The big triumvirate of Chicago native fare is pizza, hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches. These are not street food, per se, because you can’t buy them on street corners, but they are the earthy fare of the people, the real thing. But besides these, there are a few other specialties born and raised in Chicago - some of which have spread to other locales, and some of which are still unique to this city. Here’s a summary of what real Chicagoans eat, its history and suggestions of where to get it.
Chicago pizza is deep-dish pizza.
You can get plenty of thin-crust, flat pizza here, but Chicagoans treat that as a type of canapé - in fact, it will come cut up into small squares. Some misguided old South Siders may try to kid you that the “real” pizza of Chicago is greasy flat stuff with a cardboardlike crust, but the true Chicago-style pizza began when Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo opened Pizzeria Uno in 1943. An authentic Chicago pizza starts with a thin layer of dough, laid in a deep, well-seasoned pizza pan and pulled up its sides. It’s then topped with an inch or two of mozzarella cheese, your choice of meat and vegetables, and a layer of seasoned crushed tomatoes. Italian sausage - rather than pepperoni - is the meat of choice here. In 1974, Rocco Palese of Nancy’s refined the deep-dish style farther by introducing the “stuffed pizza,” which he based on his mother’s recipe for scarciedda, an Italian Easter pie from his hometown of Potenza. This adds a thin layer of dough above the cheese and below the tomatoes, creating a somewhat firmer pie, capable of holding even more cheese. Pizzerias like Edwardo’s and Giordano’s took the concept even farther with stuffed spinach and pesto pizzas. Be prepared: Chicago pizza is not fast food. It takes at least a half hour to 45 minutes for the pizza to bake, so call and order ahead or plan to while away the time with drinks and appetizers. But don’t fill up too much - Chicago pizza is rib-sticking stuff. Two pieces are plenty for all but the hungriest of trenchermen.
This is not pizza you can roll up and eat with your hands, but hearty knife-and-fork food. So if you’re ordering for delivery, be sure to ask for utensils. Also, request that the pie be cut. Deep-dish pizza for delivery is typically left uncut, because it keeps hotter and travels better that way, but it takes a sharp cutter to apportion cleanly, and trying to slice one up with a plastic knife in your hotel room is sure to be an exercise in frustration. Pizza is a kind of religion in Chicago, and Chicagoans will argue heatedly about who makes the best. Don’t let anyone kid you - it’s Edwardo’s.
Edwardo’s Natural Pizza
521 S. Dearborn St.
Don’t let the “natural” fool you - this is great stuffed pizza. Look for a two-inch-thick, dense cheese filling packed with your favorite extras and stuffed between two thin crisp crusts with a topping of tangy tomato sauce. I like mine with pesto, sausage, mushrooms and garlic, but the famous spinach pizza is nothing to sneeze at either.
29 E. Ohio St.
619 N. Wabash Ave.
Chicago’s original deep-dish pizza, invented in 1943, and still one of the best, with a slightly granular crust filled with generous quantities of meats, cheeses and tomatoes. The same pizza is served at Due, opened in 1955, which is larger and tends to be somewhat less crowded with tourists. Of late, Uno has franchised - beware, however, because outside Chicagoland, they tailor the recipe to local tastes.
Prudential Plaza, 135 E. Lake St.
Stuffed and spinach pizza that features a golden brown crust, slightly tangy tomato sauce and tons of gooey cheese.
Nancy's Original Stuffed Pizza
(773) 883-1977, 2930 N. Broadway
The original of this 50-plus-unit national chain was opened 1974 in Harwood Heights by Rocco and Annunziata “Nancy” Palese.
Hot dogs and Italian beef
On every second or third corner in Chicagoland, you’ll likely find a hot dog stand, an Italian beef stand, or a gyros stand. You can tell the difference by looking at the sign outside - many of them offer the same menu, including all three sandwiches, and probably burgers, too. The hot dog stands have the best names, however: Mustard’s Last Stand, Irving’s for Red Hot Lovers, U Dawg U, Wiener’s Circle, to name a few. There are some 1,800 hot-dog stands in Chicagoland, according to Bob Schwartz, vice-president of Vienna Beef, the company that supplies about 80 percent of them - more than all the McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King outlets put together. Most are run by independent entrepreneurs who own one or perhaps two stores. The Chicago-style hot dog is unique. It’s an all-beef, natural-casing frankfurter, steam cooked - never grilled - stuffed into a steam-warmed, high-gluten, poppyseed bun, and piled with the following toppings in this order:
The complete assembly is sometimes called “dragging it through the garden,” but more usually, “the works.” Some stands also offer sauerkraut, but purists consider that “giving in to the whims of New Yorkers,” as Schwartz says. And don’t you dare order ketchup! At some places, they’ll throw things at you or throw you out. At the very least, people will sneer. The “banquet on a bun” had its origins in the Great Depression, when greengrocer Abe Drexler decided his 18-year-old son, local sports hero Jake “Fluky” Drexler, needed an occupation. That was in 1929, when jobs were hard to find, so Drexler converted the family’s Maxwell Street vegetable cart into a hot-dog stand, and began offering the “Depression Sandwich,” which sold for a nickel. “He built it like a vegetable cart would do it,” says Fluky’s son, Jack. (Also called Fluky, he likes to say he was “born in a bun” and is today proprietor of three North Side and suburban stands.) “It was an instant success.” The only change since 1929 has been the relish, which turned its distinctive “nuclear green” color in the 1970s. Fluky says they developed it, but he’s not too clear about why. To fit the hot dog into the psychedelic era perhaps? Still, today it’s as critical a part of the sandwich as the celery salt. Most of the places that serve Chicago hot dogs also serve the Maxwell Street Polish. That’s a kielbasa that’s been scored and grilled - or sometimes, deep-fried - till browned, placed on a steamed poppyseed bun and topped with yellow or Düsseldorf mustard; sliced onions sautéed in butter with a little sugar; and a couple of sport peppers. It originated at Jim’s Hot Dog Stand at the corner of Halsted and Maxwell streets, an institution that’s currently endangered by University of Illinois expansion plans. The history of the Italian beef sandwich, often called just “a beef” (“some beefs” in plural), is somewhat less well-established, however. A popular tale is that, in 1948 or 1949, “An Italian cook working in a Greek coffee shop near the corner of Harlem and Irving thought the French dip sandwich was too bland, so he zipped it up with garlic and herbs,” according to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Pat Bruno. “Everybody liked it except the owner, who fired the cook. The cook (his first name is Tony, and that’s as much as we know) then opened an Italian beef stand down the street, which was an instant success.” It’s a good story.
The only trouble with this scenario is that Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef opened its first stand in 1938. Chris Pacelli, owner of the current pair of stands with his brothers Terry and Charly, claims that the beef sandwich was first developed by his grandfather, Anthony Ferrari. “He was like a peddler. He used to deliver lunches by hand. He got the idea to make roast beef with Italian seasonings. “Then my father (Chris Sr.) was working for a street-car company and my uncle was driving a truck and they decided to open a business. And my uncle (Al Ferrari) said, ‘I want to do something from my father.’” Italian sausage was actually a bigger business at first, cooked outdoors over charcoal, so the stand, then at Harrison and Laflin streets, was originally called Al’s BBQ. But, barring modern improvements in slicing, says Pacelli, the beef sandwich was essentially the same as it is today. However, Pat Scala, owner of Scala Packing Co., disputes Pacelli’s story. He says that Italian beef can’t be traced to any one individual and that the present-day sandwich has evolved over the years. His company, which supplies Italian beef to the vast majority of the stands serving it (but not Al’s, which still roasts its own), dates to 1925, so he may be right. Anyway, an Italian beef sandwich is, essentially, a French dip sandwich whose thinly sliced, oven-roasted beef has been impregnated with garlic, oregano and other Italian seasonings, served pre-dipped in flavorful natural juices and topped with either sautéed sweet peppers or a spicy pickled-pepper mixture called giardiniera (though the counter clerk will just ask, “Sweet or hot?”). It’s soggy, drippy and delicious. Italian beef is especially good in a combo with grilled Italian sausage.
Says Schwartz of Vienna Beef, “I think part of being a Chicagoan is learning how to eat these overstuffed stuffed sandwiches without using 18 napkins … or dropping them in your lap.” A tip: Lean forward.
- 1. Yellow mustard.
- 2. Fluorescent green sweet-pickle relish.
- 3. Chopped onions.
- 4. Tomato wedges (or sometimes slices).
- 5. One or two kosher-style dill-pickle spears.
- 6. Two or three hot, green sport peppers.
- 7. A dash of celery salt.
- 8. Absolutely NO ketchup.
The Shops at North Bridge
520 N. Michigan Ave.
This stand in the One Magnificent Meal food court spanning the fourth floor of The Shops at North Bridge is the newest outlet of the venerable Fluky’s, which has been serving great dogs since the Depression. The chain also has stores on the North Side and in the suburbs.
Jim’s Hot Dog Stand
1320 S. Halsted St.
A real institution, Jim’s opened in 1930. Besides the original Maxwell Street Polish, it’s also known for its pork chop sandwich.
Portillo’s Hot Dogs
100 W. Ontario St.
The flashy flagship of a large chain of Chicago-style hot-dog stands is housed in sprawling, two-story building decorated with 1930s and ’40s Chicago memorabilia -such as the clock off the Stuart-Warner Building, razed in 1993; the 1938 Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup banner; a 1928 Thompson submachine gun: and a 1930 Chevrolet - displayed in a replica of a Chicago neighborhood. The original opened in a trailer in Villa Park in 1963.
Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef
1079 W. Taylor St.
The first and best Italian-beef stand, with house-made beef, charcoal-grilled Italian sausage and their own giardiniera. Also, Chicago-style hot dogs, Polish sausage and freshly cut french fries.
Mr. Beef on Orleans
Fax: (312) 337-1718
666 N. Orleans St.
This Italian beef stand is across the street from Scala Packing Co. When my husband worked nearby, he reports, old Mr. Scala would go there every day for lunch, order a beef, and tell them they’d cooked it wrong.
Gyros and Saganaki
Say “yeer-os.” Another messy sandwich, gyros Chicago-style is a kind of meatloaf made from beef and lamb, cooked on a turning vertical spit, then thinly sliced and served in pita bread with onions and lots of a cucumber-yogurt sauce called tzatziki. It’s not, strictly speaking, unique to Chicago, though the nation’s two biggest manufacturers of gyros loaves, Kronos and Grecian Delight, are both based here. But the proprietors of Greektown’s Parthenon restaurant say they introduced this Greek sandwich meat to America when the eatery opened in 1968, along with another now-ubiquitous Greek-American dish, flaming saganaki. Saganaki is a perfectly authentic Greek melted-cheese dish - but they don’t set it afire in Greece. “Flaming saganaki was invented at the Parthenon by the founders, the Liakouras brothers, Chris and Bill,” asserts the restaurant’s promotional material, placing this seminal event in 1968. “Before saganaki was flambéed here, it was merely fried cheese.” I haven’t delved any further into the question than this, but it makes sense to me. The Pump Room, opened in 1938 by flamboyant restaurateur Ernie Byfield, was until the 1960s the Chicago see-and-be-seen restaurant. Its Booth One was the coveted seat and the food was brought to the tables on long skewers, dramatically aflame. I can see that a pair of immigrants trying to make a go of a new restaurant might want to borrow some of that theatrical Chicago style.
314 S. Halsted St.
Opened in 1968, The Parthenon is the city’s oldest full-service, classic Greek restaurant. The gyros is still made in-house.
While others dispute the claim, Vic Giannotti, owner of the eponymous suburban steakhouse, says that chicken Vesuvio, a dish served at most of Chicago’s classic Italian restaurants and steakhouses, was invented by his father, Nick, during the 1960s. “He was from Naples and Mount Vesuvio is right near there,” Giannotti says. In the early ’60s, Giannotti recalls, “He had a place called Giannotti’s on Mannheim Road in the Air Host Hotel (in Forest Park). Orlando’s Hideaway Lounge was downstairs and we were upstairs.”
When I first came to Chicago and encountered Vesuvio, I assumed from the name that the dish would be volcanically spicy - but that’s not the case. Chicken Vesuvio is chicken on the bone, first sautéed with generous amounts of garlic, oregano, white wine and olive oil, and then baked till the skin browns and crisps. It’s served with savory skin-on wedges of potato, treated likewise, and a few green peas for color. Today, you often see the savory technique given to other foods - “steak Vesuvio,” or “pork chops Vesuvio,” for example, or even just “Vesuvio potatoes.” Says Giannotti, “Whatever restaurant you see it in, they worked for me or my father.”
Giannotti Steak House & Italian Specialties
17W400 22nd St. Oak Brook Terrace
Live music, dancing feature at this steakhouse, where besides chicken Vesuvio, specialties include pork chops and prosciutto-stuffed veal.
33 W. Kinzie St.
Named for the late sportscaster, this steakhouse remains popular for its chicken (and everything else) Vesuvio; whitefish; veal chops; dry-aged steaks; and pasta. The building, once Chicago Varnish Co., dates to 1900.
1500 W. Taylor St.
The original of this local chain of big, noisy Italian restaurants opened on Taylor Street in 1977. All of them are immensely popular for their fun atmosphere and huge portions.
Shrimp de Jonghe
Shrimp de Jonghe has the oldest pedigree of any of Chicago’s specialties. Pierre de Jonghe and his brothers came to Chicago from Belgium in 1891 and opened a restaurant at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. From 1899 to 1923, they operated de Jonghe’s Hotel and Restaurant at 12 E. Monroe St. It was there shrimp de Jonghe was created, possibly by an employee, Emil Zehr. Classic de Jonghe is a luscious casserole of plump shrimp doused in garlic butter, blanketed with a velvety layer of garlic- and sherry-infused breadcrumbs, and then baked till it sizzles and a crispy crust forms around the ramekin.
Cape Cod Room
(312)787-2200 Ext. 25
Fax: (312) 787-1431
140 E. Walton Place
A classic seafood restaurant, opened in 1933 and little changed. Old-fashioned dishes feature here: Besides hrimp de Jonghe, Dover sole is a specialty, along with clam chowder; Bookbinder soup; and lobster bisque.
The Big Meat
For years and years, when anybody thought about Chicago cuisine, what they thought of was steak. It was kind of like the gangster thing - till Michael Jordan, the most famous Chicagoan anybody’d heard of was Al Capone. Well, we’re beyond that now. The stockyards have long since closed, and we have cosmopolitan, contemporary dining rooms to rival any city’s. We have world-class Italian, French and Mexican fare. We have fusion, for goodness’ sake. But I’m not going to tell you not to have a steak. I love steak. Most Chicagoans love steak. We have great steak.
215 E. Chicago Ave.
It doesn’t get any more Chicago than this: A classic Chicago steakhouse whose Jewish-deli soul is reflected in the free chopped liver appetizer delivered to each table. This is the birthplace of the most famous Chicago-style cheesecake, created by founder Eli Schulman in 1980. The hushed dining room sports huge bright pictures of local scenes. Besides very good steaks, there is excellent shrimp de Jonghe, calf’s liver and potato pancakes. But save room for dessert!
Chicago Chop House
60 W. Ontario St.
This highly acclaimed multi-story steakhouse offers a casual atmosphere filled with photos, Chicago memorabilia and loads of tourists and conventioneers. But locals eat here too. The signature hunk of beef is the nicely marbled Chop House prime rib, a kind of cross between a rib steak and the traditional roast beef - it’s first roasted, then grilled - excellent. Nonbeef options include chicken Vesuvio. The shrimp de Jonghe is not the authentic article, however, but merely sautéed garlic shrimp. There’s an award-winning, 450-bottle wine list.
832 W. Randolph St.
This highly underrated restaurant offers what’s arguably the highest-quality meat among Chicago’s many steakhouses - they dry-age their own prime beef. The smoked prime rib is awesome.
Morton’s of Chicago
Newberry Plaza, 1050 N. State Parkway
The original of the national chain, opened in 1978, and still one of Chicago’s great steakhouses, with a quiet and elegant dining room.
440 W. Randolph St.
The elegant and contemporary but noisy dining room at this hot, new steakhouse features mirrored pillars and a circular center bar. The prime steaks are cooked in a 1200° F. broiler. Co-owner Michael Morton is son of veteran Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton, founder of the famous steakhouses. The name of the restaurant refers to the age he and partner Scott DeGraff were when they met, rather than - as people watchers might infer - the level that patrons dress to. Hot chef Michael Kornick is managing partner.