Chicago sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, vibrant and glimmering, the jewel of the Midwest. Known the world over for its gorgeous architecture, impressive museums, legendary sports teams, barely tolerable winters, and cutting-edge cuisine, The Windy City is also home to some of the best junk food this nation has to offer. 'Junk food' is often used as an insult, but in Chicago it's a celebrated art form. Roll up your sleeves - below is a smattering of some classic local favourites, but in a city as vast, bustling and food-filled as Chicago, trying to list them all would be biting off more than we can chew.
Italian beef sandwich
A variation on the French dip sandwich, the Italian beef originated in Chicago’s Italian South Side and consists of thinly sliced roast beef, hot and sweet peppers (giardiniera) and Italian bread. It’s often dipped in the juices the beef was cooked in making it as messy as it is delicious. Everyone seems to have a favorite spot for them but some of the most popular are: Al’s #1, Mr Beef, Johnnie’s, and Freddie’s.
Deep dish pizza
Chicagoans call it pizza while some outside detractors (looking at you, New York) say it’s something more akin to lasagna. Truthfully, who cares? It’s bloody brilliant and a few slices will make you want to curl up in a ball and drift into deeply satisfied sleep. The best places to get it (always a point of contention with locals): Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, Pequod’s Pizza.
At this point there are Garrett Popcorn shops in seven different countries, but it all originated in Chicago in 1949. From Caramel Crisp, to Cheesecorn, Garrett has both your sweet and salty cravings covered. The flagship store on the Magnificent Mile often has a line around the block. Luckily you can order some of this goodness online even if you can't get yourself to Chicago to buy some from the source.
Chicago has its own special variety of tamale that doesn’t seem to be found anywhere else. The cornmeal is perfectly rolled around the stuffing by machines and then the whole thing is steamed like a hot dog and wrapped in paper. There’s lots of theories about the origins of these wunder-tamales, but no one seems to know the which (if any) is true. Dig into a fantastic Chicago tamale at Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots and Veteran Tamale. Which leads us to our next Chicagoan food...
Pierogies don’t belong solely to Chicago. Like the author of this piece they are of European decent, but seeing how many Eastern Europeans live in Chicago (especially Poles), we’d be remiss in our duties if we left them out. Pierogies are little dumplings made of unleavened dough and filled with pretty much anything you could desire. You can find them all over the Ukrainian Village and anywhere else Eastern Europeans congregate, but some of Chicago’s best can be consumed at Staropolska Restaurant, Szalas Chicago, and Kasia's Deli. Bite size pieces of heaven if you ask me.
Breaded steak sandwich
Many would like to lay claim to having invented the breaded steak sandwich, but few can said to be famous for serving it. Ricobene’s has been around since 1946 and while many of the dishes you’ve read about above, it’s their breaded steak sandwich that keep people flocking to this Southside institution. Made up of thin steak, breaded, deep fried, thrown on a roll, and then in tomato sauce, the breaded steak sandwich can only be described as fortifying…well that and delicious. Other places that serve up great ones are Johnny O’s and Freddie’s.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, has written travel guides for Lonely Planet but is probably best known for his print and online guides to living cheaply in San Francisco and New York and his recent book Young, Broke & Beautiful: Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply. Follow Stuart on Facebook and Twitter.
Junk-food-loving travellers, we've got your back: Lonely Planet's Chicago city guide is specially engineered with a grease-resistant cover and won't tell a soul if you sneak ketchup onto your hot dog.