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 favorites, 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.
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 (superdawg.com) or Portillo's. Want something more contemporary? Drop by Hot 'G' Dog (hotgdog.com).
Italian beef sandwich
A variation on the French dip sandwich, the Italian beef originated with Italian immigrants working in Chicago's stockyards a century ago. It consists of thinly sliced roast beef, giardiniera (spicy, pickled vegetables), sweet peppers 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 (7500 W North Ave), and Freddie’s (freddieson31st.com).
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 10 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 (fatjohnnies.com) and Veteran Tamale (3133 S Archer Ave). 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 Ukrainian Village and anywhere else Eastern Europeans congregate, but some of Chicago’s best can be consumed at Staropolska Restaurant (staropolskarestaurant.com) and Kasia's Deli (kasiasdeli.com). 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 (ricobenespizza.com) has been around since 1946 and while it serves 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 (johnnyoshotdogs.com) and Freddie’s (freddieson31st.com).
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 where 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.
This article was originally published in January 2013, and was updated by Karla Zimmerman in July 2015