Chicago’s best homegrown junk food

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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.

Mmm... Italian beefItalian beef sandwich by jeffreyw. Creative Commons BY license.

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.

Garrett Popcorn

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.

Related article: A field guide to 20 great regional sandwiches of the USA

Hot dogs

Some trace the Chicago dog all the way back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition where a couple of Jewish vendors first started selling all-beef frankfurters. But it takes more than just kosher meat to be considered a Chicago dog. To fit this lauded category a dog has to be topped with yellow mustard, onions, tomatoes, pickle relish, dill pickles, peppers, and celery salt. Ketchup is considered a no-no amongst purists. Chicago’s love of tubular meat has evolved along with the city’s palate and these days you can find more sophisticated dogs with toppings such as foie gras and artichoke tzatziki. If you’re looking for a traditional dog check out The Wieners Circle, Superdawg or Portillo's. Want something more contemporary? Drop by Hot Doug’s.

Chicago hot dogChicago hot dog, by Jeremy Keith. Creative Commons BY license.

Chicago tamales

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...

Mother-in-law sandwich

Take a Chicago tamale, put it on a hotdog bun, drench it with chili and boom! You have a mother-in-law sandwich. Just like the Chicago tamale, no one seems to know there this local delight originated, or whether it was meant as an insult to any specific mother-in-law. Get your mother-in-law sandwich at Fat Johnnie’s or pretty much anywhere Chicago tamales are sold.

Lining UpLining up at Fat Johnnie's for hot dogs, tamales and mother-in-law sandwiches, by Southern Foodway Alliance. Creative Commons BY license.

Pierogies

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.