Trying to define Chicago is a challenging notion, which this list of the city’s iconic dishes shows. Some have existed for decades — Vienna Beef hot dogs have been around for 130 years. Others, like the butter chicken calzone, combine the allure of the pizza puff (a Chicago invention) with the city’s history with Indian food (the country’s largest grocer, Patel Brothers, debuted in Chicago). Avec’s bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with chorizo continued to please, while there are two types of pizza to argue about. But simmer down, don’t get too mad — brighten up your day with one of these icons.Read More
Where to Eat Chicago’s Most Iconic Dishes
Classic foods every local needs to try at least once
Great Sea Restaurant
Lollipop Chicken Wings: Here is one of the best examples of a Chicago invention: the lollipop chicken wing, based on gam pong gi, a classic Korean Chinese chicken stir fry. A chef named Hsing-Tseng Kao at a nearby restaurant, the now-defunct Peking Mandarin, came up with the idea of using wings in gam pong gi, but it was Nai Tiao, Great Sea’s owner back in the 1980s, who first frenched the wings into a lollipop shape and drenched them in a sweet, spicy sauce. The rest is Chicago food history.
Butter Chicken Calzone: Chicago has a bit of a culinary history with Indian cuisine as the city gave birth to Patel Brothers, the country’s largest Indian grocer which opened its first location in 1974 on Devon Avenue. Mingle that fact with the history of the pizza puff, the deep-fried treat served at many hot dog stands across the city; the puff is also a Chicago invention. That takes us to Superkhana International, a modern Indian restaurant serving up riffs on classic dishes. The butter chicken calzone is the best pizza puff imaginable, made with naan and baked in a pizza oven, stuffed with juicy butter chicken that strikes the right notes with a hint of Amul cheese. Prepare to get messy. This is the (Chicago) way.
Gene & Jude's
Depression Dog: The classic Chicago-style hot dog — a Vienna Beef frankfurter on a poppy seed bun topped with mustard, onions, relish, tomatoes, sport peppers, pickle spear, and celery salt — is among the most revered foods in the Windy City. Legendary suburban stand Gene & Jude’s offers a variant, the “Depression Dog,” that withholds some traditional ingredients but tosses a heap of fries on top of the whole thing. Many critics and fans have hailed it as the finest of its kind. A note to visitors: ketchup is expressly forbidden.
Jibaritos y Mas
Jibarito: The jibarito is another Chicago original, invented at Borinquen, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Humboldt Park, in 1996, when its owner, Juan C. Figueroa, was inspired by an article he read in a Puerto Rican newspaper about a sandwich that substituted fried plantains for bread. Jibaritos y Mas offers a textbook version of the original recipe with sliced steak, lettuce, tomato, and cheese, but plenty of other options are available, including a vegetarian version.
Deep Dish Pizza With Caramelized Cheese Crust: The deep dish pizza is perhaps Chicago’s best-known, least-understood, and most-ridiculed exports. And it’s true that the exported versions — the Uno’s chain and Lou Malnati’s mail order — do a terrible job of representing it to the outside world. But outsiders would think differently if they knew about the deep dish invented by Burt Katz, the greatest innovator of the form after its inventor Ike Sewell. Katz had the genius idea to let cheese caramelize on the edge of the crust. Pequod’s was one of several pizzerias he founded, and it still serves a great example of that style. Milly’s Pizza in the Pan in Edgewater and Burt’s Place in suburban Morton Grove also have excellent caramelized crusts.
Italian beef: There’s much debate over the best way to eat an Italian beef. Hot or sweet peppers? Dry or au jus? No matter the order, Johnnie’s will execute it to perfection. For an even meatier option, try the combo: an Italian sausage topped with shredded beef. There’s a second location in suburban Arlington Heights.
Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House
Shrimp DeJonghe: Shrimp DeJonghe was invented in Chicago near the turn of the 20th century. It's a simple casserole of shrimp, garlic, breadcrumbs, and either wine or sherry. Many Italian and seafood restaurants in the area serve it, but Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House’s version is one of the best.
Gene & Georgetti
Chicken Vesuvio: The origins of Chicken Vesuvio are murky, though the Vesuvio Restaurant (now long gone) takes the credit, hence the name. It’s a simple Italian American dish: chicken sauteed in garlic, oregano, olive oil, and wine then baked until the skin is crisp and served with seasoned wedge potatoes and sometimes peas. The classic steakhouse Gene & Georgetti serves a good, pea-less variation; it can also be found at Harry Caray’s and other Italian restaurants around the city.
Saganaki: Flaming saganaki originated in Chicago, dating back to the late ’60s at the now-shuttered Parthenon. The dish is a spectacle that involves servers bringing out a platter of white cheese (sheep’s milk cheese is commonly used), setting it on fire at the tableside, and yelling “opa!”
Maxwell Street Polish: While hot dogs get all the glory, the Maxwell Street Polish — a kielbasa sausage topped with mustard, grilled onions, and sport peppers — is also a Chicago classic that was first sold at Chicago’s old Maxwell Street Market.
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Tacos: Chicago has one of the largest Mexican American populations in the U.S., and Chicagoans take their tacos very seriously. Rubi’s, which existed as a stall at the Maxwell Street Market for 20 years, recently moved to a permanent storefront on 18th Street in Pilsen. The mole rojo (braised pork on a fresh corn tortilla) stars. The pastor is also worth ordering. But anything tastes better due to the delicate yellow corn wrappings. These are some of the best tortillas in the city.
Maxwell Street Depot
Pork Chop Sandwich: For more than half a century, Chicagoans have been giving dentists nightmares by ordering a South Side specialty: the bone-in pork chop sandwich. The thin pork chop, sandwiched between a hamburger bun and onions, is a delicacy.
Birria: Long before quesabirria tacos swept the nation, this beloved mom-and-pop operation was introducing Chicago to traditional Jalisco-style birria. The fragrant, mouth-watering stew is made with organic goat meat that’s been steam-cooked for hours, marinated in an ancho-based mole, and then finished in the oven. It arrives at the table accompanied by corn tortillas, cilantro, onions, fire-roasted salsa, and a side of consommé so that diners can assemble what are arguably the most exceptional tacos in town. Online ordering is available here.
Harold's Chicken Shack
Fried chicken with mild sauce: A favorite among locals and celebrities, Harold’s dishes out what many consider to be the best fried chicken in the city. (Its closest rival is Uncle Remus.) The chicken’s distinctive flavor is a result of being cooked to order in vegetable oil and beef tallow. Mild sauce is also a condiment of utmost importance, a sweet and tangy liquid that locals abide by. Even though the chicken and sauce recipes vary from restaurant to restaurant, a Harold’s half chicken dinner covered in mild sauce is a quintessential Chicago meal. There are dozens of locations in the area, with a majority on the South Side.
Atomic Cake: Born on the city’s South Side, this lesser-known dessert that dates back to the Atomic Age (aka the 1950s) is an indulgent combination of banana, yellow, and chocolate cake. The three layers are separated by glazed strawberries and sliced bananas with Bavarian custard, and topped with rich fudge and whipped cream frosting. Long-standing Weber’s Bakery calls its version a “Banana Split Torte.”
Lem's BBQ House
Rib tips: Rib tips are an often overlooked barbecue specialty but they’re the main attraction at this old-school joint. The tender, flavorful cuts are cooked in a customized aquarium smoker — the largest in the city — and slathered in a sweet sauce so expect to get a little messy. While pork is what Lem’s is famous for, turkey tips have risen in popularity in recent years.
Gym shoe: It’s unclear where the gym shoe sandwich (sometimes spelled Jim shoe) was created or how it got its name, but this South Side shop is one of its most well-known purveyors. Despite the odd name, the gym shoe is a tasty trifecta of roast beef, gyro meat, and corned beef stuffed in a hoagie roll and topped with giardiniera, sweet peppers, onions, tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, mayo, and Swiss cheese.
Vito & Nick's
Tavern-style pizza: Most outsiders associate with Chicago pizza with deep dish, but tavern style is just as important to the city’s culinary identity. It’s what Chicagoans eat on a regular basis; deep dish is for special occasions, like entertaining out-of-town visitors. This essential pizzeria makes what is arguably the finest thin crust in town, topping the crispy dough with ingredients like sausage, sliced beef, shrimp, and giardiniera. And in true Chicago fashion, the pies are best enjoyed with a cold pint of Old Style.
Rainbow Cone: Why settle for one flavor when you can have five? This South Side institution has been scooping colorful frozen treats for over nine decades. The namesake dessert is a combination of orange sherbet with chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), and pistachio ice cream that both adults and children love.
Home of the Hoagy
Sweet steak: Chicago’s counterpart to the Philly cheesesteak is a sweet variant from the South Side. While it’s not as widely known as Italian beef, this hoagie — featuring coarsely-chopped rib eye, tomatoes, bell peppers, and a signature sweet sauce — has earned loyal fans in Morgan Park.