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Why Chicago's deep-dish pizza juggernaut is pivoting to Mexican food

Mexican deep-dish: Chicago's iconic pie, with a twist

Chicago is known for its iconic, Italian-inspired deep-dish pizza. But now to meet a new customer base's taste, one of the city's most famous sellers, Gino's East, is trying something new: Mexican food.

Amid a flurry of new entrants to the deep-dish space, Noah Himmel, the man at the helm of the 50-year-old Gino's East brand, is looking to differentiate from the pack.

Noah Himmel, vice president of Gino’s East
Mary Stevens | CNBC

With the help of family friend turned Gino's operator Jos Saldana, Himmel successfully opened a Mexico City location last year. The move inspired him to reimport the Mexican-fusion menu complete with carnitas and al pastor to connect with Chicago's predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Pilsen.

"We came up with some amazing dishes that really hit the palate in Mexico City, but also had the strong Chicago, Italian roots of pizza," Himmel says.

Jos Saldana, director of Gino’s East Mexico, speaks with patrons at Gino’s East Pilsen in Chicago.
Mary Stevens | CNBC

Out went Italian sausage; in came Mexican chorizo. Mozzarella was replaced by Oaxaca cheese in the caprese salad. Carnitas, spit-roasted al pastor and cactus became the new pizza toppings.

"As I tell you these ingredients, they're probably not making sense to you," Saldana says with a grin. "But when you see how these elements work with each other, both from a flavor and texture perspective, then you understand what I'm talking about."

Gino’s East worked with a chef in Mexico City to develop a menu combining traditional Chicago favorites with Mexican cuisine.
Mary Stevens | CNBC

The success speaks for itself. After one year in Mexico City, the restaurant is already in the black, according to Saldana, who says plans to expand across Mexico are already underway.

"Every brand that goes global has to understand that they have to be able to blend with the market," Saldana says. "Being in Mexico has challenged the brand to become more creative."

It also sparked an idea as the duo headed back to the competition of Chicago fresh off of perfecting the Mexican-inspired menu.

Deep-dish: A Mexican export

Hispanics have long been an underserved market in the U.S., despite being one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups.

Gino’s East opened the Mexico City location of the deep-dish pizzeria in early 2015.
Source: Gino's East

"For too long marketing to Hispanics wasn't done in a substantive or effective way," says Mike Valdes-Fauli, CEO of Pinta, a multicultural marketing firm. "Phase one was ignorance, either by ignoring it or assuming Hispanics lacked the buying power — up until the 1980 census when Hispanics hit 6 percent of the population and people started to take stock."

Now, Hispanics are the nation's largest ethnic minority, accounting for nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population and $1.3 trillion in buying power. That's a 167 percent jump since 2000, compared to the 82 percent growth rate for all U.S. consumers, according to University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.

As a Mexican descendent himself, Saldana was well-aware of the potential a Gino's Mexican-inspired menu could carry in Chicago, home to the nation's fifth-largest Hispanic concentration.

Source: CNBC

"When you're trying to differentiate yourself, you're trying to always find — as a business — where's that next niche? Where is that opportunity?" Saldana says.

For Gino's, that opportunity existed in Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood.

The term "gentrification" is thrown around a lot in Pilsen, where the Mexican bakeries and cultural centers are being pushed out by a new wave of development. Pilsen rents increased about 25 percent faster in recent years compared to the rest of Chicago, according to University of Illinois at Chicago's Voorhees Center. That much has the community on edge.

When Himmel started thinking about opening a new storefront in Pilsen, he wanted to be thoughtful about his approach. Other new entrants to the neighborhood, like independent coffee shop Bow Truss, were met with a wave of resistance. The chain was hit twice by vandals. Spray painted on a Chicago flag was a clear message: "White people out of Pilsen." Graffiti on another door read, "Pilsen is not for sale."

"Pilsen is not for sale" has become a rallying cry for some in the community, as seen on this Pilsen sign post.
Source: CNBC

Luz Chavez, co-manager at Cultura in Pilsen, which hosted free and affordable events highlighting Latino culture from 2013 up until last month when her rent was increased 48 percent, says the way Bow Truss entered the neighborhood may have made it a target.

"They came in saying Pilsen doesn't have any coffee shops, which it does," she says. Of course, Pilsen also had other deep-dish locations when Gino's looked to move in — just none serving cactus. Chavez calls the way Gino's entered the neighborhood "a different approach."

For starters, Himmel and Saldana recruited Pilsen resident Maria Gonzalez, 23, to manage the restaurant when it launched in April. The restaurant's decor was made to match many of the colorful murals that make Pilsen what it is, and bottles of tequila and mescal line the bar.

Maria Gonzalez, general manager of Gino’s East Pilsen
Mary Stevens | CNBC

"I think that's what's made me more passionate about it, just knowing that they took that risk to go to Mexico City and work with a chef," says Gonzalez, whose mother immigrated to Chicago from Mexico when she was 7 years old. "It's not just pulled pork and they throw it on a pizza and call it carnitas. It's real."

Four months in, Himmel hopes the idea continues to click with the community.

"I'm not trying to take traditional Mexican dishes and Americanize them," he says. "I'm trying to take what's traditional about Mexico and traditional about the United States and put them together in a way where they work together and not try and force an adaptation of one to the other."

—Video and photography by CNBC's Mary Stevens.