If there is anything the city of Chicago loves more than cursing the winter, partying in the Wrigley Field bleachers, or being on a first-name-basis with their expressway of choice, it’s eating the signature foods the city made famous. If you’re about to eat like a Chicagoan, you should probably expect to loosen your belt, grab a few extra napkins, and plan for an afternoon nap because we’re known for rich, cheesy, meaty foods that will satisfy even the hungriest of diners.
First on the list, it’s one of the best-known dishes Chicago claims as its own; Chicago-style pizza. Deep dish is a must-try staple, and you simply can’t pass it up. The origins of this unique dish are still up for debate to this day, with Pizzeria Uno and Rosati’s each laying claim to its invention, but no matter who got there first, there are dozens of Chicago pizzerias with their own take on deep dish. For the uninitiated – what makes deep dish different is its method of preparation. You’ll see all the familiar ingredients, but here’s where it gets a little different.
Each pizza starts with a high-sided cast iron dish, then lined with a thin, buttery crust. From here, we literally turn the normal pizza upside down, with a layer of cheese on bottom, then the toppings of your choice, followed by a chunky tomato sauce. Because the cooking time is much longer than a standard pie, this layer of sauce protects the cheese from getting burnt before it can make it to your table. This also means that if you’re planning to try your first deep dish, you should expect a longer wait time than usual so relax, order some drinks, and get ready to savor. Chicago’s favorite topping is a good savory Italian sausage, but onions, mushrooms, and peppers are always popular picks for this dish. Be warned, this is a hearty meal and even just a couple small slices are often enough to crush the biggest of appetites. No worries, though, deep dish pizza always makes for amazing leftovers! Finding a restaurant with this uniquely Chicago meal shouldn’t be tough, but it’s worth the effort to find the nearest Lou Malnoti’s, it’s arguably the gold standard.
Believe it or not, Chicago doesn’t just have one signature pizza, but two. Although deep dish is more widely known, the Windy City’s most popular pizza among locals is actually tavern style pizza, or sometimes called “party cut”. Compared to deep dish, tavern style is a more conventional pizza with a crispy thin crust, perfectly browned mozzarella cheese, and your favorite choice of toppings (though usually served with just one or two). What makes it different is how it’s served; unlike the famous wedge shape of a New York slice, tavern style is cut into smaller squares that are perfect for snacking.
One common thread with many of Chicago’s favorite foods is their shared blue collar origins. Chicago is often known for its working class sensibilities, and tavern style pizza is a great example of what makes this city different. The history of tavern style is disputed just like deep dish, but what is agreed upon is that it often caught on as a cheap, simple food that one could eat in one hand while holding a beer in the other. The name “tavern style” hints at the origins of the dish, being a way for tavern owners to offer quick, cheap bites that can satisfy an entire room of people (and entice them to order a couple more rounds). Every neighborhood in the city boasts at least a couple pizza places so don’t be afraid to try a few, but if you find yourself in the area of Wrigley Field and you’ve got an appetite, try Michael’s (4091 N Broadway) – one of the north side’s gems.
Chicago-style Hot Dogs
As you read further, you may notice that of dishes Chicago is known for, a salad is not among them. It’s not that we don’t occasionally like to eat a little more healthy fare, but as far as getting a generous serving of vegetables goes, a Chicago-style hot dog is a great way to do it. In diner slang, a Chicago style dog is said to be “dragged through the garden” due to the amount of toppings it is served with. Although it is known to be generously adorned with tangy yellow mustard, chopped white onions, neon green relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato slices, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt, and served on a steamed and poppy seed-coated bun, a Chicago dog starts and ends with an all-beef frank.
The most ubiquitous name brand of hot dogs – Vienna Beef – hints at its Austrian origins. At some point in the late 19th century, immigrants from Austria-Hungary brought the recipe for these franks to Chicago, and soon began selling them at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, sowing the seeds for what would soon become a Chicago staple.
Some decades later during the Great Depression, the predecessor to the Chicago dog known now as a “Depression Dog” was served from carts on Maxwell street, a bustling community for many first generation immigrants in Chicago. The large presence of German and Austrian immigrants at that time built in a huge demand, but this dish became so popular that to this day, Chicago has more hot dog restaurants than McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s restaurants combined! This means that if you’re eager to try your first, you should expect to find one with ease. There is a little variety from place to place, with some forgoing poppy seeds or others including cucumber slices, but the one rule you should always expect to obey is this:
No Chicago-style hot dog shall ever be touched by ketchup.
We’re pretty friendly, laid back people, but we’re pretty firm on that one rule. Some places like Gene and Jude’s famously don’t even offer ketchup for their fries, leading to the nearby McDonald’s to start charging for ketchup packets! Located west of the city in River Grove (2720 N River Road), it’s worth the drive. For a location closer to the heart of the city, Mister J’s (822 N State) serves the quintessential Chicago style dog with all the trimmings. If you want to try a char dog (a grilled, rather than steamed variation), The Wiener’s Circle (2622 N Clark) is famous for late night eats and its *ahem* lively customer service. Trust us, you just have to experience it.
Looking for a local to show you the best bites in the city and where to get a famous Chicago famous hot dog? Book our Chicago Favorites Food Tour for a guided walking tour of downtown that includes food samples along the way.
Just around the corner from Maxwell street is Chicago’s Little Italy, home of another must-have Chicago food; the Italian Beef. This is another delicious example of Chicago’s rich history of immigrant communities combining with working class attitudes. This hearty sandwich dates back to some time in the early 20th century, when many Italian immigrants working nearby in Chicago’s Union Stock Yard would bring home cheaper, less desirable cuts of meat for their families. To improve upon the quality of the meat, it was slow roasted for tenderness and then simmered for hours in a spiced broth. The meat was seasoned to taste and then thinly sliced and set into a fresh loaf of Italian bread, making a meal both delicious and sustainable on any budget.
The modern version of this dish hasn’t changed much in ingredients, but in the last century it has picked up a number of variations in how it is served. The standard Chicago Italian Beef is that same tender and juicy beef stuffed into a fresh hunk of chewy Italian bread, but served au jus (with the broth created cooking the meat) and ordered “hot” with giardiniera or “sweet” with Italian sweet peppers. If this sounds good to you, then you can ask for your Italian beef “dry”, but if you want even more of what makes this sandwich delicious and unique, order it “dipped” or “soaked” and the bread will be dunked in the gravy. It’s delicious and messy, so expect to grab extra napkins! Other varieties include a Cheesy Beef, which will add a slice of Provolone or Mozzarella, or a Combo which adds an Italian sausage to your sandwich.
Chicago loves its Italian beef so you can expect most places that serve Chicago style hot dogs to also make a great Italian beef sandwich, but you should look for some of the Chicago originals like Buona Beef or Portillos, both with several locations around the city. If you want to have a look around Little Italy and the nearby historic landmarks commemorating Chicago’s now-gone stockyards, check out Al’s #1 Italian Beef (1079 W Taylor St) for this iconic meal.
Visit some of Chicago’s originals and sink your teeth into your Italian Beef Sandwich on a guided food tour of Chicago. We’d recommend the Chicago Favorites Tour to get a bite of everything or our Bikes, Bites and Brews Tour of Chicago that gives you all the classics plus a cold brew to wash it down. Family-friend Food and Bike Tour to get the kids outdoors and then food in their bellies is also a popular tour.
On the surface, cheesy cheddar popcorn and caramel corn seem like they wouldn’t work, but that’s only until you’ve tried it. Although informally known as “Chicago Mix”, Garrett’s Mix is the combination that they’re known for. Garrett’s gourmet popcorn has been in business in Chicago since 1949. The popularity of popcorn entered the public consciousness in the mid-19th century, and the first traces of Chicago’s love affair with caramel corn began with the now ubiquitous Americana brand, Cracker Jack, another now-iconic product that made its debut at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Demand for popcorn waned somewhat in the following decades, but saw another leap in demand during World War II, when sugar rationing and the growth of the movie industry made fresh popped popcorn a must-have treat. Garrett’s opened their first location in Chicago around this time, but wouldn’t see the signature combination of their recipes for Cheese Corn and Caramel Crisp until 1977.
Now, Garrett’s has several locations throughout the city where you can wait in line for a fresh batch of this seemingly unusual combo – and trust us, there will be a line. Head to the corner of Michigan and Ontario in the heart of the Magnificent Mile and follow your nose just a little east and grab a place in line for your very own bag of this treat. Just a word of warning, no matter what size you order, it will turn into a single serving size before you know it, it’s just that good!
Of all the items on this list of famous Chicago foods, this is the only one that wasn’t invented in Chicago, but it remains a fixture of our cuisine all the same. Pierogi are an import by way of Poland, likely invented centuries before in China and later making their way to central Europe. Pierogi arrived in Chicago in the mid-19th century, when the first large wave of Polish immigrants came to live in the area, settling mainly in the west and northwest sides. It is often humorously stated that the largest population of Polish people is in Warsaw, and the second is in Chicago. Whether or not this is true, there are nearly two million people of Polish descent living in the Chicagoland area, and as a result, Polish culture is deeply woven into the city.
While there are a number of Polish restaurants in the west side, one dish you should expect them all to have in common is homemade pierogi. Pierogi are a dumpling made with unleavened dough, stuffed with any number of fillings, though the most popular options are usually beef or potato. Traditional recipes are usually quite simple, but you can find versions that reflect a more American palate with options like chicken or jalapeno. After stuffing, pierogi are boiled and sometimes later pan fried, then served with sour cream and chopped onions. Since pierogi are small, they can make a perfect appetizer, snack, or an entire meal all by themselves. Take a trip out to Kasia’s Deli (2101 W Chicago Ave) for some of Chicago’s most famous pierogi with a variety of fillings.
Tour Chicago’s Westside on a guided food tour and enjoy a Polish Pierogi for yourself in the city! The Westside Foodie Bike Tour takes you through the diverse neighborhood, biking past the Chicago River, Fulton Market, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, the 606 Trail, Old Town and of course all the unique food and beverages of this area!
Malört — the “Infamous” Chicago Food
While “famous” would be a good way to describe deep dish pizza or Chicago style hot dogs, this next item is possibly better described as “infamous”. Malört is about as unique as it gets among spirits. It is a bitter, earthy, wormwood liquor that is just as famous for its flavor as it is the aptly-named “Malört face”, the pinched or pained expression a first-time drinker inadvertently makes upon their first sip.
Originally distilled in Chicago by Swedish immigrant Carl Jeppson, it has been consumed continuously in the city since the 1930’s, when it was sold door-to-door as a medicinal alcohol to get around pesky Prohibition laws. Now it is commonly carried in bars all over the city and suburbs, and distilled in the West Loop neighborhood.
Chicagoans can be oddly proud of Malört, so if you decide to go out for a drink and you let it slip that you’re from out of town, don’t be too surprised if the stranger next to you offers to buy you your first shot. Sure, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but half the fun is sharing the experience! For an even more Chicago-styled spin, order yourself a “Chicago Handshake”, consisting of a shot of Malört and a tall can of Old Style beer.
Malört can be found at any number of local bars, but since it’s distilled here in Chicago, why not see how the sausage gets made? Check out CH Distillery (564 W Randolph) for the distillery tour, where you can see and sample some of the other local liquors Chicago has to offer. After the tour, grab a bite at the Bar & Table, CH Distillery’s in-house restaurant. As you sample your inaugural taste of Malört, remember the advice that Jeppson’s used to print right on their own bottle, “The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSEVERE.”
It’s impossible to deny that Chicago loves to eat and we love to put our own spin on things. If you want to sample all these and learn more about the foods that Chicago is famous for, book a guided food tour with Bobby’s Bike Hike.
We offer both bike and walking tours that take you all through the city, sampling some of these must-have foods and more. Our Bikes, Bites, and Brews tour and our West Side Foodie Ride offer up some of Chicago’s best foods all while pedaling around the Windy City.
If you prefer a leisurely stroll but don’t want to give up on our incredible eats, look into our Chicago Favorites Walking and Food tour instead; it runs rain or shine, all year round. No matter what you choose, we’ll be sure to leave you entertained and with a full stomach.