Not that you could ever get sick of gelato, but take a break—there's a world of other ethnic ice creams and ices out there to sample.
The Reader's pick for best ice cream in its Best of Chicago issue this year, Village Creamery (8000 Waukegan , Niles, 847-965-9805) not only churns out rich ice cream in dozens of Filipino and American flavors—even durian from the notoriously smelly fruit—it also makes fruit sorbets and shaved ice. For a twist on the Creamsicle, pair an ice cream and a sorbet, especially snowy white macapuno (flake coconut with coconut chunks) and pale pink pomelo (similar to grapefruit). The pinnacle for me is a bowl of halo-halo shaved ice ($4.79), which closely resembles halo-halo, the Filipino dessert that translates as "mix-mix" (for what you're supposed to do to it). Here a plastic bowl of firm, finely shaved ice is infused with condensed milk, then topped with a scoop of mixed red and white beans, corn, jackfruit, red and green jellies, sugar palm, and young coconut, as well as small scoops of of black tapioca pearls, ube (purple yam) paste, and ube ice cream. I like to substitute halo-halo fiesta ice cream with all the ingredients plus Rice Krispies right in it. There's a second location at 4558 Oakton, Skokie (847-982-1720); in the city pints are sold at Bangkok Video & Grocer (4617 N. Clark, 773-728-3333).
Every Asian country has variations on shaved ice, and the Malaysian ice kacang ($3) at Penang (2201 S. Wentworth, 312-326-6888) is one of my favorites. A mound of crushed ice covers a combination of big red beans, corn, palm seeds, and jellies (including one that looks like squiggly black worms) that melds sweet and savory, though generous amounts of rose syrup and coconut milk tip the balance. Even sweeter and very floral was a summer special of shaved ice with the syrup and coconut milk topped by canned pineapple, lychees, longans, and rambutans ($4.95).
Bingsu, the Korean take on shaved ice, doesn't typically show up on restaurant menus, but the mostly Japanese Ethan's Restaurant & Cafe (2201 N. Sheffield, 773-244-9012) added three types about six weeks ago. Except for the scoop of ice cream on top—usually mango, green tea, or vanilla, though I was served strawberry without prior notice—they're basically the same. The single ($6.95) is a squat, wide-mouthed glass pitcher of shaved ice and a little whole milk crowned by attractively arranged cut-up fresh fruit—strawberries, banana, kiwi, mango—and rice cakes (think mochi, not Styrofoam). In the center, sweetened red beans are a base for the ice cream. Ethan's omits jellies and syrups in a bow to healthier dining, but be advised: the single is big enough for two, and the double ($8.95) is designed to be shared by the whole table.
Re Leaf (100 E. Algonquin, Arlington Heights, 847-228-5435) in the Mitsuwa Mall offers shaved ice with red bean paste or green tea syrup, as well as ice creams imported from Japan in unusual flavors like black sesame seed and red plum. But the novelty is creamy house-made green-tea soft-serve ($2.50 for a cone), and it's even better—and prettier—swirled with vanilla.
Another take on green-tea ice cream, which gets its intense color from powdered green tea, can be found at Yoshi's Cafe (3257 N. Halsted, 773-248-6160). Chef-owner Yoshi Katsumura tweaks the recipe by incorporating fresh ginger that he candies and minces fine, so it subtly enhances the slightly bitter ice cream. Order it alone ($4) or matched with the Japanese-inspired Hawaiian purple-potato mousse cake with red bean paste in the middle and coconut whipped cream on top ($8).
Most Indian restaurants serve kulfi, dense unchurned ice cream, but Tahoora Sweets & Bakery (2345 W. Devon, 773-743-7272) is the only Devon Avenue snack shop I know that produces kulfi pops ($1.50). I could happily fill my freezer with them. They're conical, each made of four ingredients, and come in three flavors: nut-dotted green pistachio, bright orange mango, and "original," made with almonds and cardamom. And the clever packaging design allows the lid to be left on the stick to catch the drips.
Sources for Mexican paletas (ice pops made with water or milk in about two dozen flavors), raspados (shaved ice), and helados (ice creams) range from street carts all over the city to the two locations of Paleteria Flamingo (2635 W. 51st, 773-434-3917; 6733 W. Cermak, Cicero, 708-749-4287), which makes dozens of unusual ice creams (elote, queso, cajeta) and "Italian" ices (tamarind, guava). But another paleteria, Paleteria La Monarca (6955 N. Clark, 773-274-6394), recently captured my heart. The paletas—I'm partial to the rice pudding and coconut milk flavors—are as good as any and cheaper than most (65-75 cents apiece), but the house-made "Italian" ices ($2.29 for a 12-ounce cup) are special: jamaica (hibiscus) that's not quite as strong as Red Zinger tea, pineapple enhanced by chunks of fruit, tart tamarind laced with pulp. The only catch: the dozen bins of ices aren't labeled, and the wall signs are only in Spanish. On the plus side, with a little effort I found a staffer who could translate, and even if you don't, they're all good.
Finally a quick nod to Italian not-gelato: D'Amato's #1 Italian and American Bakery (1124 W. Grand, 312-733-5456) wouldn't say who custom-makes the spumoni it started scooping last year (along with a few other flavors), but the layered combination of chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, and tutti-frutti ($2.25 for a small) has just the right old-fashioned flavor. And La Bocca della Verita (4618 N. Lincoln, 773-784-6222) is the place to go for croccantino, mascarpone semifreddo sandwiching a thin layer of walnut brittle, and Roman-style covilio, a parfait of Strega-scented amaretti and espresso ice cream finished with whipped cream and Morello cherries ($7).