CHICAGO — On any given weekend at Sideshow Gelato, customers can encounter sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, magicians, and other colorful performers on stages alongside artisan-crafted cool treats.
Jay Bliznick, self-proclaimed “Impresario & Thaumaturge of Gelid Confectioneries” at the carnival-themed shop in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, said the sideshow acts can change as frequently as the flavors of gelato.
“Sideshow Gelato is my little fever dream,” Bliznick said. “I like to say one out of every eight people get what we do here, and the other seven get cookies and cream.”
At the counter, scoopers not only fill cups with gelato but also perform close up magic, sideshow stunts, and other acts to the wonder of customers. Bliznick employs up-and-coming performers through a mentorship program so they can practice their skills for a captive audience.
“There is something really fulfilling about seeing a young performer do their thing or giving an opportunity to somebody that maybe wouldn’t have had it before,” Bliznick said. “When I’m gone, I don’t want people to talk about Sideshow Gelato; I just want people to say he was a good guy and always treated me well.”
Bliznick’s love of show business began with his grandfather, a concert violinist and composer, and his father, a comedian and ventriloquist. After founding the Chicago Underground Film Festival and working as a film marketer and distributor, Bliznick turned to the culinary arts, becoming the executive chef at his family’s nearly century-old restaurant in Highwood, Illinois, The Del Rio. A trip to Florence, Italy with his family and 6-year-old granddaughter is what first sparked his interest in making gelato.
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“The one word she learned how to read in Italian was gelato,” Bliznick said. “We wandered around Italy basically eating our weight in gelato.”
Soon Bliznick learned how to make the cool treat, studying with a nationally recognized gelato maestro in hopes of bringing it to the restaurant. As the pandemic hit, Bliznick changed his plans, sold gelato to friends of friends through social media, and began dreaming about combining gelato with sideshow acts in a brick-and-mortar shop .
“Maybe I could do something crazy with it,” Bliznick said. “Maybe I could take this love of the sideshow and performance and couple it with the gelato I was going to make.”
Along with traditional gelato, Bliznick created vegan varieties and reached out to famed magician Penn Jillette, who quickly came on board as an investor after trying out his various flavors. Jillette gushed about the gelato to his podcast listeners, many of whom also came on as investors, and with additional money from Bliznick’s family, Sideshow Gelato was born.
“Sometimes I pinch myself,” Bliznick said. “I don’t know what I did to deserve this.”
Ticketed performances at Sideshow Gelato usually happen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. For more information about Sideshow Gelato and a list of their events, visit sideshowgelato.com.