Gelato shop backed by magician Penn Jillette coming to Lincoln Square, will feature magic, juggling, ventriloquists
Magic and other circus acts will accompany scoops of gelato at Sideshow Gelato, coming to Lincoln Square next year.
Penn Jillette, the world-famous magician, would have done just about anything to work at the sort of gelato shop that Chicagoan Jay Bliznick is opening in Lincoln Square — even cut his beloved ponytail.
“If I had worked there, I’d be a much better magician than I am today,” Jillette said.
No, the gelato doesn’t have magical properties. It is not enchanted. But the shop will employ aspiring magicians, jugglers, ventriloquists and other performers as scoopers who — when not slinging frozen desserts — will perform on a nearby stage. A professional performer will be on staff as a mentor.
It also will feature a dime museum fashioned after P.T. Barnum’s famous exhibition of sideshow acts and oddities — think: mummified mermaid.
Jillette is an investor in the shop.
“I was a marquee changer at the theater, which was the closest I could get to show business in my little town,” Jillette, who grew up in Massachusetts, said from Australia, where he is on tour. “And the only other job I could get at the time, because my hair was down my back, which limited your career choices, was as a dishwasher at the hospital.
“I’m just saying, and I do not say this lightly, I might have cut my hair for that job.”
Sideshow Gelato is the dream of Chicagoan Jay Bliznick, who’s setting up shop at 4819 N. Western Ave., down the street from Lincoln Square’s main drag. He plans to open by March.
”We’ll have great gelato, first and foremost, but also it will be an incredible bang for your buck for families,” Bliznick said. “Get a scoop, and enjoy a free magic show. Look around, see incredible things, learn a little bit of sideshow history, including where Chicago fits in.”
Bliznick said the sideshow element of his shop is a celebration of human diversity and being different.
“These people made names for themselves at a time when there were no choices to be successful,” he said. “They found and built a community of people together and made more money than the working acts, like sword swallowers or trapeze artists.”
He said that any money collected as a suggested donation to view the dime museum will go to charity.
For Bliznick, 53, of Ukrainian Village, the shop combines two of his great loves: food and entertainment.
Before the pandemic, he was executive chef of Del Rio, an Italian restaurant in Highwood that’s been owned by his extended family for nearly a century.
Bliznick, who tinkers in magic, occasionally would step out from the kitchen to do card tricks for diners.
He’s always embraced the odd and eclectic. He’s a founder of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, home to unusual films that fall outside the margins of the mainstream film festival circuit.
He credits his family for his theatrical flair. His father was a standup comedian and amateur magician. One of his grandfathers was a violinist.
He became hooked on gelato three years ago during a trip to Italy, where he roamed the streets of Florence with his 6-year-old granddaughter, Edith.
“We’d wander around and basically eat our weight in gelato,” he said.
When he returned, he trained under a celebrated gelato-maker outside of Philadelphia.
His dream to open Sideshow Gelato got a big boost when Jillette gave the gelato his endorsement.
On a whim, Bliznick had reached out to Jillette through the Chicago company Cameo, which lets you pay to connect with celebrities. Bliznick sent Jillette two texts, each for a sum of $6 that was donated to charity, with no guarantee he’d ever hear back.
The long shot paid off.
Bliznick mentioned his vegan pistachio gelato, and Jillette, who is a vegan, was intrigued.
He sent Jillette a bunch of flavors to sample, including the appropriately named Penn’s Jilletto, and the magician raved about it on his podcast.
Jillette said he plans to perform, along with his partner Raymond Teller, at Sideshow Gelato next time he’s in Chicago.
“It’s just such a great idea,” Jillette said. “This place is going to be so fun. Jay and I are going to have to sue Disney for using ‘the happiest place on Earth.’ When Sideshow opens, that’s no longer true.”