Like to eat? Chicago has you covered

I love living in Chicago for the beaches, the art/music/theater, the sports, the different neighborhoods, the architecture, the skyline, the bicycle trails, the *cough* interesting local politics, but what really makes Chicago special is its food. Chicago has every type of restaurant in the known world, from Ethiopian to sushi to Mexican… from “molecular gastronomy” and $100 steaks, to elotes, hamburgers and other foods offered by street vendors. 

A lot of the foods that are uniquely Chicagoan are simple and rich, so I’d like to introduce you to some of them here.

Jibarito:

jibarito
Photo Credit

Literally “Little Hillbilly” in Spanish, this dish was invented in Puerto Rico, and you can allegedly find them in New York, but I’ve yet to meet anyone without Chicago ties who knows what one is. 

Two plantains, cut in half lengthwise and fried, then smashed into slices and fried again. The plantain slices are stacked with shredded chicken or thin-sliced beef, mayonnaise, American cheese, lettuce and tomato, and then covered with lightly sautéed garlic and the resulting oil. It’s served either a la carte, or with the Puerto Rican staple Rice with Pigeon Peas. Best. Sandwich. Ever. 

I moved out of Humboldt Park (Little Puerto Rico) about a year ago and now live seven miles north, but I still find my way back to eat these at least once a month. Nothing makes a better weekend mid-morning meal, in my opinion. Get the steak, not the chicken or lechon. El Borinquen on California Ave. makes the best in town.

Italian Beef (and the Italian Combo):

Italian beefThough it’s not really “Italian”, it consists of thinly sliced beef inside an “Italian” roll with the ends cut flat. You can order one “dry”, or dipped/double-dipped/wet/juicy (the whole sandwich is dunked into the broth the beef is cooked in, depending on the level of gravy saturation desired). The preferred condiment is Giardiniera (yes, that’s spelled correctly, pronounced: “Jar-Din-Air-Uh”), a spicy salad of Serano peppers, olives, celery, pimentos, carrots and cauliflower in oil. 

The sandwich is said to have originated among Italian-American workers at the Chicago stockyards, who needed a way to prepare the less-desirable, tougher cuts of beef they brought home… apparently a long, slow simmer in broth was the solution. The Italian Combo is an Italian Beef with a grilled Italian Sausage link inserted in the middle, preferably topped with slices of mozzarella cheese. If you’re brave enough to try the Italian Combo, make sure there’s a defibrillator somewhere nearby. Al’s Beef (several locations in the city and surrounding suburbs) is the most famous restaurant serving up Beefs and Combos.

Chicago-Style Hot Dog:

Chicago hot dogChicago has the best hot dogs on the planet. There. I said it. I’ve even gotten New Yorkers to agree with me on this. The Chicago style is a boiled kosher all-beef hot dog (a kind of small sausage of vaguely German origin, sometimes called a red-hot, wiener, or frankfurter), served on a steamed poppy-seed bun with raw onion, pickle, neon green “nuclear” relish, yellow or brown mustard, tomato slices, celery salt, and sport peppers… but never ketchup. You can spot a tourist a mile away putting ketchup on their hot dogs: Sacrilege! This style is sometimes called “dragged through the garden” as it involves so many vegetables. I can’t pick out any particular favorite locations to get one… because they’re everywhere!

Deep-Dish Pizza:

Chicago deep pan pizza

Ok, ok, I’ll admit it, it’s not really pizza, and in the summertime there’s nothing I would rather not eat, but when the weather gets chilly, a slice or two of this local treat will warm you (and fill you) right up. Like typical American-style pizza, but with a more bready crust, and usually baked in a deep cast iron pan so that layer after layer of cheese, toppings and sauce can be stacked up. It’s kind of like a cross between lasagna and thin-crust pizza. 

My personal favorite, Gino’s East, weights in at around 800 calories and 25 grams of fat. That’s right. In one slice. While it’s different enough from New York-style thin-crust pizza to not really be the same food, Chicagoans still like to tell New Yorkers that theirs is better, though many Chicagoans still prefer thin-crust.

Maxwell St. Polish:

Polish sausage sandwichThe Maxwell St. neighborhood, located on the near South-West Side was a major port of entry for immigrants in the mid to late 1800′s. It’s been the home of an open-air market for more than 100 years, and of course has featured a lot of street food vendors, who gave birth to this sandwich. A “Polish” as it’s usually referred to, is served on a bun or a roll, with yellow or brown mustard, grilled onions, and optional sport peppers. The best place to get one? Either Maxwell St., or at US Cellular Field, home to the Chicago White Sox Baseball Club. Sausages and baseball games go together like Chicago’s Alderman and federal prison.

Chicago seems to be the last place in America where most of the local hamburger/hot dog/fast-food joints are still locally-owned, and they usually serve Italian Beef, Hot Dogs, Italian Sausage, pork chop sandwiches, gyros, french fries (chips, to most of you), soft drinks (or “pop” as it’s called in the Midwest), hamburgers, sometimes thin-crust pizza, and always Polish Sausage. If you are what you eat, then Chicago is meaty, robust, simple, and yet over-the-top. 

Our love of food is demonstrated by our 18,000+ restaurants and bars, serving 3 million people! To indulge your sweet tooth, check out Garrett Popcorn (downtown and other locations), and Margie’s Candies on Western Ave., home of the half-gallon “World’s Largest Sundae.” Whether you like your food ultra-fancy, or bought on the street in a paper wrapper, Chicago has you covered. We like to eat. A lot.

Read more:
Chicago’s cultural stew
Khao Chae: a cooling Thai summer treat
Texas pub food

About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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9 Comments

  • After reading this post, and seeing the pictures I’m hungry… and it’s only 9.30 am!

  • The same happened to me when I read it!

    The only one of these I have tried is the deep-dish pizza. At the time I was embarassed because I only managed to eat one slice. Now I understand why!

  • I see a trip to Chicago in my future… :)

  • Sean O.

    And keep in mind, these are just the street foods. If you like to get bourgeois, there’s tons of high end seafood/steak/etc. places. And then the crown jewels of high end food: Alinea http://www.alinea-restaurant.com/ and Blackbird http://www.blackbirdrestaurant.com/ . Chicago also has some of the best beer bars in the world, some serving over 20 taps and 200 total beers.

  • Chicago does have some of the best food in the world, from high end, innovative spots like Schwa, L20, and Alinea, to super cheap eats and BYOBs.

    But I will voice one disagreement – there is no shame in ordering a hot dog with ketchup. It’s not the traditional way, but if you’re a ketchup fiend like me, who cares?

  • I was in Chicago at the beginning of this month and also ate in some incredible restaurants, and there are many more I’d like to try! That Jibarito looks amazing!

  • Sean O.

    Lol. No one, really. Just something to be snobby about, in reality. Allegedly the vinegar in the ketchup interferes w/the taste of the meat. I prefer w/o ketchup, but it’s personal preference, of course.

  • Made me hungry, too. Great descriptions and mouthwatering photos !

  • Sean!!! I ate a Chicago style hot dog last night at ORD (without ketchup). It was so goood! (although I’m not sure about the emerald green relish…)