Frank Sinatra used to sing that Chicago was his “kind of town.” And why wouldn’t it be? Apart from being the site of countless Hollywood films and television series and the type of city artists sing about, Chicago in itself is a unique mix of classy and rough. Chicago is a city renowned for its architecture and more recently as the hometown of the United States’ first African American president. But what most people don’t realize is that Chicago, like its coastal cousins New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, is just as much as a foodie city. You may not hear much about these iconic Chicago eats, but ask any Chicagoan, local or otherwise, and they will tell you with great adulation, about these food items they crave the most.
Iconic Chicago Eats
This is probably the most underrated, yet most appreciated iconic Chicago eats on this list. Yes, there’s deep-dish pizza or that infamous Chicago-style hotdog, but Italian beef is a true Chicago classic. Just like the city that created it, this sandwich might be commonly referred to as a “workingman’s lunch” but the intricate layers of thinly sliced beef that packs a powerful flavor thanks to the accompanying Italian-spiced broth, is pure class on its own.
So where can you get the best Italian beef in Chicago? There are two locations locals and critics alike will recommend and they are Al’s Italian Beef and Johnnie’s Beef. The former claims to be the “#1 Italian Beef” in the city and for good reason. Feeding Chicagoans since the late 1930’s, they’ve certainly perfected the recipe. With several locations around the city, including one in the Inner Loop, Al’s won’t be hard to miss. Johnnie’s Beef on the other hand, is a bit of a hike, but worth every mile. Located in Elmwood Park, this small, cash-only establishment offers an Italian beef sandwich that many locals would argue is the gold standard for all other Italian beef sandwiches in the city. Make sure you order yours “wet” and bring a bib.
Deep Dish Pizza
I’m personally partial to New York style pizza, but there’s no denying that there’s something about deep dish pizza that makes you want to forget about your diet and binge. If that itself doesn’t warrant its inclusion as one of the iconic Chicago eats, then I’m not sure what will. Deep dish is essentially pizza dough stuffed with heavy traditional pizza toppings and baked in what resembles a cake pan.
Uno Pizzeria and Grill (formerly Pizzeria Uno) was said to have invented the deep dish concept and its original location on Ohio and North Wabash remains. The restaurant, often jammed packed with visitors staying in Chicago, has since expanded its menu but still offers the traditional deep dish. If you’re looking for a local favorite though, head to Pequod’s Pizza on Clybourn Avenue. Their deep dish pizza is characterized by the burnt look, which is actually a caramelized cheese crust. Another local favorite is Lou Malnati’s. Just like Pequod’s, Lou’s is known for its buttery pizza crust. Get the Malnati Chicago classic made with cheese and sausage and you won’t regret it.
You might be wondering what the heck is Italian ice. I certainly thought that when a friend first mentioned it to me. My first thoughts were that it was a cross between shaved ice and gelato, and as it turned out, that’s somewhat true of this iconic Chicago eats. A favorite summertime dessert by Chicagoans, Italian ice is made up of frozen water, sugar, and some form of fruit, whole or in juice form. The flavors vary from classic lemon to more exotic fruits like dragon fruit.
If you ask a local where to get the best Italian ice, he or she will likely point you to the direction of Annette’s Homemade Italian Ice where there are over a dozen fruit flavors ranging from strawberry to black cherry. Another one is Miko’s, a local spot with three locations in town. Try their passion fruit or the refreshing combo of watermelon and lemon.
Maxwell Street Polish Sausage
You cannot possibly talk about iconic Chicago eats without mentioning the Maxwell Street Polish sausage. Born out of the original Maxwell Street market, this spicy and garlicky Polish sausage can either be grilled or fried and served with mustard, grilled onions and hot peppers. To sample this classic Chicago street food, head over to Jim’s Original, located on Union Ave. They are open 24 hours.