BRANDON — Donning Blackhawks jerseys and Cubs caps, hundreds of transplanted Chicagoans lined up outside the new Portillo’s Tuesday to get a taste of home — Italian beef, loaded Chicago-style hot dogs and what they call the best chocolate cake on the planet.
The grand opening of the first Florida Portillo’s at the corner of State Road 60 and Lakewood Drive drew fans not just from Brandon and Tampa, but from Sarasota, Orlando and Zephyrhills — the region where the restaurant chain ships more food to customers than any place in the country.
Even after attending 42 openings for his restaurants, founder Dick Portillo said seeing such an enthusiastic crowd in Brandon makes him very emotional. “It’s amazing,” he said, between posing for photos with fans. “It’s the American dream. Sometimes, it still brings a tear to my eye.”
Portillo started his business in Chicago in 1963 with a portable hot dog stand, eventually expanding and adding favorites like the Italian beef sandwiches, chopped salads and even a chocolate cake milk shake.
Portillo’s Brandon opening was enough to make Sissy Henk’s kids sick. So sick, they had to ditch school in Orlando for a trip to Brandon and a table full of cheese fries, hot dogs and those Italian beef subs. “It’s real Chicago food,” the family chimed out in unison.
“It was always our favorite back home,” said Henk, a Chicago transplant.
“You don’t’ know what you’re missing until you’ve tried it,” said Samuel Vazquez of Tampa. “That Italian beef.”
Sandy Klein walked through the line that wrapped around the building holding up an Illinois Club sign, representing all the Chicagoland transplants that live in Wimauma’s Valencia Lakes community. About 60 members of the club traveled north through rush hour traffic to make the opening, he said.
“These are the best hot dogs on the planet. I’d drive for them any time,” said April Walby of Zephyrhills, shortly after the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce helped with a ribbon-cutting and the doors opened. She took the day off from work to get to Tuesday’s event. “I love it. When we go back to Plainfield (Illinois), Portillo’s is the first place we go.”
Wearing his “God Bless Dick Portillo” T-shirt, Dave Mugnaini dug into his sandwich between grins. “I”ll probably come back every week,” he said.
Linda Gjundjek of Sarasota trekked to Portillo’s for the first time, ever, heading in with her husband, Ken Gjundjek, who helped Dick Portillo open his first six locations. “They haven’t seen each other in 33 years,” she said, waiting anxiously at the table for him to retrieve their order.
Portillo said he plans to open a location near the University of South Florida soon and is scouting for other potential spots throughout the state. “We’d love to get over in Orlando.”
The fast-casual chain, which offers moderately priced foods — $8.95 for a Big Beef, $4.29 for a Jumbo Chili Cheese Dog and $3.19 for a slice of the Chocolate Eclair Cake – also has a double drive-through window for quick service, outdoor patio seating and a large warehouse-style dining room filled with Prohibition-era replica posters and vehicles.