An Italian Salad is almost a meal in itself. Romaine lettuce loaded with hearty chick peas, juicy tomatoes, creamy mozzarella, spicy onions and pepperoncini, this Italian salad recipe is a delightful refreshing side dish or light main.
Since I was a wee babe, ChiChi’s Italian Restaurant has been a family favorite. A local legend in the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys of Southern California, ChiChi’s is a place that everyone knows. And I’m not talking about the Mexican food chain.
(Just for the record ChiChi means “little bird” in Italian.)
We have a photo of me at 2 weeks old sitting atop a table at ChiChi’s, it was so much a part of my childhood, I started early. Family albums include other shots from birthdays, late nights after high school basketball games, and other special events, like when we announced we were having a baby. ChiChi’s holds a host of memories for me.
Everything at ChiChi’s is fresh and made to order. The pasta are homemade and the pizza is hand stretched. Mmmm…. I want some right now!
One of my ultimate favorite things to order at ChiChi’s (besides “a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, stretched, and cut the old-fashioned way”) would be their Italian Salad. Oh my! Soooo yummy! Unfortunately, distance and money stand in the way of my indulging to my heart’s content.
After years of experimenting, I’ve seen great success copying ChiChi’s Italian Salad at home. Yeehaw! And I’m going to share the secret with you. The salad part was never hard to mimic, but the dressing? Ah, that’s another story.
Commenters over the years have debated some of my choices and plating methods. I can only guess that perhaps there is some slight variation among ChiChi’s locations or that our memories sometimes betray us.
However, my brother brought a few containers of dressing to me at the start of this copycat journey in 2009, and I was able to take apart the flavors a little. I’ve also had in-depth conversations with Jerry, the kitchen manager, during visits back home over the years.
The trick is to use vegetable oil, milder than olive oil, and to add a pinch of sugar if your red wine vinegar is more sour than sweet. The cheese is, indeed, a mixture of mozzarella and jack. You can’t really shred the cheese like “cheese worms” as we called them — to the uninitiated, ChiChi’s shredded cheese look like cylinders not true shreds — but you can mix the two varieties of cheese and it works out fine.
If you’re a Valley local, or even if you’re not, you can enjoy this delicious salad at home, for a fraction of the cost. Now that’s one good. cheap. eat.
Italian salad recipe ingredients
- Dressing: For this homemade dressing I combined red wine vinegar, oil, sugar, salt, pepper, dried basil and dried oregano.
- Veggies: We toss together chopped romaine, tomato wedges, and sliced onion.
- Chickpeas: Or garbanzo beans as they are also known as.
- Cheeses: We love a combination of mozzarella and pepper jack cheese. Before serving we like to sprinkle on some parmesan cheese as well.
- Pepperocini: This salad would be the classic I grew up without the pepperocini that get tossed in.
How to make this Italian salad:
- Make the dressing: You want to start by combining the vinegar, sugar, and spices and whisk these to combine. Then add the oil to combine.
- Make the salad: In your salad bowl you want to toss together all of the salad ingredients.
- Drizzle on the dressing: When you are ready to serve, go ahead and drizzle on some of that dressing you whisked up earlier.
- Add more cheese: Because you can. No one will mind. A little parmesan cheese to top it and you are allset. Toss it all together before serving it up.
Italian salad variations:
- Add a protein. This salad is wonderful as it but feel free to add some cooked chicken, canned tuna, steak, shrimp, even tofu! And if you have any leftover proteins, maybe leftover turkey, it’s always a great way to use it up.
- Vary the cheese. I told you my favorites that I grew up on and use but you can swap it out for what you have on hand. Cheddar would be a great substitution!
- Extra veggies. Toss in some sliced cucumbers, radishes, or bell peppers for more color and crunch!
- Other jarred wonders. Like olives, roasted red peppers, or artichokes would be delicious.
- Fresh herbs. We used dried herbs in the dressing, but you can sprinkle on chopped fresh herbs – basil or parsley would be wonderful on the salad or in the dressing itself.
- Croutons! Everyone loves croutons, don’t they? Especially if they are homemade croutons.
Can I prep this salad ahead of time?
Absolutely. Prepare the salad and dressing separately and store in the refrigerator the day before. Then right before serving, toss the two together.
HOW TO MAKE THIS GOOD AND CHEAP:
A salad with cheese, homemade dressing, and fresh veggies tastes like a million bucks, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are some of the strategies you can use to make this recipe more economical:
- Stock up on ingredients when they are on sale. The cheese is the price item in this recipe. Watch for sales and stock up.
- Freeze the cheese. Stretch your cheese purchase by freezing it in small containers. This will extend the shelf life of your purchase and help you enjoy it for several weeks to come.
- Make your own dressings. Bottled dressings are either way too expensive or full of junk. I love to make my own dressings. Not only are they quick and economical to prepare, but they allow me to control the ingredients that I use.
HOW I MAKE THIS RECIPE EASY:
This recipe really couldn’t be easier than it is, but having the right kitchen tools can really make your time in the kitchen more enjoyable. Over time, I’ve honed my collection so that they are perfect for my needs.
Here are the tools that I use for this recipe:
- plastic cutting boards – I have blue boards for veggies and white boards for meat.
- Ergo Chef chef’s knife – I’ve had my set for several years and they work well.
- salad spinner – I love this large model salad spinner with a salad serving bowl.
Italian Salad Recipe
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- pinch granulated sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp dried oregano
- 1/4 tsp dried basil
- 1/4 cup neutral oil such as avocado or sunflower
- 1 head romaine lettuce rinsed and torn into bite sized pieces
- 1 roma tomato cut into wedges
- 1/2 cup garbanzo beans drained and rinsed
- 2 oz mozzarella cheese (shredded) (1/2 cup)
- 2 oz jack cheese (shredded) (1/2 cup)
- 1/4 onion sliced
- 6 pepperoncini sliced
- In small jar or mixing bowl, combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper, oregano, and basil. Whisk in the oil to blend. Set aside
- In a large salad bowl, combine the lettuce, tomato, garbanzo beans, mozzarella cheese, monterey jack cheese, onion, and pepperoncini peppers.
- Drizzle some of the dressing over all. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.
- Toss before serving. Serve additional dressing on the side.
Originally published October 8, 2009. Updated August 26, 2017.