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Mitch Liebovich learned two vital skills from his grandmother by the time he turned 3: how to throw a curveball and how to cook a brisket.
So when the pandemic threw Liebovich a curveball at his ballpark-adjacent barbecue house in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood, the pitmaster packed up his smokers and decided to fire up brisket in South Florida.
Now his Chicago-spun restaurant, Wrigley BBQ, debuts Feb. 4 in the Palm Springs village west of Lake Worth Beach. His pit stop, which occupies the 5,900-square-foot former home of Tom Sawyer Country Restaurant on Forest Hill Boulevard, turns out wood-smoked brisket and pork belly, St. Louis-style spare ribs and alligator wings. Wrigley’s dining room is massive, paneled top to bottom in red brick and maple wood, with 156 seats (plus 30 outside) and industrial light fixtures suspended from wood logs.
During a recent visit, Liebovich pulled from a steaming wood smoker a 12-hour beef brisket crusted in jet-black bark and glistening with juice. That dry rub, he says, is caramelized with brown sugar, paprika, garlic and onion powder in measurements Liebovich dare not reveal aloud.
“I live to eat barbecue without sauce,” Liebovich says, carving off slices ringed with thin slivers of marbled fat. “The misnomer is that the sauce is the barbecue, but it’s really the cooking method. If you’re just concerned about sauce, all you’re doing is grilling meat.”
And Liebovich, 47, is serious about the science of what he grills, firing his meats low and slow on a pair of Ole Hickory Pits smokers with a combination of natural gas and cherry wood (sometimes oak). In the kitchen, his smaller smoker can fit eight briskets at once, while his largest, recessed into the wall behind the kitchen, can handle several racks of spare and baby back ribs.
“Both smokers are the same but the one on the line is a compact car, a Ford Focus, and the one outside is more like an F-150 truck,” says Liebovich, slapping down a cut of cooked pork belly so tender it jiggled like jelly on the cutting board.
He credits much of his self-taught barbecue background to his grandmother Roselyn Horewitch, a catcher who played – not unlike Geena Davis in “A League of Their Own” – in the all-women National Girls Baseball League in the mid-1940s. In Park Forest, Ill., where he grew up, his Jewish grandmother made brisket by braising it for four hours in a Dutch oven – and taught him to toss curveballs in the back yard.
Liebovich says he treated barbecuing as a hobby through college and over the next 16 years while he worked for a graphic-design studio in Chicago. When his job laid him off, he opened his first barbecue joint, the Smoq Pitt in Pittsburgh, in 2014. He next took over Wrigley BBQ from a previous owner in 2017, but conflicts with a landlord and a desire to live closer to his parents, who retired in Palm Beach Gardens, convinced him to try the Sunshine State.
“COVID really burned me out up there,” he says. “I wanted to actually own the building, and I wanted a big space with a lot of parking, and you can’t find that in Chicago. But I found it here.”
Wrigley BBQ may sound evocative of the Windy City – and the Cubs-branded baseball and catcher’s mitt displayed in the reception area may suggest the same – but Liebovich describes the place “as an homage to everywhere I grew up.” Wrigley BBQ, for example, will be a Steelers bar, inspired by his stint living in Pittsburgh and running the Smoq Pitt. The restaurant’s walls are also covered in distressed metal signs collected from multiple states he’s visited.
Beef brisket ($15.95 for a platter with two sides, $11.95 for a sandwich) can be dunked in one of four housemade sauces: Memphis Sweet, Texas Habanero, Carolina Vinegar and Wrigley Fire, the latter he describes as an “eight-second hand grenade – you won’t feel it burning until it’s too late.”
There are likewise platters of pulled pork ($14.95), pulled chicken ($13.95) and turkey ($13.95), including in sandwich form. One handheld, the Sam & Erna ($12), is a chopped brisket and pulled pork sandwich named after his finicky parents. Along with hamburgers ($11-$13, short rib and brisket blend), starters include barbecue nachos ($12), jalapeno-flecked hush puppies ($8), St. Louis-style rib tips ($12) and brisket burnt ends ($12). Desserts range from bourbon bread pudding ($7) to s’mores pie ($12).
Wrigley BBQ’s full-liquor bar features eight beers on draught and 8 craft cocktails. Happy hour will be 4-6 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, plus $4 margaritas on Mondays.
Wrigley BBQ, at 3208 Forest Hill Blvd., in Palm Springs, will debut Friday, Feb. 4. Hours of operations are 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 561-720-2257 or go to WrigleyBBQ.com.
What’s new in South Florida barbecue?
Broward and Palm Beach Counties are home to new barbecue restaurants carving out their own twists on brisket. They range from the upcoming Lickie Stickie, local pitmaster Julitette Johnson’s jerk-seasoned twist on chicken, spare ribs and collard greens, to Pig Beach Palm Beach, a New York-spun pit stop that arose from the competition barbecue circuit.
Pig Beach Palm Beach, West Palm Beach
What happens when classically trained chefs rub (pork) shoulders on the barbecue competition circuit with top pit masters? The answer is Pig Beach, a barbecue house from Rob Shawger, Matt Abdoo (New York’s Del Posto) and Shane McBride (New York’s Balthazar), which is set to open in February or March. Abdoo says Pig Beach’s menu will carry cheddar-jalapeno sausage, Carolina-style pork shoulder, Texas-style brisket and Memphis-style beef ribs, the result of touring the country and sweating over smokers with barbecue greats Aaron Franklin, Rodney Scott and others. Pig Beach Palm Beach is the first offshoot of the trio’s Brooklyn-born Pig Beach, which opened last year, and will occupy a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on South Dixie Highway. Also worth your lunch money: Pig Beach’s smashed brisket-and-short-rib burger, which won the Burger Bash at last year’s South Beach Wine and Food Festival.
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Rob’s Family BBQ, Plantation
Rob Scruby, the former owner of longtime pit stop Scruby’s BBQ, is now smoking meats at Rob’s Family BBQ, and plans to open a second location in February or March inside Plantation’s Vizcaya Square. The Plantation Rob’s, at 2,100 square feet, will mostly cater to carryout crowds and feature 14-hour slow-smoked brisket sandwiches, along with pulled chicken, smoked turkey and sides that include sweet corn nuggets, crispy breaded okra and fresh cornbread.
Lickie Stickie BBQ, Sunrise
A staple at the Plantation and Tamarac weekend farmers market for a decade, pit master Juliette Johnson is finally opening her first brick-and-mortar this spring, which will serve her Southern-Caribbean-inspired ribs and chicken, and pork marinated in homemade wine she ferments from a blend of peaches, pears and grapes. But Johnson’s biggest draw may be her lean brisket, always the “last thing to come off the smoker and the first to sell out” every weekend at the markets, she says. Johnson – who helped run her father’s roadside pit on Sunrise Boulevard, Art’s BBQ, in the ‘60s and ‘70s – will also serve sides of collard greens, grits, mac and cheese and baked beans.