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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

The Winners!

1. Bunyons Hot Giardiniera
2. Victoria Brand Hot Giardiniera
3. Potbelly Hot Peppers

I never knew giardiniera existed before moving to Chicago, but now I can't imagine life without it. Okay, that's a tad dramatic, but I certainly wouldn't want an Italian beef or an Italian sub without Chicago's favorite condiment.

As you may have guessed, giardiniera originated in Italy, where it basically just means pickled vegetables. But thanks to an influx of Italian immigrants, the dish came to Chicago and things got real. Where before it was a bracing collection of crisp vegetables, perhaps best enjoyed as an antipasti, the Italian-American version is unhinged and best used as a gut punch to enliven heavy foods. It is not for the timid or shy. This is in-your-face aggressive stuff, and it should be taken seriously.

The Contenders

Originally, I planned to check out a couple grocery stores, in the hopes of gathering up eight or so. But I realized after my first stop that there are more options than I ever imagined. Things quickly got out of hand.

Let me pose a simple question: Where is giardiniera located in a grocery store? If you answered the condiment section, you're right. But you're also right if you answered the deli, the "ethnic foods" aisle, or random end caps in the meat section. And the harder I looked, the more I uncovered.

That partly explains why I made eight separate stops and ended up with 16 different options. I know I missed some popular brands—and please let me know if you have a favorite that didn't make the cut—but I'm more than happy with the number I was able to track down. I decided to focus exclusively on hot giardiniera, because why mess around with the mild stuff?

Here is what I found:

  • Bunyons Hot Giardiniera
  • Centrella Chicago Style Giardiniera
  • Racconto Hot Giardiniera
  • Victoria Brand Hot Giardiniera
  • Potbelly Brand Hot Peppers
  • Dell'Alpe Hot Giardiniera
  • Alpino Brand Hot Pepper Mix "Giardiniera"
  • Marconi Brand Hot Giardiniera
  • Dalanti Hot Giardiniera
  • Natali Hot Mix Giardiniera
  • Bari Hot Giardiniera
  • Pagliacci Hot Giardiniera
  • Vienna Beef Hot Giardiniera
  • Ditka's Hot Giardiniera
  • Orlando Greco Old World Hot Giardiniera
  • That Pickle Guy Chunky Hot Giardiniera

The Criteria

Italian Beef Combo

Giardiniera is an essential topping for an Italian beef, but there are other uses. [Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

Italian-American giardiniera is not a subtle thing, so I was mostly interested in very concrete things: Crunch. Spice. Acid. All three were essential. But that doesn't mean that complexity was completely forgotten. I also looked for an interesting mix of vegetables. Most got by with serrano chiles, celery, and carrots, but some added in cauliflower, olives, and red peppers. For the most part, the more the merrier.

The Results

The good news? There wasn't a bad brand in the bunch. But that also meant that there differences were small. Honestly, every single one of these would do in a pinch. But a few genuinely stood out.

#1: Bunyons Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: celery, peppers, carrots, olives, lupins, pepperoncini

So much stuff going on here. An attractive mix of ingredients, including very small slices of celery and very large pieces of carrot and pepperoncini. Everything is crunchy and flavorful. This is also one the only ones with a strong olive backbone. I do wonder whether it would be too much for an Italian beef, but that's a small aside on an otherwise exceptional batch of giardiniera.

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Bunyons was a surprisingly tough company to track down. Much of the problem has to do with the name, which Google will try in vain to change your search to "bunions." Fortunately, I uncovered this Sun-Times article that somewhat cleared things up. Apparently, this giardiniera was created by Hamlet Arthur Stephens, who passed away last year. He operated a hot dog stand in Cicero called Bunyon's. Curiously, it wasn't Bunyan's with an "a," though it did have a 19-foot statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hot dog in front. (The statue was moved downstate to Atlanta, IL in 2004.) Anyway. His secret recipe is still being produced by his family, but is only being sold at select Whole Foods in Chicago and Schaumburg. It's definitely worth checking out.

Currently only available at Whole Foods in Chicago and Schaumburg.

#2: Victoria Brand Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: serrano peppers, celery, red bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, olives, oregano

Talk about crunch! The vegetables in this mix could stand up to any sandwich. But they are also well pickled and flavorful. Of course, all this makes sense when you consider that this is the house giardiniera for J.P. Graziano's. Watch out, though—Victoria is tremendously spicy, by far the hottest I tasted. Don't be a hero!

Available for purchase at J.P. Graziano's retail location or on its website.

#3: Potbelly Hot Peppers

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The Mix: serrano peppers, carrots, celery, jalapeño peppers, red bell peppers, cauliflower, green olives

I was worried it was going to be tame and middle of the road, but it has some genuine heat. It also has a wonderful pickled crunch thanks to the celery and carrot. No wonder people love this stuff at Potbelly. It's a tad saltier than Victoria, but not by much. Still, I am sad to see this labeled as "hot peppers" instead of giardiniera on the label. For shame.

Available for purchase at any Potbelly location. Click here to find the closest one to you.

#4: Ditka's Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: select hot peppers, celery, cauliflower, carrots, green olives, pimentos

Ditka's giardiniera? Is this real?! I nearly lost my cool when I saw a container of this on the shelf. But does this former Chicago Bears coach know much about pickled vegetables? Well, someone in his company must, because this is some fascinating stuff. Oddly, it's kind of mild, with very little heat, but the vegetables themselves are nicely pickled and crisp. It's, dare I say, balanced and restrained. This is kind of surprising in every way.

An online shop is apparently "coming soon," but you can currently find the product at one of these local retailers.

#5: Dell'Alpe Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: peppers, celery, olives

Because of the short ingredient list, I was worried that this one would be a spice bomb, but it's actually has a lot going on. The celery is crunchy, vinegar hits when it needs to, and great olive flavor hangs in the periphery.

#6: Vienna Beef Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: serrano peppers, celery, carrots, red peppers, olives, spices

Chicago's foremost hot dog manufacturer also serves up a surprisingly solid batch of giardiniera. The celery and carrots are wonderfully crunchy. Heck, even the serranos have a real bite to them. There's also a definite vinegar tang, which would be great on an Italian beef. It's perhaps a bit too straightforward, with no crazy flavor tangents involved or much heat.

#7: Bari Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot cut peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, olives, mushrooms, garlic, spices

This beloved Italian deli also makes its own giardiniera, and it's an odd one. I'm pretty this is the only one with mushrooms. But it's the heavy presence of spices that really sets it apart. I can see this being divisive, with some loving the unique angle, and others being turned off immediately. I rather like the stuff, even if I'd like to see crisper vegetables.

Only available at Bari.

#8: Alpino Brand Hot Pepper Mix "Giardiniera"

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The Mix: peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, olives

A really balanced offering, with a nice mix of heat and crunch. Celery is on the saltier side of the spectrum, but its texture is right in the middle. The crisp carrot slices stood out to me. The peppers aren't overly spicy, making this a good option.

#9: Centrella Chicago Style Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, celery, cauliflower, carrots, gherkins

The celery is very pickled and crunchy, which is good. This would stand up well to a beef. It also has considerable heat, though it could use more complexity.

Available for purchase at Strack & Van Til.

#10: Pagliacci Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, celery, bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, pitted green olives, spices

CRUNCH! It's impossible to ignore the bite on the celery and carrots, even if they are a touch salty. But that's a minor quibble. A bigger issue is the heat level, which is timid and weak. Come on, this stuff is supposed to be hot!

#11: Natali Hot Mix Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, celery, carrots, cauliflower, bell peppers, black pepper, garlic, crunch red pepper, basil, oregano, parsley

As you can tell by the ingredient list, there's a lot of things going on in this mix. The dried spices were easy to detect, adding complexity. The vegetables are a mixed bag. They lack crunch, but they are nicely pickled and balanced by a healthy amount of vinegar.

Available for purchase from Natali's website.

#12: That Pickle Guy Chunky Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: select peppers, cauliflower, celery, carrots, olives

As its name suggests, the vegetables are well pickled, with a great flash of vinegar at the end of each bite. So it's too bad they are also soft. This one was also mild.

#13: Marconi Brand Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, carrots, cauliflower, celery, gherkins,

The mildest of the bunch, which is kind of disappointing for a product labeled "hot". Still, the celery, cauliflower, and carrots are nicely pickled and crisp. I suppose this is a good option for those who can't handle the heat.

#14: Dalanti Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, celery, bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, pitted green olives (though there is a warning that "some olives may contain pits," so watch out!)

The vegetables are definitely on the softer side, and they are also cut up into smaller chunks than the others. Still, there is a nice balance of heat and vinegar here.

Available for purcahse from Dalanti's website.

#15: Orlando Greco Old World Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: peppers, celery, cauliflower, carrots, green olives

This is solid stuff, but not much sticks out. The vegetables trend soft, though the carrots manage to hold their own. The heat is below normal. Everything is just a bit too salty for my liking.

#16: Racconto Hot Giardiniera

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The Mix: hot peppers, celery, cauliflower, carrots, olives, pimentos

Each bite is incredibly salty, which kind of got in the way. The vegetables were also too limp, without much pickled flavor.

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