Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Probably Chicago's most distinctive dish, and when done right, my absolute favorite original creation from this city. A proper Chicago dog features a steamed natural casing all-beef hot dog in a poppy-seed bun, topped with mustard, chopped onions, neon green relish, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. As I've explained before, variations are common, but this is more or less what you can expect (except on the South and West Sides, which I'll get to shortly). Sounds like a ridiculous assortments of condiments and vegetables, but the result is a snappy and extra beef dog, surrounded by a crunch, acid, and spice—all wonderful things.
This is sometimes referred to as a fully-loaded Chicago dog, especially to distinguish it from the Minimalist/Depression dog.
Minimalist / Depression Dog
A barebones version of a Chicago dog. A natural casing all-beef hot dog in a plain steamed bun, with chopped onions, mustard, relish, and sport peppers (though some places ask if you'd like them before adding them on). My favorite practitioners of this style, Gene & Jude's and Red Hot Ranch, also add a heap of crispy hand-cut fries on top of every single order.
I should note that no stand refers to these as a Minimalist dog or a Depression dog. The two names are used to distinguish the offering from the traditional, fully loaded Chicago dog. This stripped down style is most often found on the South and West Side, where it is simply referred to as a hot dog.
Maxwell Street Polish
A Maxwell Street Polish is a griddled Polish sausage served in a plain bun with mustard, sautéed onions, and sport peppers. Jim's Original first served the dish, and while the joint is no longer located on Maxwell Street (long story), Jim's is still worth a visit (Express Grill, which is directly next to Jim's and serves an identical menu, is not.). If you're looking for a unique take on the classic, check out the offerings at Polka's and Parse's.
In general, if you see a dish with "Maxwell Street" next to it, that almost guarantees the dish will be topped with sautéed onions, mustard, and sport peppers (if you want them).
Chicago's version of a roast beef sandwich deserves more respect. Created by Italian immigrants in the 1920s or 30s, the sandwich is a great example of transforming a cheap cut meat into something slightly out of control and ridiculous. A hunk of beef is roasted, cooled, and then sliced very thinly. Warmed in vat of juices from the roast, these slices are scooped up dripping wet and placed on an Italian roll with either hot peppers (spicy giardiniera) or sweet peppers (roasted green peppers). If you ask for it "wet," the whole sandwich will be picked up with a pair of tongs and dunked back into the vat of juices.
Since it's sliced so thinly, the meat is extraordinarily tender, while the soaked bread packs an extra meaty punch from the roast. I much prefer the spicy and crunchy kick of giardiniera to the soft slices of green pepper, but to each his own. Regardless of how you get it prepared, there is no polite way to devour one. The sandwich is best eaten immediately and while standing.
Though a group of us settled on the solid offering at Portillo's as the best in the city, it was something of a consensus pick. My favorite comes from Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor, with Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park a close second.
Italian Beef Combo
This is an Italian beef sandwich with a large grilled Italian sausage stuffed inside. Though this sounds absurd, the crispy, spicy bite of the grilled Italian sausage (preferably cooked over charcoal) actually plays well off tender slices of beef. It's generally assumed, and I definitely agree, that the quintessential version is served at Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park.
An Italian beef without the beef. An Italian roll is soaked in the juices from the roasted beef and, well, that's it. This one is not particularly common, but you'll find it available at some beef stands, including at UB Dogs in the Loop. Titus wrote more about this peculiar dish over on Smokin' Chokin' and Chowing with the King.
Deep Dish Pizza
Chicago's single most famous dish was invented at Uno's in 1943, and from the start it was designed to be substantial and filling—a knife-and-fork dinner instead of a handheld snack. It features a sturdy and crumbly bottom crust, which sometimes contains butter. Though the sides are reasonably tall, most of the crust isn't all that thick, but it is compact, which explains why it can support a copious amount of mozzarella, toppings, and a chunky tomato sauce. Unlike most pizza, the cheese is placed under the sauce.
Because it differs so dramatically from Neapolitan pizza in preparation, size, and cooking method, some like to dismiss it as a casserole. But there's no doubt that deep dish still has ardent supporters, and local institutions like Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, and Gino's East remain packed today.
For more on deep dish and other Chicago pizza styles, check out this incredibly thorough guide by Daniel Zemans.
If you think deep dish is thick, you probably aren't prepared for the size and scope of stuffed crust. Supposedly based on on an Italian Easter pie called a scarciedda, stuffed pizza usually has a flaky crust, tall sides, and, most importantly, an additional thin layer of dough between the toppings and sauce. Because that extra layer of dough is hidden under the sauce, the pizza looks similar to deep dish, which explains why it's often confused for deep dish.
This variation popped on the scene in the mid-70s at both Nancy's Pizza and Giordano's, and while both of those are good, the best version is probably made at Art of Pizza in Lakeview. That's where I go when it's the middle of February and the high is 10°F.
Pan Pizza with Caramelized Crust
Pan pizza is another thick-crusted Chicago pizza with sauce on top and cheese underneath, and it's also often confused for deep dish. But this fascinating variation differs in a couple important ways. First, while the crust is thicker than the base of deep dish, there's some actual development in the dough, making it taste like a piece of focaccia bread. Second, the outside edges of the crusts are sprinkled with cheese before baking, where they caramelize to form a gloriously crisp ring that is nearly jet black. Just remember: it's not burnt; it's delicious.
The most famous practitioner of this style is Burt Katz, and it's completely worth the pilgrimage to watch him man the ovens at Burt's Place in suburban Morton Grove. He also helped opened Pequod's, and though he's no longer involved, the restaurant's outlet in Lincoln Park is still your best shot at sampling pan pizza in the city.
Chicago Thin Crust
Not all pizza in Chicago is thick. In fact, outside of downtown, you're just as likely to run into this version, which often features a thin and crunchy crust topped with a sweet and chunky sauce, Italian sausage, and lots of mozzarella. As Adam Kuban detailed in his guide to regional pizza styles, Chicago thin crust is "often cut into a grid of square pieces (instead of pie-shaped wedges) in what's known as the 'party cut' or 'tavern cut.'"
Breaded Steak Sandwich
Pork Chop Sandwich
Watch out for your teeth! This strange sandwich features a griddled bone-in pork chop on a hamburger bun with mustard, sautéed onions, and sport peppers (optional). I agree that it sounds bizarre, but it works surprisingly well. This is another original from the Maxwell Street Market, which explains the sautéed onions. As to why the bone is left in, I haven't got a clue. Jim's Original serves a great version, but my favorite probably comes from Maxwell Street Depot.
A sandwich with fried plantains used in the place of bread. It's often stuffed with roast pork or thinly sliced beef, though there are loads of variations. The sandwich was invented by Puerto Rican immigrants at Borinquen in Humboldt Park. While great, the one at La Bomba might be better. This is one of Chicago's most unique and delicious original creations.
Italian Sub with Giardiniera
Italian Sub at J.P. Graziano [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]
Chicago's version of an Italian hero or hoagie. It's filled with a mix of dry-cured Italian meats, thinly sliced provolone, oil and vinegar dressing, chopped lettuce, and sliced tomato. While this sounds like an Italian sandwich you could find anywhere in the country, it's set apart by two final components. The first is spicy giardiniera, which adds crunch and spice. Finally, the best places stuff all of these ingredients into a crackly Italian roll made in the coal-fired ovens of D'Amato's. Bari is the classic, but my current favorite is made at J.P. Graziano.
Gym Shoe / Jim Shoe
This fascinating hybrid sandwich is a combination of an Italian beef and a gyros sandwich, with some corned beef thrown in for good measure. Basically, it's the kind of sandwich that could have only been created at stand that served both gyros and Italian beefs. It's meaty and salty, yet I find it peculiarly satisfying.
Steamed cornmeal tamales weren't invented here (they were brought up from the South), but stands in Chicago have found some ingenious ways to use them. My favorite is the mother-in-law, which is a steamed cornmeal tamale on a hot dog bun that is smothered with chili and topped with mustard, relish, chopped onions, tomato slices, cucumber, and celery salt. Like many people, I first heard about this quirky South Side dish on the Chicago episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. But it's been around for a long time. Though you can find a few versions around, my favorite is still at Fat Johnnie's.
Sure, gyros are native to Greece, not Chicago. But the version mass marketed by Kronos is it's own thing and deserves a mention because it was invented here. Instead of layers of sliced meat stacked on a spit, Kronos created a quick service version featuring a finely ground mass of meat shaped into a cylinder. Cooked on a vertical broiler, thin slices are shaved off, placed on a pita, and then topped with sliced onion, tomato, and a thick white sauce, which may or may not have anything to do with tzatziki.
The best places let the exterior properly caramelize and shave thinly—Central Gyros serves a textbook version. Personally, I think the dish needs acid and/or spice, which is why I advocate adding giardiniera.
Barbecue Rib Tip and Hot Link Combo
Used to be that Chicago barbecue was known for all the wrong reasons. The kind peddled on the North Side was often baked or boiled, and then covered up with a sticky sweet sauce. But on the South Side, you'll find Chicago's real contribution to the national barbecue scene: the rib tip and hot link combo. You'll find smoked rib tips all over the Midwest, but it took some enterprising soul to pair the ridiculously fatty ends of the spare rib with hunks of crispy, smoky sausage.
The two are usually covered in a tangy sauce and served on top of bed of bland fries, which slowly become irresistible when covered in sauce and meat drippings. A few slices of white bread are often thrown on top. For whatever reason, the best versions of this dish are smoked in rectangular glass boxes, nicknamed aquarium smokers. The vast majority are on the South Side, including Uncle John's, which came in first in my search for The Best Rib Tip and Hot Link Combo in Chicago. But I'm also quite fond of Honey 1 BBQ in Bucktown.
I don't know about you, but when I first heard about this dish, I expected it to be spicy and/or covered in an avalanche of tomato sauce. But this Italian-American creation features roasted chicken and potatoes flavored with lemon, garlic, and herbs like oregano. Sometimes peas are involved. Success mostly depends mostly on how crisp the chicken skin and potatoes are. It's a staple in old school Italian-American joints like Sabatino's, but in my experience you're more likely to read about this being a quintessentially Chicago dish than you'll actually see it on menus around town.
Another Greek dish that transformed here. In it's home country, the dish is simply sautéed cheese cooked in a sagani, a small two-handled pan. But in 1968, The Parthenon in Greek Town had the idea to pour brandy over the cheese, set it alight, yell "opa!", and then extinguish the flames with a squeeze lemon. It's pure theatrics, and the unfortunate consequence is that every waiter is now required to yell "opa!" whether it's Saturday night or noon on a Tuesday. But it can be satisfying if the cheese is tangy and crispy and not bland and chewy.
The Big Baby is a double cheeseburger with sautéed onions on top. Usually, there is only one slice of cheese, which is placed between the griddled patties. A sesame seed bun is customary. According to this very thorough post on LTHForum, it was introduced in the 1970s at Nicky's on the Southwest Side as a small time answer to the Big Mac. Considering the fact that McDonald's is headquartered in the western suburbs, that makes sense.
Though it has a fun name, this is just a bowl of chili with a cornmeal tamale added in. It's success depends completely on the strength of the chili. Morrie O'Malley's version is worth trying.
This is more of a condiment than I dish, but I refer to it all the time, so I'll include it here. In Italy, giardiniera refers to a mix of pickled vegetables. While you'll find some of those in Chicago's version—usually carrots and celery, sometimes cauliflower and olives—they're overshadowed by a mess of pickled green chilies. This fiercely spicy mix is integral on an Italian beef or Italian sub. But it can go on just about anything, including pizza. (Actually, I can't imagine ordering a sausage pizza from Pequod's without it.)