Although the cuisine of the Midwest draws both admiration and scorn for its simplicity and straightforwardness, Chicagoans are wholeheartedly embracing sandwiches rooted in Midwestern comfort. Some of the city’s most talented chefs are applying their years of culinary training to craft sandwiches that transcend their meek cultural perceptions. And make no mistake: In this case, simple does not mean “basic.”
What constitutes a Midwestern sandwich relies on history. The region’s predominant European settlers arrived from northern, central, and eastern Europe during the 19th century, and the flavors of Ireland, Germany, and Poland have embedded themselves in the Midwest’s palate. Although the Midwest is often defined by what it is not — not on an ocean, not perpetually warm, not mountainous — the first European settlers made do with what was available: pasture and farmland. The Midwest’s fortuitous biodiversity, coupled with long and cold winters, resulted in settlers raising livestock and farming as much as possible during the growing season, and then saving enough of each harvest for the winter with preservation methods including canning, pickling, and fermenting.
The increasing number of sandwich shops in Chicago dedicated to creating excellent meals on bread purely focused on the quality of each menu item’s locally sourced meat, from-scratch pickles, and farm-fresh produce further exemplifies the unassuming nature of Midwestern food and its resonance with Chicagoans.
Most interesting, perhaps, is that these sandwich shops frequently have chefs from Michelin-starred venues at the helm. For example, Tim Flores and Genie Kwon — both formerly of two-Michelin-starred Oriole — have found national success with West Town’s Kasama, which has bolstered their reputation as the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in the world. Before Kasama launched its tasting menu, the restaurant offered rice plates and delicious sandwiches which remain on its counter-service daytime menu. The duo has put their own stamp on Midwestern comfort foods with a Filipino-style Italian beef combo made with shaved adobo pork and a longganisa link displacing the traditional Italian sausage.
Sarah Mispagel, co-owner of Avondale’s new sandwich shop Loaf Lounge and formerly of Michelin-starred Sepia, is now also serving comforting sandwiches made with the knowledge and experience of an expertly trained chef. “It doesn’t have to be just a sandwich shop,” Mispagel says. “I like that this kind of cooking is highlighting talented people who can do other things than make really small food on really big plates.”
Mispagel’s husband and co-owner at Loaf Lounge, Ben Lustbader, also boasts an impressive culinary resume, including his work at Pilsen’s sorely missed Nightwood and Giant in Logan Square. Together, Mispagel’s background as a pastry chef and Lustbader’s demonstrated passion for cooking unpretentious Midwestern food have made Loaf Lounge a destination for straightforward, comforting sandwiches including a BLT made with locally sourced farm-fresh ingredients on house-made jalapeno cheddar bread and a turkey sandwich with locally made bacon, farm tomatoes, and house-made pickled peppers and red onions. Loaf Lounge’s goal is to maintain a small roster of sandwiches that locals can familiarize themselves with to create consistent experiences for their guests and become a neighborhood spot.
The trend of professionally trained chefs from some of the highest rungs of dining applying their expertise to craft sandwich-making caught the nation’s attention with The Bear, a hit series from FX streaming on Hulu. The show put one of Chicago’s best-known meals between bread, the Italian beef sandwich, in the spotlight. Its plot hinges on chef “Carmy” Berzatto leaving his Michelin-starred career as a chef to return to Chicago to run his late brother’s Italian beef shop. He takes the restaurant’s popular Italian beef sandwich and changes the way it’s made, from the processes used in the kitchen to the quality of the ingredients themselves. Carmy applies his Michelin kitchen skills to implement a French-style brigade, teaches his staff how to run a quality-focused kitchen, and in the process transforms the restaurant and its Italian beef sandwich into something new and distinguished. Although the details in real-life Chicago are different regarding sandwich shops like Kasama, Loaf Lounge, and others, The Bear captures the hard-earned skills Chicago’s chefs are implementing in their sandwich shops — like making from-scratch bread and using exceptional, locally sourced ingredients — to demonstrate that something as humble as a sandwich can indeed be a spectacular meal. (In fact, Loaf Lounge’s very own double chocolate cake is the cake made on the show.)
Since the COVID pandemic began and threw the service industry on its side, restaurant-industry professionals have struck out on their own or left the industry altogether. Journalists and former service-industry professionals have shared stories of the low pay, long hours, bad tempers, and other widely documented abuses at every rung of the restaurant industry, from locally frequented businesses to global culinary destinations. The Bear-like trend of classically trained chefs leaving jobs at some of Chicago’s finest restaurants contributes to the phenomenon, with some of them ditching the prestige to focus on unfussy cooking that nourishes their bodies and spirits while continuing to garner institutional recognition.
“I’m very grateful for the fine dining part of my career,” Mispagel says, “And there are times that I miss it, but I’m very, very happy to be doing this. Just because you did that once, that doesn’t mean it’s the pinnacle of your career. People may look at fine dining and think it’s more technique-driven or more important than a sandwich shop. It’s not necessarily — it’s just different.”
In Irving Park, JT’s Genuine Sandwich Shop has been catering to hearty and nostalgic Midwestern tastes, including the shop’s steak and potato sandwich, for almost three years now. Owner Chris Cunningham actually created JT’s out of what he calls a selfish motivation to make a breaded pork tenderloin sandwich that reminded him of growing up in western Illinois.
“I knew we had to have a tenderloin sandwich on the menu not just for myself, but also everyone else who’s moved here from Iowa, Indiana, or other parts of the Midwest, who couldn’t find comfort foods that reminded them of home,” Cunningham says.
JT’s makes all their sandwiches with ingredients made in-house or from local suppliers — including regional farms — to best capture the Midwest’s distinct flavors and cultural phenomena. JT’s Made Rite sandwich, an homage to the decades-old version at the Maid-Rite diner franchise popular in western Illinois and Iowa, makes this especially true. Like the original, the “loose meat sandwich” is basically a sloppy joe without the sauce. JT’s makes their Made Rite with seasoned ground beef, diced onions, dill pickles, ketchup, and mustard on a bun. Unlike the original, their version is made with ingredients that make each sandwich greater than the sum of its individual parts.
“I think that the simple, approachable, humble food of the Midwest is very comforting and nostalgic for people,” Cunningham says. “For the last few years, we’ve all been cooped up and looking for comfort in different ways. When people find a place like JT’s where they can order a coney dog like they’ve had in Detroit or Flint — I think that speaks to people.”
“People know what a BLT tastes like and they know that they like it,” Mispagel says. “To have places in their neighborhoods that are doing versions of the things they know they love with farm tomatoes and local bacon, and even house-made bread feels really comforting but also really special.”
Other Chicago cafes and restaurants dedicating their skills to nostalgic Midwestern sandwich-making include TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop in Avondale, which serves its version of a loose meat sandwich, affectionately called a “Maidwrong.” Their iteration includes the loose meat, as well as Muenster cheese and steak aioli sauce. Lola’s Coney Island in Humboldt Park, a love letter to Detroit street foods, also serves its loose meat sandwich, as well as the iconic Italian beef.
Talented and experienced chefs switching gears to make sandwiches influenced by the regional flavors and idiosyncrasies of the Midwest perfectly dovetails with diners’ interests in foods that both taste exceptional and are reminiscent of familiar Midwestern cooking. These intentional sandwiches evoke the Midwest and all its simple-yet-delicious flavors. Indulging in something so comforting and familiar makes it seem like everything might be okay.