Although it might not seem this way to the casual observer, Chicago is actually an incredible foodie oasis in the middle of the Midwestern meat, potatoes, salads with jello, and processed cheese desert (but don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing in the world better than a Midwestern home-cooked meal, even though it might eventually give you diabetes). Unfortunately for the vegetarians out there, the majority of Chicago’s best food offerings are based around meat, but there will still be something for you to enjoy as well.
If you’re planning a trip to the Windy City, here are the top 5 Chicago-style foods you should absolutely try when you’re in town:
1. Deep Dish Pizza
Deep dish pizza is a Chicago classic and comes right after “gangsters” on the list of things that people I meet while traveling ask me about Chicago. There’s a major rivalry between Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s, and Giordano’s about who created the original recipe back in the 1940s. You really can’t go wrong with any of them (but Lou Malnati’s will always be my favorite—sorry, not sorry).
A piece of advice for deep dish pizza tasting: if you go in with the expectation that it will be like any regular (non-deep dish) pizza you’ve had before, you’re not going to like it. It tastes a bit more like a lasagna with crust instead of noodles—still good, but definitely different than a traditional, thin crust pizza so don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
In addition to deep dish pizza, be sure to try the square-cut thin crust pizza at Giordano’s, which is actually more popular among the locals (and my personal favorite of all the Chicago food options).
2. Chicago-style Hot Dog
The traditional Chicago-style hot dog is an all-beef hot dog on a poppyseed bun, topped with mustard, onions, relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges, peppers, and celery salt. It is considered blasphemous to put ketchup on a Chicago-style dog, to the point where many Chicago hot dog vendors do not have ketchup as a condiment option.
Some great spots to grab a Chicago-style dog: Wiener Circle (Lincoln Park), Dog Haus Biergarten (Lincoln Park), Chicago’s Dog House (Fullerton), Downtown Dogs (Gold Coast), Portillo’s (everywhere), Devil Dawgs (Loop), and a zillion other delicious spots.
3. Polish Sausage
This is along the same lines as the Chicago hot dog but is made with Kielbasa sausage and topped with grilled onions, yellow mustard, and peppers. Be sure to visit Maxwell Street Polish (one of the most famous spots and where the Chicago-style Polish allegedly originated), pick one up at Portillo’s, one of Chicago’s best restaurant chains, or, in true Chicago style, pick one up from the stands at a baseball game along with an ice cold beer.
More great spots to grab a Polish: Jim’s Original (Little Italy), Kurowski’s Sausage Shop (Avondale), and Gene’s Sausage Shop and Delicatessen (Ravenswood).
4. Italian Beef
The name Italian beef is deceptive because this incredible sandwich was created in Chicago in the 1930s. This delicious masterpiece consists of thinly sliced roast beef served au jus on an Italian roll, which is then dipped into the au jus used to cook the beef, and finally topped with giardiniera, or grilled sweet peppers.
The best places to get one are Portillo’s (again, everywhere) or Al’s Beef (multiple locations)—both quintessential Chicago chains. Portillo’s is always my first stop on the way home from the airport when I come home to Chicago, if that gives you any indication of the role it plays in the traditional Chicago food scene. There are many other good spots throughout the city to grab a bite of heaven, so you really can’t go wrong.
Other great spots to try some Italian beef: Bari (West Town), Buona (multiple locations), Jay’s Beef (Logan Square), Luke’s Italian Beef (Loop), or Mr. Beef (River North).
5. Garrett’s Popcorn
You can now find Garrett’s Popcorn around the world, but the chain originates from Madison Street, right in the heart of Chicago. This popcorn chain is renowned for the “Chicago Mix”, a real Chicago-style blend of cheese and caramel popcorn (now called the “Garrett Mix”, but old names die hard in Chicago—RIP Sears Tower and Comiskey Park). It sounds weird but trust me, it’s delicious. They have a decent variety of flavors so there’s something for everyone to love. They’ve even got a location in the airport, so be sure to pick some up for your friends and coworkers back home (it’s always a big hit in the office), that is, if you don’t eat it all yourself before you get home.
Fun fact: former President Barack Obama (a longtime Chicago resident) is a huge fan of Garrett’s Popcorn, and reportedly gives it as a birthday gift to former Vice President Joe Biden each year for his birthday.
Ok so this is a liquor, not a food, but it’s also an essential part of the Chicago experience. Your first shot of malört is almost a rite of passage. Malört was originally sold as a medicinal alcohol, allowing it to be consumed legally during Prohibition when it was sold door-to-door. It goes down incredibly smoothly, but the strong, herby aftertaste from the wormwood (the key ingredient) will definitely catch you by surprise and linger for a while. Wormwood is also the key ingredient in absinthe, however drinking malört doesn’t have the same trippy, mind-bending effects.
If you’re looking for a more palatable way to imbibe like a local while in Chicago, be sure to check out any beers made by Revolution Brewing or Goose Island, local Chicago breweries (they’re all awesome). My personal favorite Chicago beer is the Revolution Anti-Hero (an IPA), although you really can’t go wrong with any of the local brews.
Chicago has so many incredible food options beyond the classics listed here, so by no means should you treat this as an exhaustive guide to Chicago’s food scene, but it’s a great place to start.
Suggested next reading: Chicago: Amazing Things To See And Do Without Breaking The Bank