Every once in a while, you’ll hear an Oak Parker lament the lack of a go-to butcher shop within the village’s borders. But Oak Park already has its very own meat emporium, and it’s been here for the past three decades, tucked away on Austin Boulevard just north of Lake Street.
This month marks the 32nd anniversary of the opening of Blue Ribbon Meat Market, 426 N. Austin. The Savino brothers have spent most of their adult lives there stuffing sausages, pounding poultry and hacking ham hocks.
Pretty much any part of a pig is available for consumption at Blue Ribbon. Once a customer asked for hog testicles to grind up and put in chili. Owner Ron Savino, 52, says they happily obliged.
“We sell everything but the squeal from a hog, head to toe,” he said.
Blue Ribbon doesn’t advertise or have a Facebook page or Twitter account. Rather, Savino said, they’ve built their following through word of mouth. Mrunil Champaneri, 35, used to be one of those Oak Parkers who complained about the village not having its own butcher shop. But he heard about Blue Ribbon, did a quick Google search, read some of the glowing reviews on Yelp and has been a loyal patron ever since.
So loyal that his in-laws tried to buy him a gift certificate to Blue Ribbon this past Christmas. “We don’t sell gift certificates, ma’am,” they were told, according to Champaneri, “We sell meat.” And that’s exactly how Champaneri wants his butcher to respond to such a request.
“When I pay for something at Whole Foods, I’m also paying for their big sign and their coupons and their Twitter feed,” he said. “These guys, they put all of their effort into their product and their service. They don’t sell gift certificates. They don’t have a website. They concentrate on selling meat, and that’s what I want my butcher to do.”
Though Blue Ribbon first opened in 1979, its genesis actually dates back about a decade earlier. That’s when the Savinos’ dad, Dominic, opened his first meat market at North Avenue and Austin and named it after himself.
But after just a few days, the large chain grocer down the street with an almost identical name threatened to sue, and Dominic’s switched to Savino’s. In 1979, Don and Dominic decided to relocate to their current location on Austin in Oak Park. Another butcher shop had been in that storefront a few years earlier and left the sign up, so Ron said they just kept it in place.
“The name Blue Ribbon was up there, and we said, ‘Hey, let’s go with this,'” he recalls.
Dominic, now 76, worked alongside his sons for a spell before leaving to run a bar he owned near O’Hare Airport. He’s currently retired and living in Oak Island, N.C.
Back in the early 1970s, the elder Savino had three markets running concurrently before consolidating down into Blue Ribbon. Reached in North Carolina last week, he recalled 12-year-old Ron riding his bike to deliver meat to customers.
Dominic grew weary of the hard grind, so to speak, in 1990 and called it quits, handing the reins to his sons. But he’s impressed with where they’ve taken the family meat market.
He never imagined Blue Ribbon would last more than 30 years, he said, “but I’m really proud of my guys. They’re doing an utterly fantastic job over there.”
Ron and Russ Savino have been running the shop ever since, with the help of their staff of eight. On a busy-ish Wednesday afternoon last month, Russ, 45, grabbed a big, gray vat of pork shoulders and dropped them into a grinder. From there, he took the minced meat and sent it through a mixer, adding spices to taste.
“We do everything by hand,” he said. “At a lot of those bigger companies, it’s all machine done.”
Blue Ribbon has about 20 different varieties of sausage, consisting of beef, pork, turkey, lamb and chicken. It’s the sprinkling of onion, salt, garlic, pepper or sage that turns them into hot links or turkey Italian sausage.
The younger Savino — who has 11 kids and lives in West Chicago — dropped the seasoned meat back through the grinder, spinning a lever as the machine spit a line of pork into lamb casings, which Russ pressed against the lip of the device. Occasionally, he sprays the meat with water to keep it moist.
Sausages emerge in 5-foot lengths, and he twirls them into individual links. Usually, 50 pounds of meat will get you about 150 links. On average, they sell about 300 pounds of sausage in one day.
Meanwhile, Ron Savino — a divorcee who lives alone in Elburn — served the small gathering of mostly African-American customers in the store. He grabbed a smoked pig leg and started chopping it for one patron using a band saw.
“Freshness — it goes a long ways,” he said. “Everything is always cut fresh. If it’s not, we won’t even sell it. People love that.”
Despite the low-key ambiance and lack of advertising, the Savinos say it’s local gossip that has spread their meat message.
Over on Yelp, meanwhile, Blue Ribbon averages a five-star rating based on seven reviews. There, customers talk about their long trips from the city to the shop after hearing about it from friends. They picked up everything from a turducken, to a 127-pound whole swine for a pig roast.
“We felt like we have been going here for years and everyone is a good friend,” Marty B. of the West Loop wrote last November after buying a duck stuffed inside a turkey for Thanksgiving.
Donna S. didn’t see the cut of meat she wanted in the display case, but said, “They haul out the beast from the cooler and cut it the way you want it!”
After Villager Foods and River Forest Market closed in recent years, Jennifer Miller, 40, was in desperate need of a butcher. The River Forest resident remembered hearing about Blue Ribbon from a coworker, Googled the shop and saw the beaming Yelp reviews. She tried them out about a year ago and has been a devotee ever since.
“My family’s a big believer in supporting family-run businesses,” she said.
Forest Parker Charlene Jacobs and her niece, Mary Sims, have been frequenting Blue Ribbon for decades. They were in the shop last month bantering with Rayman Brown, who has worked behind the counter for the past 20 years. “Boy or girl?” he asked, chuckling, when Sims requested a couple pounds of catfish.
Sims, 44, remembered coming here as 14-year-old and seeing her mom buy rabbit for dinner.
“We just like the service,” she said. “It’s consistently the same people.”
Champaneri says he drove past Blue Ribbon “100 times” before finally taking a chance and entering. Now their meat is the main event every time he goes tailgating with his Chicago Bears season tickets.
“It’s a shame that more people don’t know about it,” he said. “I have several friends in Oak Park who have often said, ‘There isn’t a good meat place in Oak Park.’ And there has been for the past 30 years.”