All photos by Garrett Sweet, courtesy of Elina’s

The One Who Keeps the BookChicago

How To Get Into Elina’s – and What to Order Once You’re There


Ever since Elina’s opened in September 2021, the cozy Italian American restaurant in West Town has been consistently packed, thanks to its elegant, warm service, and generous portions of nonna-style Italian home cooking. 

Chef-owners Ian Rusnak and Eric Safin met in New York working under chef Marc Forgione and started a catering business together during the pandemic. Italian American cuisine proved enduringly popular, so the duo decided to give the people what they want: freshly extruded pastas, baked clams casino, chicken parmesan and shrimp scampi, served to a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin.

In this installment of The One Who Keeps The Books, Rusnak shares with us how to get a table and make the most of your time at Elina’s.

Chef-owners Ian Rusnak and Eric Safin.
Chef-owners Ian Rusnak and Eric Safin.

Resy: How many seats are there at Elina’s? 

Ian Rusnak: We have 30 seats in the dining room, with a total of 10 tables. And we can squeeze 10 to 12 people at the bar.  

When do reservations drop on Resy?

30 days in advance, right at midnight Central time.

How quickly do seats usually book up? 

Within the first 24 to 48 hours of them being released.

Do you save any seats for walk-ins?

We hold back about 20% of our seating for walk-ins and in the summertime when the patio opens up, a majority of that is saved for walk-ins. We don’t like to book reservations for weather-subjective seating, but we have close to 50 patio seats, so we pretty much double in size in summer. We’re ready to take a lot of walk-ins when the patio opens up, which is usually in the beginning of May.

We have a lot of neighborhood regulars that like to pop in and sit at the bar. If you’re willing to sit at the bar it’s easier to get a prime time seat. If it’s Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night, give us a call around 5 p.m. to see what we can do. 

Can you order off the full menu at the bar? 

Yes, the full menu is available. It’s a bar, but we don’t get people coming to the bar to drink all night. It’s more like counter seating. People come to Elina’s to dine and we treat guests at the bar the same as we would a diner sitting at the table. They’ll usually order two or three courses. At the bar, if we start building a waitlist during service, that’s typically the first option for guests. Waitlist covers typically go there unless it’s later in the evening.

Can people have a drink at the bar while they wait for their table? 

People are welcome to join us at the bar whenever space allows, but usually it’s full with diners, which is cool for us. We do our best to accommodate guests with beverages at the bar. But we are a small restaurant, so when we’re full we’re very full. If a large party arrives 15 minutes early for their reservation, there’s not really anywhere for them to go, but we always do our best to accommodate. When the patio is open, we’ll get them going with a round of drinks outside before their table is ready. 

Clams casino and chicken parm, enduring classics.

How many covers do you typically do per night?

We do two full seatings each evening, so between 80-90 covers on weeknights. On weekends, we might do a third seating after 9:30 or 10 p.m. so we’ll push 120 seats. Chicago’s not really a late night city like New York though.

What do you think is the best table in the house?

We have two high-backed booths that we get a lot of requests for when diners arrive. The booths are four-tops and they are across from the bar so they aren’t as congested as the front tables by the windows. You can request a booth in advance but we don’t have a lot of flexibility on the day of once guests arrive. People want to wait for the booth to open up, but we have to break the news that if you want to wait, it might be another two hours. 

Do you have a private dining room for larger parties? 

No, the largest party we could accommodate is up to eight guests at a round table in the front.  We can’t really squeeze any more than that. If somebody reaches out far in advance we can offer a full buyout. But it’s such a small space, that’s really the only option. 

In the summertime with the patio open, we’ve had guests reach out to us interested in a larger party outside and as long as they are aware that if for some reason we can’t accommodate it last minute due to weather, then we can do 14-16 people on the back patio. It’s a really nice leisurely al fresco dining experience for them. With large parties we always do a three-course family-style prix fixe menu.

How long is your Notify wait list?

It kinda depends on the day. Typically on the weekends, it’s around 350 to 450 guests.

That doesn’t sound like the odds are in our favor. Any tips for getting a reservation? 

The best bet honestly if you’re trying to dine at Elina’s on any given night of the week is to call the restaurant after 5 p.m. The host will answer, if they aren’t on the other line, and they’ll be able to give you a really accurate wait time for the next available seats. Some seats will be available at the bar right at 5:30 p.m. but after that it’s all walk-ins. 

When is a guest most likely to get a Notify alert?

Notify alerts always happen within the last 24 hours. We have a really generous cancellation policy. We accept cancellations without charge up to two hours before your reservation time. Typically when we send out Resy notifications 24 hours in advance, guests will cancel then, and that’s when you might get a Notify alert.

The moody dining room.
The moody dining room.

Let’s talk about the food. What are some of your bestsellers?

Caesar salad, rigatoni alla vodka, and chicken parmesan. We call this the number one because it’s the most popular order for a two-top. This is a smart amount of food for two guests to share, and everything we serve is a shareable format. 

Your menu is full of the greatest hits of Italian American cuisine. How often does the menu change?

Our menu is pretty static. One or two pastas might change seasonally, but for the most part we try to keep the offerings pretty consistent for our guests. We want them to be able to come back and have the experience that they enjoyed. When you go to a red sauce joint, you don’t want to find out that they are no longer serving chicken parmesan. We want to play the hits, the things people love, all killer no filler. 

When we opened, we adjusted pretty quickly for any items that didn’t do as well. Now, we’ll have a rotating pasta to keep it fresh and we’ll do a custom menu with higher end offerings for New Year’s.

Do you have any favorite specials that diners should keep an eye out for? 

We have two or three house specials that we do on limited availability. Ribeye for two is a 40-ounce prime ribeye served steak Diane-style, with a rich sauce fortified with lots of beef, brandy, and Worcestershire. We only have one available on any given night. If you want it, you gotta come in with a plan.

The other special we sell a lot of is Dover sole. That’s limited availability based on what we are getting, and served piccata style with brown butter and capers. It’s roasted whole on the bone, then deboned in the kitchen.

Our eggplant parmesan is really cool, too — a really awesome vegetarian option. We slice it thin, cure it and let it drain overnight. Then we bread and individually fry each slice and stack them up in 20 layers. Thin crispy eggplant, mozzarella, tomato sauce…press it overnight and heat it up. It’s a more elegant preparation than I’ve seen around town. There’s a lot more attention that goes into our process. It takes about three days to make.

The last item that we do that’s limited in availability is meatballs. We do 20 pieces a day – veal, beef and pork – and they are available by the piece. A lot of people use breadcrumbs when they make meatballs, but we use a panade, dicing French bread into centimeter by centimeter cubes and soaking it in milk, so when we mix the meatballs and the fat starts to render from the meat, it gets absorbed into these pieces of bread, which keeps them really moist and tender. We serve our meatballs medium because we are using all fresh ground product. So they are still a little pink in the center and we think that really helps the texture and flavor a lot.

Anything else about Elina’s that you’d like to share? 

We’re just really excited to get the patio open. I think it’s going to provide a lot more flexibility for reservations and more seats for guests to walk in on a nightly basis. You can book 30 days out and that’s the best way to get a table guaranteed. But if you’re a little more flexible, call the restaurant after 5 p.m. and the host will be able to quote you a wait time. 

We get new people every week but we have a lot of frequently returning guests that we’ll see two or three times a month and we’re really thankful for those guests that enjoy us enough to come back. A lot of restaurants open in Chicago that are really large and they’re spacious and beautiful and the food is really good, but they’re not always as welcoming to regulars because they’re cost-prohibitive. Our goal with Elina’s was always to be on the casual end of a nice neighborhood restaurant, to make it to your regular dining rotation. 


Amber Gibson is a journalist specializing in travel, food, and wine. Her work has appeared in Departures, Food & Wine, Saveur, Bon Appétit, and Travel + Leisure. Follow her here; follow Resy too.