A panel of judges ranks the pizzas based on taste, presentation, and creativity.Photos by Jamie Donohue

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The U.S. Pizza Team hosted the Midwest Culinary and Acrobatic trials on June 13 at Panino’s Pizzeria, 1968 Dempster St. Sixteen to 20 teams from around the country showed up at the Trials to compete in events such as Freestyle Acrobatics, Largest Dough Stretch, and Fastest Pie Maker, all with the hope of winning the grand culinary prize: a spot at the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy, that takes place next May.

Gino Rago, the owner of the Panino’s located on Dempster Street, was named a member of the U.S. Pizza Team in 2014 and competed in Italy along with 17 other American pizza makers. Lenny Rago, his brother, was also named to the team after winning first place at the Northeast National Pizza Trials in 2015 and competed in the championships that year. “In 2015 we won back-to-back, my brother and I. This time we thought we would just take a step back and host, because the guys that host can’t compete. So we thought it’d be great to bring it to Evanston,” said Lenny Rago.

The events took place throughout the day, with the category winners announced at the end. Panino’s entertained customers with live music and a broadcast of other U.S. Pizza Team members, who made an appearance on Windy City Live that morning.

During the culinary trials or the “pizza classico,” customers and other teams could watch the pizza-making process from behind a glass partition. A Panino’s staff member questioned the pizzaiolos about their ingredients, strategy, and technique while they prepped; once their pizza was fully cooked, it was served to a panel of judges. The pizza that they deemed the tastiest would be named the “Best Pizza in America” for 2016 at this location of the Midwest trials, and the team behind the pie’s creation is sent to compete in the championships. Michael P. LaMarca of Master Pizza was announced as the winner of the culinary trials; second place was awarded to Ali Haider of 786 Degrees and third place went to Leonardo Giordano of Mona Lisa Pizzeria & Ristorante.

Lenny Rago explained that the way to get recruited to the U.S. Pizza Team is to participate in similar trials and contests. “This is what they’re doing. I was part of the team but I wasn’t a member until I actually won [in 2015]. There’s different divisions – there’s us black coats and then there’s white coats. Black coats are winners that participate and maintain status, and we’ve won competition,” he said.

Next up for the Rago brothers is a U.S. Pizza Team appearance in New York, followed by the Baker’s Institute Show in Las Vegas in September. They will then travel to Cleveland for more competition, and where Lenny Rago holds the winning title – Gino Rago holds the winning title in Chattanooga, Tenn. which is the next destination after Cleveland.

“I think this is great for the City. I think it’s something different, and it’s going to bring some awareness to the U.S. Pizza Team. We’re all about what we do, and it’s been great for us,” says Lenny Rago.