Leona's debuts new menu items

I had the opportunity to attend a recent tasting for Leona's, which has been offering up homemade Italian cuisine in Chicagoland since 1950. It had been a while since I'd been to a Leona's (there are currently nine locations, most of them in Chicago) and on previous visits I hadn't gone farther on the menu than the pizza and lasagna, so I enjoyed getting a chance to see and taste some of their other specialties. My friend Cindy came along to do some tasting with me at the Hyde Park location.

We started out with raspberry lemonade - very refreshing and a perfect summer beverage to go along with your meal.

We first tried out Cannelloni Bites, which were stuffed with chicken and artichoke and topped with parmesan cheese and parsley. Since I am a huge artichoke fan, this was a perfect start to the night with me. They were served with marinara dipping sauce.

Next up was the Tomato Bruschetta served the appropriately-named Kick Ass Garlic Bread. I loved the presentation on this one and the addition of sun-dried tomatoes with the fresh tomatoes. It also has an aged balsamic glaze, which was an awesome finish. Throw on some fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and this appetizer was a big winner.

Next we sampled the Antipasto salad, which had a nice blend of romaine lettuce, Genoa salami, cucumber, red pepper, artichokes, pasta, red cabbage, giardiniera and mozzarella cheese. Loved the oversized chunks of salami and mozzarella. Just be warned that the dressing is quite spicy if you are like me and have a somewhat wimpy palate. Everything is made fresh, so if you like something milder, as for your dressing on the side so that you can limit the spiciness. It's also served with a fresh garlicky bread stick.

Ok, the next item was from the specialty sandwich part of the menu and it was my favorite item of the night. Like most Chicagoans, I really dig my Italian beef. One of my favorite things about taking in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field is strolling down to the concessions behind the plate and under the press box where you can get an AWESOME beef sandwich. I declared it my favorite long ago, but I have to say it will now have to share first place with this masterpiece. Their house roast Italian beef is served on Kick Ass Garlic Ciabatta Bread with a side of giardiniera. Spectacular! One of those meals I could probably eat every day and never tire of it.

The Shrimp & Basil Ravioli was next. Fresh shrimp is sauced with garlic, basil, lemon zest, parmesan mozzarella and romano cheeses and topped with a delicious tomato cream sauce.

Veal and Portobello Mushroom Ravioli followed. I've never met a portobello I didn't love - so yeah, this was pretty spectacular.

We also sampled the 5 Cheese Lasagna. It is a huge portion that could totally work for two. I love the homemade marinara sauce.

And not that we had a bit of room left, but when this came out I had to force myself to take a couple bites. The Leona's Turtle Cheesecake is so light and fluffy, another item made in-house. Other dessert options include cannoli, Italian ice and my favorite dessert, Tiramisu. It would be really hard to finish this dessert after the huge portions, but for something like this it's worth a try. If you wimp out, you can always take it home.