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I Tried the Lasagna at 4 Major Italian Chains & the Best Was Rustic and Fresh

The quintessential pasta dish is a staple at popular chains nationwide, but which one makes it the best?

When it comes to classic pasta dishes, lasagna is a tried-and-true staple that's always a good bellwether for an Italian restaurant worth its salt—or not. Much like ordering an Old Fashioned from a cocktail bar, or a ribeye from a steakhouse, lasagna is something deceptively simple and rustic, the execution of which can speak to the overall authenticity of any given Italian restaurant.

I recently tried the lasagnas at four different major Italian chains to see which one makes the best version of this quintessential baked pasta dish, rooted in sauce, meat, and cheese.

For something as straightforward as lasagna, I found that the simplest changes can make all the difference between success and failure. This is also a particular entrée where presentation really matters, as evidenced by the results below.

Here's how each chain stacked up, ranked in descending order from my least favorite to the absolute best lasagna of the four.

Johnny Carino's

lasagna on a plate at johnny carino's restaurant.
Photo: Matt Kirouac, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Serving):
Calories: 853
Fat: 51 g (Saturated Fat: 23 g)
Sodium: 2,193 mg
Carbs: 49g (Fiber: 5 g, Sugar: 10 g)
Protein: 48 g

With around 40 locations, Johnny's Carino's is a smaller Texas-based chain that's earned a reputation for having some of the best fettuccine, chicken piccata, and ravioli around. Unfortunately, "Johnny's Fresh Baked Lasagna," made with Italian sausage, beef, meat sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan, can't hold a candle to any of those, earning last place in my taste test. This dish cost me $19.99.

The look: Based on looks alone, this lasagna had an uphill battle to earn my good graces. It was far and away the least appetizing of the lasagnas I tried, with a watery meat sauce that looked more like canned chili. This thing was absolutely buried under what looked like slices of mozzarella, with no other discernible cheeses to speak of, and everything kind of congealed together into one mushy heap. Overall, it looked like a microwaved lasagna that I would make for myself, which is not a good thing.

The taste: It tasted about as appetizing as it looked, sadly. The sprinkling of herbs on top added neither aroma nor flavor, and despite the chunky meat sauce, it didn't taste nearly as meaty as advertised. Since the cheese was sliced, not shredded, it all falls off with one errant bite, and the pasta layers were just as slippery and frustrating. There's a slight spice that came through in the sauce, as a pleasant surprise, but it isn't nearly enough to salvage this gloopy mess.

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The Old Spaghetti Factory

lasagna on a plate at old spaghetti factory
Photo: Matt Kirouac, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Serving):
Calories: 820
Fat: 45 g (Saturated Fat: 22 g)
Sodium: 2,250 mg
Carbs: 61 g (Fiber: 6 g, Sugar: 13 g)
Protein: 45 g

Of all the Italian chains I tried for this taste test, The Old Spaghetti Factory let me down the most. That's not to say the lasagna was awful, it just didn't come close to meeting my expectations for the restaurant, which I had been anticipating visiting ever since they opened a local spot in Oklahoma City. Priced at $19.50, the "Famous Baked Lasagna" is made with noodles, marinara sauce, ground beef and pork, and four cheeses. Sounds great, and certainly wasn't bad, but rather merely fine.

The look: The lasagna actually looked quite good, if a bit saucy. I like that the pasta all held its shape really well, and the marinara—while excessive—appeared fresh and flavorful. Digging into it a little, disappointment sinks in: the over-abundance of dried herbs on top add nothing, there's an alarming lack of cheese, and the meat nestled between the layers looked a little grey, like ground beef that had cooked way too long.

The taste: Taste-wise, this thing performed a little better. Although it wasn't as hot as I would have liked, and again not nearly as cheesy as it should be, it tastes like a spot-on classic lasagna. It's slightly meaty, super saucy, and the pasta all holds its own. The sauce, at least, is meatier than expected, so it adds more heft than the bland ground pork and beef tucked between the noodles.

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Olive Garden

half eaten olive garden lasagna on a plate
Photo: Matt Kirouac, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Serving):
Calories: 940
Fat: 55 g (Saturated Fat: 30 g)
Sodium: 2,260 mg
Carbs: 61 g (Fiber: 6 g, Sugar: 11 g)
Protein: 54 g

The biggest shock of the taste test, quite frankly, was that Olive Garden wasn't first. Although I haven't been in many years, this is by far the most nostalgic Italian chain for me, so I was admittedly a little blinded by bias at first. But, in the spirit of honestly, I must admit that Olive Garden was, in fact, not as perfect as my childhood self remembers. The Lasagna Classico with layers of pasta, parmesan, mozzarella, pecorino romano, and meat sauce, cost me $17.79—the least expensive entrée in this survey.

The look: All that said, I will add that Olive Garden's lasagna at least looked the best. This was actually quite striking, with a presentation that far exceeded anything else on this list. It arrives in a cute bowl, tastefully seasoned with herbs, and sprinkled with the perfect amount of fluffy cheese. The pasta and sauce appear in perfect balance, and everything looks super fresh and tasty. Which it was…for the most part.

The taste: The texture and thickness of the pasta was great, and everything holds it shape remarkably well. The lasagna had the right amount of sauce and cheese, and technically it was pretty close to perfect, but it just didn't wow me. That's partly due to the slight funkiness from some of the cheese here, which tends to overpower each whiff and bite, and the meatiness is a little too muted for my liking. If it had been as pronounced as the cheese, it might have elevated Olive Garden to the first slot.

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Carrabba's Italian Grill

lasagna on a plate at carrabbas restaurant.
Photo: Matt Kirouac, Eat This, Not That!
Nutrition (Per Serving):
Calories: 1,050
Fat: 60 g (Saturated Fat: 31 g, Trans Fat: 1.5 g)
Sodium: 2,550 mg
Carbs: 68 g (Fiber: 9 g, Sugar: 15 g)
Protein: 57 g

For my first time at Carrabba's Italian Grill, I went in assuming it would disappoint me compared to Olive Garden. Of all the chains I tried, it was the most similar to the latter, but the food—specifically, its "lasagne" with pomodoro sauce, ricotta, parmesan, romano, and mozzarella for $18.29—was the clear winner.

The look: Although Olive Garden's lasagna looked beautiful, Carrabba's earns extra points for authenticity—or, at least the allusion of authenticity. Unlike any of the others, this one looked the most rustic and legit, as if an Italian nonna made it herself from scratch. Everything about it just looks wholesome and real, from the vibrant sauce and the freshly grated parmesan melting on top, to the part that stood out to me the most: the crispy edges on the pasta.

The taste: Turns out, those crispy edges make a huge difference! Unlike the others, this lasagna was a textural treat, with the inner portion of the pasta being pleasantly chewy and soft, and the outer edges achieving a nice, caramelized crunch. It helps the whole thing taste collectively more interesting, and less monotonous. The sauce is more balanced here, and not as sugary as some of the others. I could have used more meat, either in the sauce or between the pasta layers, but it still comes through and tastes fresh. Mostly, though, it's the crispy texture and the right ratio of cheese that really set Carrabba's apart.

Matt Kirouac
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate, with a passion for national parks, all things Disney, and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt