I’m a big cheese fan. I order food based solely off whether or not it involves goat cheese or feta. When I’m grocery shopping, it’s the thing I’m willing to spend the most money on. And when I travel, part of my agenda involves finding a local cheese shop.
One such shop can be found off I-80, just over 100 miles outside of Iowa City, in an unassuming town of 1,300. Walnut, Illinois has been home to Avanti Foods since the 1950s. The gift shop — inside a Swiss Chalet since 1977 — is hard to miss: Suspended outside the second-floor balcony is a ceramic cow Avanti had sent over from Switzerland. Inside, along with chocolates, meat trays and their famous frozen pizzas, there’s a selection of more than 100 varieties of domestic and imported cheeses.
There’s no need to make the hour-and-40-minute trek to rural Illinois to shop these cheeses. On Saturday mornings, Avanti’s folks divide and conquer the region, driving to farmers markets in Peoria, Naperville, Davenport and Iowa City.
For over a decade, Avanti Foods has had a presence in Chauncey Swan Ramp for the Iowa City Farmers Market, ready to go by 7 a.m. on Saturdays with a cooler full of over 30 assorted cheeses. That’s where I first found them, walking through the market at the tail end of the summer of 2017. I purchased just one cheese that day, but have continued to return for more, bringing along friends to share my lucky find.
Avanti, named for the Italian word meaning “forward,” is owned by the Zueger and Linley families, whose cheese tradition extends all the way back to an 1800s Swiss cheese factory, inspiring the store’s current exterior. Anton Zueger, the original first half of Avanti Foods, purchased Walnut Cheese Factory in 1955. Before that, he spent three years learning how to make cheese in Switzerland as an apprentice and then officially — and fittingly — began his cheesemaking career in Wisconsin. In 1962, as Avanti Foods began to make and sell pizzas, Zueger was joined by Robert Linley, who’d received a cheesemakers license in Wisconsin a decade earlier. Their children now run the operation.
The Avanti booth at the Iowa City Farmers Market is always well-stocked with staples — mozzarella, Havarti (try the dill, green olive or jalapeño varieties) and various cheddars and Monterey Jack cheeses. Most cheeses can be purchased for $6, though a wedge of blue cheese runs for $8. Curds, purchased in one-pound quantities, run for $7. Their most popular item — a one-pound tub of garlic cheddar cheese spread made in Walnut every Friday morning — can also be purchased for $7. (The plain cheddar cheese spread is a frequent snack option in my brother and sister-in-law’s fridge).
Dave Dietz, who makes the drive out to Iowa City early every Saturday morning, May through October, is incredibly helpful. He’ll explain which cheeses are traditionally Avanti and which ones have been carefully chosen to maintain the general selection’s high quality. He may also give advice on how thick to slice the morel and leek Monterey jack cheese, to ensure it melts perfectly on burgers, or offer wine pairings (the Ardon Creek Vineyard and Winery table is just a few stalls over).
And, as if it wasn’t difficult enough to decide which cheese to purchase, there’s always multiple cheese tastings available, ensuring you’ll fall in love with something new every weekend trip to the Avanti stall.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 266.