid for her dental reconstruction because she thought that might be the problem. The lively D.B. Kaplan's offered more than 100 sandwich creations, all bearing groan-worthy, punny names, like the Lake Shore Chive, with roast beef and cream cheese with chives on black bread, and the Studs Turkey for radio journalist Studs Terkel, with beef tongue, hot turkey breast, Canadian bacon, cranberry sauce and shredded lettuce on French bread. National celebrities were not spared either. The Hammy Davis, Jr. was ham salad on a BLT with mayo on whole-wheat toast.

D.B. Kaplan's Deli won the 1977 Great Menu Award from the National Restaurant Association.

In January of 1990, D.B . Kaplan's Deli introduced their jazzy new menu, naming many sandwiches after sports figures; Ham Dunk; The Mike Ditka Show (lots of tongue and always hot); Rye Sandburg (good lookin'); William "Refrigerator" Perry )three-foot, triple-decker); McMahonwich (still a Chicago favorite); Wayne Gretzky (guaranteed to make you score), or Mike McCaskey (beef and turkey). See many crazy dish names on the menu I linked in this article.  CLICK MENU ─►

It was a more innocent, sillier, and arguably more fun time for creative restaurateurs. Sadly, D.B. Kaplan's closed in 1995. Kaplan's "lost their lease," meaning that Water Tower Tower tried to raise the rent, the percentage of sales they get, or both.

In 1986 Larry and Mark Levy opened "Mrs. Levy's Deli," named after mama Levy, in what was then named the Sears Tower. After D.B. Kaplan's closed in 1995. Mrs. Levy's Deli closed in 2006.

In 2016, Levy Restaurants launched Mrs. Levy's Deli at the United Center as part of the culinary upgrade of the stadium in Chicago's Near West Side. The kiosk offered huge variations on the Reuben, including The High Rise ($15) with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on dark rye.

The Levy brothers began their involvement in the restaurant business in Chicago, where they built the core of their food service business around a faltering delicatessen during the late 1970s. In the months before going into business together, Larry and Mark Levy had established careers independent of one another. Although both had relocated from St. Louis to Chicago, they had made the journey separately and, upon arrival, had begun working for different companies. Mark joined the insurance business, and Larry delved into real estate, accumulating enough financial wherewithal to open a delicatessen named D.B. Kaplan's with a third partner in 1976. 

Initially, the business was intended as a sideline venture for each brother. Said Larry: "I had always loved deli food and thought there was no good deli food in Chicago. I found a backer to do it, and I thought I would continue at my other company." However, closer, hands-on involvement was required in a matter of months. The operation of the delicatessen and its 285-item menu quickly proved too much an undertaking for the Levys' third partner, prompting Larry and Mark to fire him. Mark quit his insurance job and, along with his wife, took on the responsibility of D.B. Kaplan's daily operation. 

Immediately afterward, according to the brothers, the delicatessen showed strong signs of improvement, transforming from a money-loser to a profitable enterprise under the direct stewardship of Mark Levy. Two years later, in 1978, Larry quit his job as well and joined his brother in the restaurant business, embarking on a career that allowed his natural talents to flower.

At an early age, Larry Levy showed himself to be an entrepreneur at heart. Before he was ten years old, Levy sold magazine subscriptions and handmade potholders door to door. During high school, he developed a discount card for his fellow students to buy merchandise from selected merchants. While attending the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University during the late 1960s, Levy shuttled through the dormitories selling sandwiches and charter airline tickets to Europe, making extra money while he earned his M.B.A. degree. "I've always been an entrepreneur," Levy explained years after D.B. Kaplan's success spawned a small empire of restaurant properties. "When I found the restaurant business," he said, "my entrepreneurial skills met passion. It's something I truly love doing."

A second D.B. Kaplan's opened in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

After Levy left his real estate job in 1978, he and his brother formed Levy Restaurants and the Levy Organization, a commercial real estate company. With the establishment of these two companies, the corporate vehicles for expansion were in place, but the success of the delicatessen did not give birth to a chain of D.B. Kaplan's clones. Instead, the two brothers developed new restaurant concepts, pursuing a strategy that would lead to a heterogeneous patchwork of restaurants all owned by Levy Restaurants. During the first years of Levy Restaurants, the Levys developed several major restaurants in Water Tower Place, one of Chicago's premier high-rise shopping malls. One restaurant in Water Tower Place was Chestnut Street Grill, a grilled seafood restaurant that quickly became highly popular. It was one of the first Chicago restaurants to feature grilled seafood.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 
#JewishThemed #JewishLife


  1. Dr. Gale,is this the same organization that runs the Levy Group at Comiskey Park (now called something else)?

  2. There was a franchise of this restaurant in Minneapolis back in the late 70's. I remember eating there during a small group high school field trip. I was so impressed by the huge selection (with all the punny names, likely changed to match the market)and kept a menu as a souvenir for many years. Thanks for confirming the memory...

  3. I am cleaning out a file box of old recipes and found a D.B. Kaplan's Delicatessen Menu from 1977 - 7th Floor Water Tower Place. I remember we had traveled from Madison, Wisconsin to Lord & Taylor's in Water Tower Place to school shop for our two children (son and daughter) who were in elementary school at the time. Obviously we ate at Kaplan's and I kept a menu, as I'm sure I was totally intrigued by the deli and long list of items on their menu. Loved looking at the 1977 prices. The menu says they won the 1977 Great Menu Award from the National Restaurant Association.

  4. I was the General manager of D.Bs. What a treat to work there. So much fun every day. The people whom I worked with them are some of the most fun and entertaining people I have ever encountered. D.Bs and the folks I worked with will always be in my heart and memories.

    1. Hi! How can I find out the recipe for the Chewbacca Blonde Brownie Sundae that they had in the 80s or 90s?! I still DREAM about that sundae and no one makes anything like it! Thank you!

  5. I am Charles Simpson's son Lazerick Simpson My father and I Ran that kitchen in the 1977 for you from 3 am to 12 pm. remember

  6. My husband and I worked in the hotel business and lived on Oak street in the 1970s. DB's was our favorite restaurant. All the sandwiches were so good! We never had an "eh" meal there.I kept a menu for many years - I actually may have it buried somewhere.

  7. Worked there 20 years, miss it!

  8. I assume that DB Levy’s in Westwood Village (Los Angeles) was part of the same company? I loved that place in the 70’s? 80’s? Their taco salad was the best!

    1. DB Levy's in Westwood Village, Los Angeles, CA is currently closed. There was no relation to DB Kaplan's of Chicago.

      DB Levy's was last owned by Mitchell Sodikoff, the founder of several restaurant chains, including The Good Stuff Eatery, Umami Burger, and The Yardbird Southern Table & Bar.

  9. Thanks for reminding me about D.B. Kaplan's, which I hadn't thought about for a long time. It had great food and great names for its sandwiches. A shame it's no longer with us.


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