But the prized pata negra, which eats mainly acorns and is aged for two to three years, has to be slaughtered in Spain. Its taken decades to set up a USDA-approved facility there. But now, thanks to a Chicago-based importer, there are a few of these coveted hams available for tasting around town.
They live a life of ease in and around the forests of southwestern Spain. The Iberico pig - a descendent of the wild boar - still wanders free, eating acorns and other plants. Popularly known as the Pata Negra, or Black Hoof, it produces one of the best dry-cured hams in the world.
"You are talking about a pig that is free-ranging for the last time of its life, and it's eating acorn, and it's exercising all the time, this has a huge impact as the acorn will create a type of fat that has natural antioxidants," said Guillermo Trias, of Solex Partners.
Guillermo Trias' company worked with a USDA approved Spanish processor and is now importing the hams to Chicago.
"When he notified me that it was gonna be coming in December - this was a couple of months ago - I said well, no matter what, I have to have one," said chef Carrie Nahabedian.
At her restaurant, Naha, in River North, the menu leans heavily toward the Mediterranean; Carrie Nahabedian is one of only a handful of chefs offering the pata negra. She thinly slices a few ounces onto a plate and serves it with a salad, composed of apples and manchego cheese. She says the flavor is remarkable.
"It was stunning. We've all had hams, kind of "bootleg" Virginia hams people have made in the style of the Pata Negra, but it was like nothing I'd ever tried because the beautiful marbling of the fat and the texture of the ham, it's nothing like serrano."
Part of the reason it's unique is because of the aging process, which takes about two years, intensifying the nutty, complex flavors.
"Pata negra is truly the jamon of Spain."
Timothy Cottini spent time in Spain, observing how the ham is processed. At Cafe BaBaReeba in Lincoln Park - one of the city's first Spanish restaurants - they've spent hundreds of dollars for a single bone-in leg, which is sliced thin, and served with some Arbequina olives and a few Spanish breadsticks. He says don't let the sight of all that fat worry you.
"It's all monounsaturated fats, high in oleic acid, just like olive oils, and it's actually good for you," said Cottini.
Fat that's good for you? No wonder why its taken so long for this pampered pig to make its way to the States.
"Now to be able to put it on a menu, just kind of states how far we've come in Spanish food here in the United States."
Other restaurants selling the pata negra include Carnivale, Nomi and Cafe Iberico. You can also find it retail at places like Binny's, Shaefer's in Skokie and Pastoral in the Loop, where it will fetch about $90 a pound. But remember, you're only going to need about two to three ounces, which is what a typical restaurant portion will be.
Pata Negra ham is available at:
Naha 500 N. Clark St.
2024 N. Halsted St.
702 W. Fulton
NoMI Park Hyatt Hotel
800 N. Michigan Ave.
737 N. LaSalle
42 E. Superior St.
Wave (W-Hotel Lakeshore)
644 N. Lake Shore Dr.
1720 N. Marcey St.
Pastoral Artisan Cheese (Loop location only)
53 E. Lake St.
Binny's South Loop
1132 S. Jefferson St.
9965 Gross Point Rd., Skokie