Chicago is without a doubt one of the world’s best cities for food. Its food culture is unique to the city, with exports like the Chicago Dog and Deep Dish famously making a reputation for the Windy City around the country, not to mention an unbeatable modern food scene. There are a lot of dishes attributed to Chicago that either started here or were perfected here, but a few iconic dishes set the foundation for the entire reputation of Chicago’s food scene.
Here are the foods that started it all: the 8 iconic Chicago foods and where to eat them.
1. Deep Dish Pizza
Let’s start with the most obvious — and most famous: Chicago-style pizza. (After all, Chicago is the world’s top city for pizza.) Calling it “deep dish” is almost an understatement and even the designation as “pizza” is practically a stretch: the inch-thick pie has a crispy buttery crust that lines the side of the pan to hold all the ingredients. Traditionally that includes mountains of mozzarella cheese, a solid layer of sausage, green peppers and onions, then topped with tomato sauce. Yep, the toppings are layered opposite of other pizzas. Oh and it’s eaten with a knife and fork (which I adore).
Where to eat it: Here’s where the real debate is: which pizza place does it best? Chicagoans will argue Giordano’s versus Pizzeria Uno (who claims to have invented it) versus Pequod’s versus Lou Malnati’s. But Lou Malnati’s is the best, so just go there. :)
Chicago might not be Kansas City, Memphis, the Carolinas or Texas, but it has always been a meatpacking hub (the country’s largest until 1920) and where there’s good meat, there’s good barbecue. Chicago-style barbecue, while not as well-known as others, is a combination of techniques brought to the Windy City by Eastern European immigrants and people moving from the Southern U.S. (There is an incredibly thorough account of Chicago barbecue and where to find it based on style on AmazingRibs.com here.)
Where to eat it: If you’re willing to venture away from downtown, Smoque has some of the best barbecue in the area in a fast-casual restaurant tucked away in the Irving Park neighborhood. For an upscale take on meaty goodness downtown, Chicago q (in the Gold Coast) is amazing, even for brunch (like the brisket eggs benedict flight). Or, a more casual place downtown is Bub City, which doubles as a whiskey/country bar.
Furthering the argument that Chicago is a meatpacking madhouse, the city knows how to do a good steak. There are tons of steakhouses here and they all stay in business, so either Chicagoans love their beef or we’re all trying to get high cholesterol. Steakhouses are such an essential part of Chicago’s culture that you can even go on steakhouses tours.
Where to eat it: Most steakhouses have identical menus, so it’s really all about the beef. And the city’s best? It’s at Bavette’s Bar and Beouf in River North. They serve a mean Old Fashioned, their mac and cheese is the best I’ve ever had and the chocolate cream pie isn’t bad, either. Bonus points for ordering it with Shrimp de Jonghe, a classic Chicago dish created over a century ago. Gene & Georgetti’s and Gibsons are other famous “bests” in the city that won’t let you down.
4. Italian Beef Sandwich
The history of the Italian Beef is, like everything else in Chicago, hotly debated. Thrillist covered the he-said/she-said of who claims to have created it, but the gist is that after WWI an Italian immigrant who sold beef sandwiches stretched his meat by slicing it thinner and cooking it in its own juices to feed more people for a wedding. The idea caught on and came to be known as “Italian beef.”
The beef is covered with spices and slow-cooked in beef stock. Then it’s thinly sliced, loaded into French bread with green peppers (known as “sweet”) or giardiniera (“hot”) and dipped in the au jus. Here’s where more debate comes in: you can order it “dry” (not dipped, although no Chicagoan has ever recommended that), “regular” with the juice just on top of the meat, “dipped” which is a quick dip in the sauce, and “wet” where the whole sandwich is dunked in the juice. Despite the sogginess, it’s still eaten with your hands, unlike Chicago pizza.
Where to eat it: Yet still more debate on the Italian beef is where to get it. Al’s #1 claims to have invented it, but head to Portillo’s and order it sweet and wet. Portillo’s is also known for their chocolate cake shake, just an FYI.
5. Italian Food
Chicago has been a mecca for Italian immigrants since the 1850s. By 1920, the Windy City had the third largest ethnic Italian population in the country (surpassed only by New York City and Philadelphia). As always, people brought their food culture with them and a city full of Italian restaurants was born.
Where to eat it: There are dozens of Italian restaurants here, so where to eat it depends on what you want. Italian Village, serving classic Italian fare, is one of the oldest restaurants in Chicago (opened since 1927), who claims to have created Chicken Alfredo. But if you want the best, rumor has it Spiaggia is where to go. The upscale Michelin-rated restaurant has a tasting menu plus a la carte items.
6. Chicago Hot Dog
The true Chicago dog follows a very specific list of ingredients: a Vienna beef hot dog that is water-bathed (not boiled) in a poppyseed bun with mustard, florescent green relish, chopped onions, hot peppers, tomato slices, dill pickles and a dash of celery salt. Of course, ketchup is strictly banned.
Where to eat it :: First, a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of hot dogs, so I can’t personally vouch for anywhere in the city. But my research turned up Gene & Jude’s again and again as the best Chicago dog in the city, with Hot Doug’s a close second. Nick at Serious Eats has a breakdown of the best Chicago dogs, so I’ll let him explain here.
7. Molecular Gastronomy / Fusion / Creative
Most of these iconic Chicago foods are longstanding features of Chicago’s culture dating back decades. But in the past dozen years or so, the modern food world has recognized Chicago for its incredible contributions to molecular gastronomy (I’m looking at you, Alinea), fusion and creative culinary spheres. Read any article about the best / most innovative / most outstanding restaurants in the country (or even world) and there’s always a Chicago restaurant or two on the list. I mean, there’s a reason the James Beard Foundation holds their award show here. It’s because all those chefs want to devour our food scene while they’re in town for the awards.
Where to eat it :: If you’re willing to splurge, Alinea and Next are easily some of the best restaurants in the world. In fact, Elite Traveler named Alinea the best restaurant in the world for the 5th year in a row. Au Cheval is known for the best burger in the country; Grace, Topolobampo and Girl and the Goat are well-known for their celebrity chefs; Shwa and Blackbird consistently make best of lists, and my personal favorites are Tanta and Mercat a la Planxa… but seriously, there is no shortage of outstanding restaurants here. Just plan ahead (sometimes months ahead) if you want reservations.
8. And the one drink you have to have: Malort
The funny thing about Malort is once you’ve suffered through a shot of one of the nastiest-tasting liquors known to mankind, you automatically want others to suffer the same taste bud-crushing fate. Maybe it’s the “we survived” camaraderie, maybe Chicagoans just like to watch people suffer — I mean, #malortFace is actually a thing — but whatever it is, the liquor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Malort, created by a Swedish immigrant and made in Chicago until the 70s (it’s now made in Florida), was the only legal wormwood product sold in the U.S. until 2008. Its rancid taste has become a sort of a rite of passage here. It’s been described as “jägermeister heavily diluted in pondwater but less piney,” and “an unbearable, cringe-inducing bitterness that sticks with you for a worrying amount of time.” Even the bottle itself warns it’s “brutal to the palate.”
I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience this at least once?! Yeah, me neither. But since I’ve suffered through it, so should you. …And the tradition lives on.
Where to drink it: Most bars in Chicago will proudly have a bottle of Malort for those willing to drink it, but if you want to be absolutely sure you’ll find it, here’s a Malort Map to hunt it down.
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