Cuisine of Chicago – Food and Drink

The sign at the original Maxwell Street Express Grill (now on Union), advertising Maxwell Street Polish, and a range of other offerings.

The sign at the original Maxwell Street Express Grill (now on Union), advertising Maxwell Street Polish, and a range of other offerings.

The culture of Chicago, Illinois, is known for the invention or perfection of various art forms of performing arts, such as improvisational comedy, the Prairie Style of architecture, House music, Chicago blues, jazz, and soul.

The city continues to cultivate a strong classical music, popular music, dance and performing arts tradition, rooted in Western civilization, as well as other traditions carried forward by its American, African, Asian, European, and Hispanic citizens. Chicago is known for a robust and vigorous tradition of surrealist, funky figurative paintings and art, such as the famous Chicago Imagist group.

The city is additionally known for various popular culinary dishes, notably the deep-dish pizza, the Chicago-style hot dog and the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich.

Local specialties

The great triumvirate of Chicago-style foods is:

  • Chicago-style Pizza mainly refers to any of three distinct varieties, which include: the deep-dish pizza, made nationally famous in large part by Uno’s; the stuffed pizza, which is often credited to Giordano’s; and the more locally popular crispy thin-crust variety, which is an option at most Chicago pizzerias.
  • A Chicago Hot Dog is traditionally a steamed or boiled natural-casing wiener on a poppy-seed bun topped with yellow mustard, chopped onion, sliced tomato, neon-green sweet-pickle relish, sport peppers, a dill-pickle spear and a sprinkling of celery salt—but never ketchup. Many hot-dog stands also serve the Maxwell Street Polish. Popular among older Chicagoans is the original version of the Chicago hot dog garnished with just yellow mustard and raw onions.
  • An Italian Beef is a sandwich featuring thinly sliced roast beef simmered in a broth (known locally as ‘gravy’) containing Italian-style seasonings and served on an Italian roll soaked in the meat juices. Most beef stands offer a ‘cheesy beef’ option, which is typically the addition of a slice of provolone or mozarella. A ‘combo’ is a beef sandwich with the addition of grilled Italian sausage. Italian beef sandwiches are traditionally topped with sweet peppers or spicy giardiniera.

Although not indigenous to Chicago, Gyros are common, reportedly introduced to the U.S., along with flaming Saganaki, by Chicago’s Parthenon restaurant. Many locally owned fast-food restaurants serve hot dogs, Italian beef and gyros.

Chicago also has its own unique style of tamale, machine-extruded from cornmeal and wrapped in paper, which is typically sold in hot-dog stands.

A dish with its genesis in the heart of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community is a specialty known as the Jibarito. Invented by Borinquen Restaurant in the Humboldt Park neighbourhood, a jibarito is a sandwich made with meat or chicken and condiments, placed between two pieces of fried and flattened plantain instead of bread.

Less well known are the more provincial South Side specialties such as the ‘Big Baby’, a style of double-cheeseburger with grilled onions and the condiments traditionally located underneath the burger patties, which originated at Nicky’s The Real McCoy on 58th and Kedzie in the Gage Park neighbourhood; the Breaded-Steak Sandwich, a specialty particularly found in the Bridgeport neighbourhood, which consists of a pounded inexpensive cut of beef that has been breaded, fried and served in an Italian bread roll smothered in marinara sauce and topped with mozzarella cheese and green peppers (optional); aquarium-smoked barbecue, particularly rib tips and hot links; and the mother-in-law, a chilli-topped tamale on a bun; and atomic cake, featuring banana, yellow and chocolate cake layers alternating with banana, strawberry and fudge fillings.

See also: Cuisine of the Midwestern United States

Restaurant scene

Chicago features many restaurants that highlight the city’s various ethnic neighbourhoods, including Greektown on Halsted Street; Little Italy on Taylor Street and the Heart of Italy and Chinatown on the South Side. Several restaurants featuring Middle Eastern fare can be found along Lawrence Avenue while Polish cuisine is well represented along Milwaukee Avenue on the Northwest side and Archer Avenue on the Southwest side; The predominantly Mexican neighbourhoods of Pilsen and Little Village are home to numerous eateries ranging from small taquerías to full scale restaurants; A large concentration of Vietnamese restaurants can be found in the Argyle Street district in Uptown and as well, a large number of Korean restaurants along Lawrence Avenue and, increasingly, in northern suburbs such as Niles, Illinois. The Indo-Pak community along Devon Avenue hosts many Pakistani and Indian eateries.

Chicago is also home to many fried-shrimp shacks, and has its own local fried-chicken chain, Harold’s Chicken Shack.

Along with fast food and ethnic fare, Chicago is home to many steakhouses, as well as a number of upscale dining establishments serving a wide array of cuisine. Some notable destinations include Frontera Grill, a gourmet Mexican restaurant owned by chef and Mexico: One Plate at a Time host, Rick Bayless; Graham Elliot’s eponymous restaurant, Graham Elliot; Jean Joho’s Everest, a new-French restaurant located on the top floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange building downtown and Tru from chefs Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand.

Chicago has become known for its ventures in molecular gastronomy, with chefs Grant Achatz of Alinea, Homaro Cantu of Moto, and Michael Carlson of Schwa. In 2008, Maxim awarded Chicago the title of “Tastiest City.”


Chicago has a long brewing history that dates back to the early days of the city. While its era of large commercial breweries came to an end when Prohibition began, the city today boasts a number of microbreweries and brewpubs. Included among these are larger regional brewers such as Goose Island as well as the more localized craft-brewers Argus, Half Acre, Metropolitan, Off Color, Pipeworks, Revolution Brewing, and 5 Rabbit. In March 2012, organisers hosted the inaugural Chicago Beer Festival at historic Union Station.

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