LINCOLN SQUARE — Chef Jay Bliznick’s dream of opening Sideshow Gelato, a magic-themed ice cream shop, is coming true after he connected with magician Penn Jillette.
The shop is set to open in March at 4819 N. Western Ave. with an array of unique flavors from Bliznick’s brand, Sideshow Gelato. Customers will be treated to performances by the staff while they enjoy their Italian desert, Bliznick said. It’ll be entertaining for customers, and aspiring magicians, jugglers and acrobats will have a space to hone their craft between doling out scoops of gelato, he said.
“I would prefer to provide a safe venue where they can do this and we have a mentor on staff that can work with them and help them hone their act and hone their skills,” Bliznick said.
The shop will have a stage area with seating for 50, Bliznick said, and it will have a museum of curios inspired by and modeled after the sideshow exhibits once found in traveling circuses. Plans for the store were first reported by the Sun-Times’ Mitch Dudek.
The gelato shop is years in the making — though it got a boost during the pandemic. Bliznick fell in love with gelato while on a family trip to Florence years ago; by October 2020, he had been making the desert for about two years he said.
Around that time, Bliznick saw Jillette — one half of the famed Penn and Teller magician duo — had an account on Cameo, the chef said. He reached out, asking if Jillette would help him crowdfund for his magical gelato shop.
“I sent him texts about my shop idea and that I make vegan gelato,” Bliznick said. “His response was, ‘I don’t see how I can’t. Vegan gelato, huh?’”
Bliznick sent customized samples to Jillette: Penn’s Jilletto, with dark chocolate, blueberry jam and cayenne pepper for Jillette; and a curry apricot for Teller.
The world-famous magician raved about them on his “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast — and invested in the business, Bliznick said.
Since then, a considerable amount of Sideshow Gelato flavors have been sent to Las Vegas for Jillette and his friends, and Bliznick has been able to pursue his plans to open a gelato spot in Lincoln Square, he said.
Jillette tweeted about a Kickstarter for the store this spring, saying Bliznick is “a confection genius.”
After the shop opens, Bliznick anticipates sending gelato carts out into the neighborhood and joining local festivals and events, he said.
“And I want to do an event where I get Penn to come out and do do his podcast with his buddies live from the shop,” Bliznick said.
Jillette appears onboard with the idea and plans to perform in some capacity once the shop opens next year, he said during his podcast.
“Teller and I are going to, the next time we’re in Chicago, we will perform at Sideshow Gelato. Which I don’t think I need to tell you will violate the contract with whatever place we’re playing,” Jillette joked during a March 2021 episode. “Because if we’re playing the Chicago Theater they will have a clause in the contract, ‘dips— cannot go out and play somewhere else free.’”
Before pursuing Sideshow Gelato, Bliznick was an executive chef at Del Rio Italian in suburban Highwood. He knew the pandemic would hit the restaurant hard, so he focused on his gelato.
“I thought about working on my gelato and it became fun making it,” Bliznick said. “And I ended up training under an Italian gelato maker who has been doing this for three generations, [learning] how to properly do it like it’s done in Italy.”
Bliznick refined his gelato skills and dropped off samples to family during the pandemic, he said. He joked that they “bankrolled” his research and development by paying for ingredients.
“If it hadn’t been for the pandemic, I would not have been able to reach out to Penn the way that I did,” Bliznick said. “He probably wouldn’t have had the time to acknowledge my messages.”
This isn’t the first pivot for Bliznick: In his 40s, he got tired of his work in the film industry. He’d always been a pretty good cook, so he enrolled in school to get a culinary degree, he said.
“I’ve always been the sort of person who, whenever I get a wild hair, I just try to do what I want to do,” Bliznick said.
Bliznick also has an interest in magic tricks and the history of carnival sideshows. He is a co-founder of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, he said.
Bliznick hosted a Sideshow Gelato pop-up at Logan Square’s Blnk Haus in August, which he described as a trial run for what his Lincoln Square shop will be like when it opens next year, he said.
Bliznick’s will also serve gelato during the The Chicago Underground Film Festival’s July 30 afterparty for the Logan Theater screening of “Circus of the Scars.”
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