Chef Sean Sanders prepares a sandwich with heirloom tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, salami and lemon aioli at Fountainhead in Ravenswood. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Chefs offer their take on perfect picnic sandwiches for Labor Day

If you’re planning a picnic to celebrate Labor Day and mark the end of summer, keep it simple, suggests Melissa Graham, founder of Purple Asparagus, a Chicago organization focused on educating kids and families about healthy eating.

“The key to a successful picnic is bringing food that is easy to eat and transport,” Graham says. “Sandwiches are perfect.”

Her recommendation? A sun-dried tomato and cream cheese pinwheel sandwich or chicken-and-black-bean wrap.

We also asked other Chicago chefs for their ideas for the perfect picnic sandwich.

Sean Sanders, the executive chef of Fountainhead, 1970 W. Montrose Ave., suggests turning a basic cheese and salami sandwich into a work of art with his signature combination of buffalo mozzarella, salami and heirloom tomato with lemon aioli on a pretzel sub roll.

“My family and I love picnics, and this sandwich, which transports well, is great for everyone, especially kids,” Sanders says, because “you use things they already enjoy like pretzels, tomatoes and cheese.”

Patrick Russ, executive chef of Seven Lions, 130 S. Michigan Ave., likes to kick up a simple turkey-and-cheese — or ham-and-cheese — sandwich with green apple slices and whipped cream cheese. And his baked barbecue chicken and pineapple sandwich adds a barbecued touch without the grill.

“Dishes for picnics should require as little assembly and preparation as possible,” says Russ. “No plates, utensils or heating required. Perfect for a picnic.”

For the chicken, “We like the incorporation of barbecue sauce, which is a classic for outdoor dining. You get the flavor and flair without the need to heat up the grill.”

Chef Rodolfo Cuadros of Carnivale, 702 W. Fulton St., favors a gourmet-style Amish chicken sandwich.

“Picnics are a time to slow down and enjoy the last days of summer,” Cuadros says. “The combination of sweet, sour and spicy flavors plays with your taste buds. It’s summer in a brioche bun.”

Trevin VanDyke, sous chef of Osteria La Madia, 59 W. Grand Ave., says meatball sandwiches might seem to defy all picnic logic, but they can be prepared the day before and reheated in the sauce the day of the picnic, then wrapped in foil or an insulated bag to carry and keep warm.

“A meatball sandwich has a more robust flavor eaten hot,” VanDyke says, “and if insulated properly can be enjoyed as picnic food.”

Joey Hejtmanek, executive chef of Links Taproom, 1559 N. Milwaukee Ave., says his “MagnaBalsamic Chicken” sandwich, inspired by Phish’s “MagnaBall” summer 2015 tour, should get taste buds singing.

“We serve this sandwich hot, but I prefer it cold,” Hejtmanek says. “Wrapped up tight and refrigerated, all of the flavors meld and intensify. It’s incredibly easy to make and tasty. It’s the perfect picnic sandwich.”

MELISSA GRAHAM (Purple Asparagus)

Sundried Tomato Cream Cheese Pinwheels

8 tbsps. cream cheese or fresh goat cheese, at room temperature

8 sundried tomatoes packed in oil, drained

4 whole wheat tortillas

8 slices deli smoked-turkey meat (optional)

1 cup alfalfa sprouts

Blend cheese and sundried tomatoes in a food processor. Spread on top of the tortilla. Place turkey on top. Add a sprinkle of sprouts. Roll tortilla, then slice into six pinwheels. Serves 4.

Melissa Graham’s chicken and black bean wrap. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Melissa Graham’s chicken and black bean wrap. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Chicken & Black Bean Wrap

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained

1 tsp. minced garlic

1 tsp. finely chopped cilantro

½ tsp. cumin

Pinch of salt

Juice from ½ lime

1 grilled (or baked) chicken breast half, thinly sliced

4 whole wheat tortillas

½ cup grated Monterey Jack cheese

Puree beans, garlic, cilantro, cumin, salt and lime juice until smooth. Spread onto tortillas. Top with chicken slices. Sprinkle cheese over chicken. Fold into a wrap-style sandwich. Serves 4.

Fountainhead chef Sean Sanders’ Buffalo mozzarella and salami sandwich with heirloom tomatoes. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Fountainhead chef Sean Sanders’ Buffalo mozzarella and salami sandwich with heirloom tomatoes. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

SEAN SANDERS (Fountainhead)

Buffalo mozzarella and salami with heirloom tomatoes on pretzel roll


4 Pretzel rolls

Buffalo mozzarella

Heirloom tomato

Cremenelli Barolo salami (or other premium salami)


Slice pretzel roll in half, and place in toaster oven (make bottom half a little thicker to account for the moisture of the tomato and the travel time to your picnic). The rest is assembling and slicing. Cut tomato ½-inch slices, mozzarella in ¼-inch slices, salami in 1/8-inch slices (so it has some chew). Serves 4.


1 garlic clove

1 cup mayonnaise

½ lemon, juiced

Smash the garlic clove, chop fine, add to mixing bowl. Cut lemon in half, juice, add to bowl. Fold in mayo. Assemble: aioli on top and bottom bread halves; add tomatoes, cheese, salami, arugula, cap with top half of bread, and wrap for transporting.

Chef Patrick Russ of Seven Lions prepares to make his turkey and cheese sandwich.

Chef Patrick Russ of Seven Lions prepares to make his turkey and cheese sandwich.

PATRICK RUSS (Seven Lions)

Turkey, Cheddar & Apple Sandwich

10-oz. sliced deli turkey or ham (or prepare your own)

8 slices multigrain, whole wheat or white bread

1 green apple, cored and cut in ¼-inch slices

4 slices white cheddar cheese

8 tbsps. cream cheese, whipped

Spread a tablespoon of cream cheese onto each slice of bread, then layer turkey, cheese and apple slices. Crusts can be removed if desired. Serves 4.

BBQ Chicken Pizza Roll

16-oz. grilled or baked chicken breast, sliced in 4-oz. strips

4 12-inch white or whole wheat flour tortillas, to be rolled into burrito

4 rings fresh pineapple, quartered

½-small red onion, thinly sliced

½-cup Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce

1 cup shredded mozzarella

½-bunch fresh cilantro

Toss chicken in barbecue sauce. Layer tortillas with chicken, pineapple, red onion, ¼-cup cheese and cilantro. Roll and fold burrito-style, tucking sides in (for added texture, sear or grill burrito in oiled pan). Serves 4.

Carnivale chef Rodolfo Cuadros’ Amish chicken sandwich.

Carnivale chef Rodolfo Cuadros’ Amish chicken sandwich.


Amish Chicken Sandwich with Tarragon Aioli, Avocado Mash, Arugula Salad and Bacon on Sesame Brioche Bun


4 sesame brioche buns

4 Amish (or organic) chicken breasts (marinaded)

4 slices aged white cheddar

12 slices smoked, crispy bacon

Tarragon aioli

Avocado mash

Arugula salad


1 cup olive oil

½ cup red wine vinegar

½ tsp. red chili flakes

4 tsps. chopped parsley

Mix marinade ingredients in a bowl. Use half of mixture to marinade chicken before cooking. The rest will be used when assembling sandwiches. Chicken be grilled, baked or pan-fried.

Tarragon Aioli

3 egg yolks

2 tbsp. Dijon mustard

3 tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 lemon, juiced

2 oz. tarragon, chopped

1 oz. salt

3 cups canola oil

Blend ingredients, except oil. Mix at low speed for 30 seconds. Slowly add oil until mixture becomes thick and emulsified (mayonnaise consistency)

Avocado Mash

3 large avocados, diced

2 limes (juiced)

2 oz. chopped cilantro

1 tbsp. roasted garlic

½ jalapeno, finely chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Mash ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste.

Arugula Salad

3 oz. arugula

1 oz. vinaigrette dressing

Salt and pepper, to taste

Mix ingredients in a bowl. Season to taste.

Assemble sandwiches, starting with bottom bun. Layer with arugula salad. Add cooked chicken. Drizzle with marinade. Add bacon (three slices per sandwich). Add avocado mash. Top with aioli, and cap with bun top.

Osteria La Madia chef Trevin VanDyke’s meatball sandwich.

Osteria La Madia chef Trevin VanDyke’s meatball sandwich.

TREVIN VANDYKE (Osteria La Madia)

Meatball Sandwich


3 lbs. coarse-ground shot ribs (ground beef or chuck can be used)

¼-cup Panko breadcrumbs

¼-cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1 small onion, diced

1 small garlic clove, minced

¼ stick butter

Parsley, minced


Ground black pepper


Shape and form 12 4-oz. meatballs, and set aside. In small skillet, melt butter, add onions and garlic, and cook until translucent; set aside to cool. Add all ingredients to a large bowl. Gently mix, careful to not crumble meatballs. If more seasoning needed, add to taste. Place seasoned meatballs in pan-cook in oven at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Serves 4.

Tomato Fondue Sauce:


½-cup heavy cream

1 small onion, diced

1 small garlic glove, chopped

1 8-oz. can tomato paste

1 15-oz. can whole tomatoes

Oregano (dried), to taste

Salt, to taste

Fresh basil, to taste

Parsley (chopped), to taste

In a heavy-bottom saucepan, steam onions and garlic in enough oil to cover bottom of pan. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Once sautéed, add tomatoes, tomato paste, heavy cream and oregano. Simmer for 20 minutes. Add basil and parsley.

Before packing, reheat meatballs in the tomato fondue sauce, place in toasted sub-style rolls, top with shredded mozzarella, and wrap to keep warm.

Links Taproom chef Joey Hejtmanek MagnaBalsamic Chicken Sandwich.

Links Taproom chef Joey Hejtmanek MagnaBalsamic Chicken Sandwich.

JOEY HEJTMANEK (Links Taproom)

MagnaBalsamic Chicken Sandwich

4 6-oz. chicken breasts

4 hoagie rolls

2 large red onions

2 cloves garlic

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

2 tsps. brown sugar

Feta cheese, crumbled

Baby spinach

Cracked black pepper, to taste

Lemon pepper, to taste

Kosher salt, to taste


Season chicken breasts liberally with lemon pepper and salt. Grill five minutes on each side or bake at 375 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.


Split four hoagie-style rolls in half, and toast.

Balsamic Onions

Thinly slice the red onions (about ¼ inch). Slice two cloves of garlic super-thin. Cook onions on high heat with kosher salt and garlic about 10 minutes. Add balsamic vinegar, brown sugar and cracked black pepper to onion mixture. Reduce heat to medium. Cook 5 additional minutes. Set aside to cool.


Place several leaves of spinach on bottom of hoagie roll. Add chicken breast. Top chicken with onion mixture. Add crumbled feta. Cap with top of hoagie roll. Wrap sandwiches tightly in aluminum foil, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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