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Required Eating: Chicago’s Classic Foods

By Nicole Schnitzler

Apr 14, 2020

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Get a taste of Chicago’s exciting ramen scene at Ramen-San in River North. 

Courtesy of Ramen-San

Get a taste of Chicago’s exciting ramen scene at Ramen-San in River North. 

You’ve heard of deep-dish pizza, but what about Italian beef and honey butter fried chicken?

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The birthplace of Twinkies, Cracker Jack, Cream of Wheat, and Sara Lee frozen pound cakes, Chicago has a long history with famous foodstuffs. Today, the city is better known for Michelin-starred restaurants than processed goods, but those high altars of cuisine, along with neighborhood joints serving classic Chicago fare, mean there are still plenty of local dishes that travelers need to try.

With 7,000 restaurants across 77 neighborhoods, the Windy City offers more food than could ever be tasted in a single trip. To narrow it down, focus on iconic fare like Chicago-style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, and, of course, deep-dish pizza, and you’ll head home having eaten some of the city’s most storied meals. 

From popcorn to prime steaks, here are eight of Chicago’s most quintessential eats.

Deep-dish pizza

With its thick crust and layers of cheese, deep-dish pizza is a Chicago staple.

If there’s one thing Chicago is best known for food-wise, it’s deep-dish pizza. Composed of a thick crust topped by rich red sauce and a behemoth layer of cheese, this city’s signature pie style dares to be different—and proves particularly comforting during Chicago’s infamously long winters. While its origin story continues to be contested, most believe that credit is due to Pizzeria Uno, where the dish first appeared in 1943. These days, fans of the Second City delicacy also flock to spots like Lou Malnati’s, Pizano’s, and Pequod’s, a Lincoln Park favorite for its caramelized crust.

Chicago-style hot dogs

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Ask anyone in the city about the appeal of a Chicago-style dog, and they’ll be quick to tell you that the secret lies in the abundant toppings: yellow mustard, white onions, sweet relish, tomato slices, peppers, a pickle, and—the icing on the cake—celery salt. Chicago’s relationship with these heaping hot dogs dates back to 1893, when Austrian Hungarian immigrants Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany introduced their famous frankfurter at the World’s Fair. Their all-beef hot dogs were a hit, so they opened a storefront a year later, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression, when imitation stands sprung up all over the city, that the Chicago-style hot dog developed a mass following. Today, travelers can get a taste at spots like the Wiener’s Circle, the Little Island, and within the hallowed walls of Wrigley Field

Italian beef

Chicago’s famous Italian beef sandwich comes stuffed with roast beef and drizzled with gravy.

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If you’ve finished your hot dog and want to try another classic Chicago sandwich, opt for the Italian beef. This sublime sub—an Italian-style roll stacked with thinly sliced roast beef and served au jus (with ample gravy)—is one of the city’s great lunches. The staple is thought to have first been popularized during the Great Depression when meat was scarce. To make the most of his limited supplies, Chicago street peddler Anthony Ferrari would slice the beef very thin, then stuff it into freshly baked rolls. He sold the sandwich at a neighborhood food stand and delivered it to factory workers around the city until, years later, his son opened Al’s Italian Beef in Chicago’s Little Italy. The shop still serves its signature sandwich dipped in gravy and topped with a secret spice blend. For other top versions, check out Portillo’s, Jay’s, and Johnnie’s, an Elmwood Park fixture for its addition of hot peppers (along with a recommended finale of frozen lemonade). 

Garrett popcorn

Chicago’s Garrett popcorn came to fame in 1949, when it opened its first location at 10 West Madison Street. Since then, the company has popped up in several cities around the world, from New York and Dubai to Japan and Singapore, all while maintaining a loyal following in its hometown. You’ll know you’re near one of Chicago’s 11 shops when you smell the butter and caramel, but you’ll realize you’ve arrived when you see the out-the-door line. Garrett makes its gourmet popcorn in old-fashioned copper kettles, using only top ingredients and secret family recipes. Options range from buttery to Buffalo ranch, but you should really spring for the Garrett Mix, a combination of the shop’s Caramel Crisp and Cheese Corn flavors that’s been a fan favorite for decades.  

Honey butter fried chicken

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According to chefs Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, it was a “happy accident” that led to their honey butter fried chicken. The two host a pop-up series called Sunday Dinner Club, at which they serve comfort-food favorites like burgers, pizza, and tacos. One night many years ago, they were plating fried chicken alongside griddled corn cakes with honey butter, when the honey butter melted on the fried chicken and they realized the mistake could become their signature dish. Shortly after, they opened a brick-and-mortar spot in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood, where diners now line up nightly for a taste of the legendary chicken, plus delicious sides like pimento mac and cheese, roasted garlic grits, and schmaltz smashed potatoes. 

Ramen 

When temperatures drop in Chicago, the ramen scene heats up. Today, there are more noodle shops around the city than ever before, with a spot in practically every neighborhood. In Chinatown, opt for Strings, where the menu showcases six styles of ramen from across Japan; in River North, try Ramen-San and its wide array of add-ons, from molten eggs and buttered corn to wontons and fried chicken; and in the West Loop, head straight for High Five Ramen, a subterranean joint where diners can choose from several spice levels.

Steak

GT Prime elevates steakhouse fare with cuts of bison and venison.

The Midwest, home to sprawling cattle operations and farmlands, has always been a meat-and-potatoes region, with Chicago at its core—the city’s Union Stockyards remain the largest meatpacking site in the world. As follows, Chicago is home to world-class steakhouses, from time-honored haunts to recently opened hot spots. When it comes to the classics, you can’t do better than Gene & Georgetti, which opened back in 1941; Joe’s, with its prime steak and seafood; and Gibsons, a favorite for colossal portions and on-point service. For something more modern, try RPM Steak, a River North destination boasting more than two dozen cuts of beef, or GT Prime, where chef Giuseppe Tentori’s menu showcases overlooked red meats like bison and venison. 

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Travel Guide to Chicago

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