In search of history, boxing titles, and America’s best pizza.
Every city likes to boast it has the best pizza in America. I used to think my hometown Fisher’s pizza was pretty good. The restaurant specialized in St. Louis-style pizza with a super-thin yeast-less crust smothered in Provel cheese. (Provel, for the uninitiated, is a mixture of provolone, Swiss, and white cheddar peculiar to St. Louis.) Fisher’s is still making pies, but the quality went downhill back in the 1980s, along with family farms, the Soviet Union and Bob Dylan’s career.
Naturally, my girlfriend had her own idea about where to find America’s best pizza, so we pointed the truck north and headed toward her hometown of Jacksonville, Illinois, where there’s this little Italian joint just off the square called Leo’s Pizza.
Leo’s serves more than pizza — there’s a very nice ravioli with artichoke and spinach dish — but ordering anything else would be like visiting Chartres Cathedral for the great parking.
You come for the Sicilian stuffed pizza.
Describing Leo’s stuffed pizza is about as futile as describing Chartres Cathedral; it really must be experienced first hand. I can tell you, however, that what sets Leo’s apart is the homemade sauce and the homemade dough which they roll themselves. It is not uncommon for former residents to road trip from as far away as Kansas City and Indianapolis for Leo’s. Happily, our drive took only two hours.
Jacksonville, it should be noted, is more than Leo’s Pizza. It is a seriously bookish town with two private colleges (Illinois College and MacMurray College) and the Illinois School for the Deaf. A good many of the residents move here for the latter institution, and Jacksonville’s second language isn’t Spanish, but American Sign. Across town, there is a school for the blind, as well as the public and Catholic high schools; on just about every corner there is a school of some sort. With all those bookish people, it’s no wonder the city has two major book binderies: Bound to Stay Bound Books and Perma Bound Books. For non-readers, there is the Ferris Wheel factory, whose products are as ubiquitous as the schools, and makes for an interesting dichotomy.
AS FORTUNE would have it, we visited Jacksonville the weekend of the Fifteenth Annual Grierson Days.
Jacksonville has many favorite sons, but the most noteworthy are General Benjamin H. Grierson and Ken Norton.
Norton twice held the North American Boxing Federation Heavyweight Championship title in the1970s — once after he defeated Mohammed Ali. This was Ali in his prime, mind you. And Norton didn’t just beat Ali, he broke his jaw.
There is a street named after Norton here, though it appears to be a not very prominent thoroughfare. In some of the taverns off the square you can find faded, flyspecked photographs of various proprietors posing with the former champ.
As for Gen. Grierson, he has quite a following still. Every year the Grierson Society puts on a reenactment of Grierson’s Raid. The reenactment is held at the city park, which for one day is turned into a mock Civil War battlefield complete with cannon, horses, white tents, banjo pickers, and, on the bandstand, Abe and Mary Todd Lincoln impersonators. One toothless, bearded fellow, sweating in his Union Calvary garb (it was 100 degrees in the shade), buttonholed us and commenced a long, garbled tale about his being drummed out of the corps on account of being caught “sleeping naked with his tent-flap open.” Sadly, this was not part of the reenactment.
Grierson was a music teacher, who nursed a lifelong grudge against horses after being kicked in the head as a child. Nevertheless, he was saddled with the job of leading a cavalry brigade 600 miles from Tennessee to Baton Rouge. Along the way, he destroyed everything in his path, before meeting up with Sherman for the Battle of Snyder’s Bluff.
Grierson’s Raid was actually a diversion, but one that allowed Grant to land unopposed on the east side of the Mississippi and take Richmond. The Battle of Gettysburg gets most of the credit for turning the tide of the Civil War, but the almost simultaneous surrender of Vicksburg, Miss., on July 4, 1963, was the one-two punch that signaled the Confederacy’s doom.
We didn’t stick around to watch the actual reenactment — so I can’t tell you how one reenacts a diversionary tactic — because we were getting hungry and we still had some leftover Leo’s pizza in the fridge.
Leo’s, by the way, sells half-baked pizzas. You can eat your fill and order another to go. At home you pop the pie into the oven, let it bake a half-hour, get out the napkins and plates, and it’s just like being back at one of the tables at Leo’s Pizza in Jacksonville — which we intend to be, every chance we get.
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