February 13, 2010 at 1:00 am

Chicago's new import: Coney islands

Michigan transplants can't wait for hometown dog

Leo Stassinopoulos, co-owner of Leo's Coney Island, a franchise that began in Southfield, will open a Chicago location Monday -- the first outside of Michigan. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Transplanted Detroiters, rejoice: Coney Island is coming to the Windy City.

Leo's Coney Island will be the first of the many incarnations of Metro Detroit's coney islands to export the chili-, onion- and mustard-topped hot dog outside the state when it opens a franchise in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood Monday.

"Native Detroiters are literally ready to rip our door off the hinges," said Lou Goldhaber, co-owner of the Chicago Leo's Coney Island. "It's a total built-in customer base."

Named for the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood that birthed the hot dog, coney islands have been a Motor City fixture over the last century. Mostly Greek-owned, the concept offers coney dogs and Mediterranean fare, such as Greek salad and gyros, as well as typical diner fare including hamburgers, fries, omelets and dessert.

While there is debate about which was Michigan's first coney island -- American and Lafayette Coney Islands in Detroit and Todoroff's Original Coney Island in Jackson all stake claim -- the first opened during World War I. Both the hot dog and restaurant format have become quintessentially Michigan and slow to spread across state lines.

Until now.

Leo's Coney Island, a 41-location franchise that began in Southfield in 1972, has been exploring opportunities in Chicago and other places where Michiganians have migrated, including Florida and Arizona, said Leo Stassinopoulos Jr., director of franchising and son of the restaurant's eponymous co-owner.

In Chicago, "the name recognition is there for sure," Stassinopoulos said.

Excitement on the blogosphere has been mounting, with a countdown until the Chicago location opens its doors. "If you're not from Michigan, it might be time you see the proper way to serve a hot dog," one blogger wrote.

Dana Kaplan, a West Bloomfield Township native living in Chicago, said she and her hometown friends plan to visit Leo's as soon as it opens. "Living in Chicago, we don't get Leo's very often," she said. "I've been eating their Greek salad since I was 10. It's nice to have something from home here."

Leo's is not the only coney island to expand beyond Metro Detroit's borders. Roseville-based National Coney Island opened a quick-service East Lansing store in September to cater to the Michigan State University crowds.

The store, which has 25 menu items, or about half the offerings of a traditional National Coney restaurant, has been so popular that the company is thinking of extending its weekend hours (now 11 a.m. to 3 a.m., Thursday through Saturday) and offering breakfast and home delivery, said Bradford Egan, director of business development.

"We have a very loyal following; it's almost cult-like," he said.

National Coney Island is also developing a larger, aggressive expansion plan it will reveal in the spring, Egan said. The restaurant is looking at opportunities within Michigan as well as outside.

Detroit's coney restaurants are optimistic that other cities, such as Chicago, which is already famed for its own hot dog style -- with mustard, onion, dill pickle, tomatoes and sweet pickle relish -- will embrace the Michigan dog.

The restaurants strike a balance between traditional diners and burger joints, Egan said, and have the added benefit of bringing a novelty -- a hot dog ensconced in chili and mustard -- to new frontiers.

"It would just be a matter of getting people to try the restaurant," Egan said. "Once they experience it, they'll want to come back."

The coney concept will resonate with new consumers as long as it remains convenient, inexpensive and tasty, said Harry Balzer, a Chicago-based vice president at NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y. The average price point at both Leo's and National Coney Island is less than $8.

"What eaters love is new versions of things they already know," Balzer said. "Trying is not going to be the issue."

But Chicago's hot dog merchants say it's a tough market to penetrate, as a failed attempt by Brooklyn-based Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs has shown, said Patty Sullivan, spokeswoman for Portillo's Restaurant Group, which includes Chicago hot dog behemoth Portillo's. The chain has 32 locations in the city and two in Southern California, where many Chicago transplants live.

"Chicago is a very tough market," Sullivan said, "but time will tell."

jtrop@detnews.com">jtrop@detnews.com (313) 222-2300

Leo's Coney Island dresses its dogs with chili, chopped onions and ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
Jay Cunningham of Bloomfield Township digs into a coney dog at Leo's ... (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)