Smile Politely

Middle Eastern gem in the middle of East Central Illinois

If you are looking for a break from the ordinary and would like to try something particularly unique and delicious, I suggest taking the drive to the village of St. Joseph. There you will find the definition of a true hidden gem. Tucked away in the very quaint business district is one of the most unique restaurants anywhere around, La Luna Cafe/Yummy Tummy Pizza. That’s right. It has two names. Actually, three. The co-branded, locally owned restaurant also houses an adjacent liquor store, St. Joe Liquor and Wine. This is where things start to get really interesting.

One great aspect of La Luna Cafe/Yummy Tummy Pizza is all of the beer and wine for sale in the liquor store is available for purchase with dining patrons’ meals. You just walk over to the cooler, pick out a beer, show it to the server, open it up, and enjoy; along with the sizable beer selection, there are rows of bottles of wine to choose from, as well as wine available by the glass. I helped myself to a bottle of Sprecher Hard Root Beer and my friend opted for a couple cans of Old Style with our meal. “What do they do with all of the partial six packs?”, you might wonder. They offer a mix-and-match six pack option to liquor store patrons, of course. Brilliant.

As if the liquor store didn’t make this place unique enough, the restaurant serves a splendid fusion of Italian food, Chicago-style sandwich favorites, and traditionally prepared Middle Eastern dishes. The menu spans from salads and appetizers to falafel and baba ganoush; from pizza and pasta to hot dogs and Italian beef. This is the kind of place you could eat at twice a week for a month and never have the same thing twice. Missing your favorite Chicago hot dog place? They offer Chicago must-haves like the pizza puff, the Italian beef and sausage combo, and the beloved Chicago-style hot dog. And let’s not forget they also have great Middle Eastern appetizers and sandwiches, and they boast some of the best gyros around. Not feeling too adventurous? They have classic cafe staples like chicken and tuna salad, and a Philly steak sandwich, along with chicken strips and wings.

My friend is an Italian Beef ($6.99) connoisseur and I don’t eat meat. There was a time, however, that I absolutely loved hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches and I always felt Champaign-Urbana was underrepresented in Chicago-style fare. I’ve been told La Luna has a great Italian beef, so we decided to let my friend be the judge. When the server passed by with the sandwich I was immediately whisked away to my Chicago suburban youth; I could tell just from the smell that La Luna had the goods to back up the reputation. The sweet and spicy aroma of garlic and oregano blended with salty beef au jus wafted past me, and I couldn’t help but smile. The juice, served in a large cup for dipping, was dark and robust, with the sheen from just the right amount of oil separating along the top. I was very pleased to see the sandwich was served with traditional giardiniera peppers and not pepperoncini peppers, as so often erroneously served alongside this Chicago delicacy. The bread was at once crusty and chewy, as it should be; strong enough to hold up to the juice but tender enough to give way when bitten into. My friend’s response to the sandwich, “this is the best Italian Beef I’ve had in a long time,” pretty much said it all. This sandwich is as good as anything you will find this far south of The City. The curly fries were a step above most, too, with just a hint of batter; they were light and crispy and served very hot.

We shared a baba ganoush appetizer ($7.99) which was as tasty as it was elegantly presented. The dish resembled something beautiful and organic, like a rose, with freshly diced tomatoes circled by olive oil, diced pickles and cucumbers. The eggplant was smooth and creamy, slightly acidic, with just a hint of smokiness. When we ran out of pita bread to enjoy with this starter, the server quickly noticed and offered to bring us more warm pita bread. I gratefully accepted the offer. This was not a dish I wanted to leave unfinished.

I chose the falafel sandwich ($6.99) for my meal. It, too, was aesthetically very pleasing, with fresh parsley sprinkled over the diced vegetables for an elegant accent. The pita bread was perfectly chewy and the falafel was masterfully executed; not too oily or crumbly, just a perfect consistency. I appreciated the attention to small details. For example, all dishes were served on actual plates, as opposed to plastic baskets with wax paper lining, as served in many casual cafes. Every item was served piping hot and looked picture perfect. The service was knowledgable, friendly, and very patient. And the owner, Steve, took the time to come talk to us and see how our meal was. He even remembered me from my last visit, more than 6 months ago. What you have here is charming small town hospitality blended humbly with very worldly restaurant knowledge and business acumen. Steve knows food, and he has found his niche in St. Joseph.

We knew ahead of time we wouldn’t have room for a pizza, so we ordered a small stuffed mushroom and cheese pizza to go, when we placed our dinner order. The pizza was ready in perfect time. Even though I was full, it looked way too good to not sample immediately when it came out. I normally don’t eat cheese, but I had to make an exception for this masterpiece of a pie. The thick layer of mozzarella was golden brown, and the crust was flaky, chewy, and tender. The sauce had a distinctly spicy flavor, packed full of Italian seasonings. Some stuffed pizzas have an outer crust that is dry and bland, but this crust had a wonderfully delicate texture. The mushrooms were obviously freshly sliced and in a perfect ratio to the sauce, crust and cheese. The “small” pizza was very generous and a good deal, starting at $10.99. There was a slight discrepancy with the price of ingredients, as the website lists toppings at .99 and the in house menu lists them at $2.99 each for stuffed pizzas. The cost was well justified, though, as the pizza was bursting with mushrooms and loaded with mozzarella. This is a pizza worth traveling for; you can call ahead and make the trip in plenty of time, as stuffed pizzas take a while to cook properly. The hard part will be smelling the pizza and not diving into it on the drive home.

Next time you are craving a really good, affordable meal, and can’t decide where to go, take the short drive to neighboring St. Joe. You will be warmly greeted by a high quality, family-run business with a very unique charm. This is the perfect place to take a family or a large group of people; there is plenty of seating and something on this menu for every taste.

La Luna Cafe/Yummy Tummy Pizza is located at 208 N Main St, St. Joseph, and is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

All photos by Jim Singer. 

Related Articles