This was at the 1995 Chicago Auto Show, and Bill Wennington was just a bench guy who hadn’t yet won a championship with the Bulls.
But that made no difference to the nine-year-old Hanft, the future butcher of The Wurst in Griffith, Indiana, and a new and malleable fan. He wanted that autograph no matter who it was. What if I win the 1994 Final Four basketball they’re raffling off? Can we wait in line then, Dad? Mr. Hanft figured the kid had a one-in-nothing chance of winning the ball among the thousands of gearheads swarming the McCormick Center, so, Sure, sure son. We’ll wait if you win.
Young Hanft did, in fact, win the raffle—and his dad? “He was a man of his word,” says Hanft. They waited, and number 34 signed the ball and made himself a lifelong fan.
Montreal-born Wennington went on to win three NBA championships with the Bulls, but as a backup player, his most astonishing achievement was personifying the Beef Wennington in 1998, which, after the McJordan and Larry Bird’s Big 33, was only the third McDonald’s burger to be named after a pro baller.
Hanft, long before he became northern Indiana’s premier whole animal butcher and walking encyclopedia of world sausage, ate his share of the all-beef patty, barbecue sauce, cheese, Canadian bacon, and onions on a sesame seed bun in the year before it was retired.
These days Wennington is the Bulls’ color commentator on ESPN Radio, and though Hanft remains a fan, he wouldn’t touch a McDonald’s beef patty with a ten-foot cattle prod. Each week Hanft and his mom break down, clean, and grind a single pastured Slagel beef carcass into an 80/20 blend of the very best the animal had to offer. “It provides a lot of different textures and flavors,” he says. “Some of it is dry-aged. So it gives us this really unique flavor.” That’s relative to the uncountable number of miserable commodity cows that end up in the average McPatty. There’s simply no comparison.
Well, you can try anyway this Monday, April 10, when The Wurst resurrects and upgrades the Beef Wennington at the next Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at Ludlow Liquors in Avondale.
It’s been nearly a year since Hanft hauled a meaty five-dish deep cut German menu up north to the Kedzie Inn. But this time he’s keeping it simple: a quarter-pound Slagel patty, locally sourced mild sauce from the Griffith Harold’s, American cheese, Canadian bacon cured from Slagel pork loin, and onions, all on a sesame seed bun. There’ll also be spuds fried in Slagel beef tallow (like McD’s once did but from the very same cow).
Apart from the McSprite-like high-syrup lemon-limoncello spritz barkeep Joel Gitskin is working on, that’s the menu: one thing, done really well, with a side of fries.
OK, there’s a bit more. Hanft is bringing his signed ball, and a handful of limited edition (34) Beef Wennington T-shirts. I spent $10 on a Cameo message to Wennington himself, but ultimately he didn’t respond to my request for an interview and invitation to his first Monday Night Foodball. But the last regular season Bulls game happens on Sunday at the United Center, so I reckon there’s no good reason he can’t swing through and taste the best Beef Wennington of his life (particularly if enough of you remind him on his socials.) At the very least this could be the traction needed for the six-year-old petition to bring back the burger. #BeefWennington.
Preorders are open now, but Hanft will also take walk-in orders starting at 5 PM on Monday, April 10, at Ludlow Liquors, 2959 N. California.
Meantime, gaze upon the brand new spring-summer MNF schedule below.