Iconic Chicago Dishes: An Eater’s Guide to the Windy City

Like many places, Chicago is a city that’s fondly regarded for its food. As author Amy Bizzarri points out in “Iconic Chicago Dishes, Drinks and Desserts,” this city is also one that’s defined by its hardworking spirit and immigrant history — two things that very clearly contribute to its food culture, as evidenced by the handheld street foods, Italian mainstays and Polish desserts that fill this list. Here’s what to try if you’re all about iconic foods.
chicago style hot dog

Pizza and Its Variants

Chicago-style pizza — dubbed “the grand poohbah of pizza” by Bizzarri — is undoubtedly one of the region’s most famous (and decadent) foods. While debates abound about which place has the best, and probably will until the end of time, less opinionated pizza lovers are in the shadows enjoying another, lesser-known take on Chicago-style pie: the pizza puff. These small, deep-fried and handheld pizzas are indigenous to Chicago’s pizza joints and hot dog stands, and can be found in just about every corner of town.
Where to Try It: Little Mel’s Hot Dogs and Albano’s Pizzeria

Hot Tamales in the Midwest?

You don’t have to travel to the Southwest to get a serious dose of Mexican comfort food. In fact, the Chicago-style hot tamale is a favorite in the Windy City, having been served there since at least the late 1800s. In fact, in 1909, ragtime pianist Herbert Ingraham penned the ditty “The Hot Tamale Man” as an ode to the city’s early tamale vendors. Chicago’s version of the hot tamale is a bit different than Mexico’s — it features a yellow cornmeal casing stuffed with seasoned ground beef rather than traditional pork.
Where to Try It: Manolos Tamales or Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero

Old-School Polish Delights

It could be argued that Polish immigrants shaped the menu of Chicago more than any other group. That’s no surprise, since the early Polish settlement in downtown Chicago was one of the most influential at its peak, from the 1870s through the first half of the 1900s. Polish food still holds a significant place in the Chicago food canon, with staples like Polish sausage (when topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard, it becomes a Maxwell Street Polish, named after Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market), the super-sweet, donut-like Polish pączki and, of course, plenty of pierogis.
Where to Try It: The Original Maxwell Street, Staropolska or SMAK-TAK!
varenyky vareniki pierogi pyrohy dumplings

The Most Important Chicago Sandwiches

If you haven’t noticed, in Chicago it’s all about the portable, handheld and high-protein. Sandwiches reign supreme — from classic Italian staples to ballpark mainstays. The most iconic of them all is the Italian beef, a concoction featuring thin slices of roast beef and gravy on an Italian roll. For locals, an Italian beef isn’t an Italian beef without the giardiniera, the tangy and sweet Chicago-specific relish of pickled veggies and oil. However, sandwich-lovers shouldn’t discount the Chicago-style hot dog — an all-beef dog with mustard, onions, relish, tomato, peppers, pickles and celery salt on a poppy seed bun.
Where to Try It: Tony’s Italian Beef, Luke’s Italian Beef or Al’s Beef for Italian beef; Portillo’s, Max’s Take Out or Downtown Dogs for Italian-style dogs
 italian beef sandwich
Craft Beer Before It Was Cool
As the home of many a famed cocktail — the Chicago Fizz and Cohasset Punch, to name two — and nestled within the greater brew-loving Midwest, it comes as no surprise that Chicago has long reigned as one of the best beer cities. The Windy City has several prominent craft breweries, including Revolution, Goose Island and DryHop, to name a few — the city reached over 200 breweries last year, with no signs of slowing down. In the early days, home-brewer Herman Berghoff of Dortmund, Germany brought the Dortmunder-style beer to his iconic Chicago restaurant, The Berghoff, and sold it at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Where to Try It: Take a tour of all the city’s best microbrews on the Barrel Bus beer-tasting tour.
Read more about Chicago’s beer history in “Chicago by the Pint” and “The Great Chicago Beer Riot.”

More to Explore

This list is by no means all-inclusive, and many Chicagoans might argue that it doesn’t even scratch the surface. So if you’re plotting the ultimate tour de food in Chicago, don’t forget to add chicken vesuvio, the jibarito and shrimp De Jonghe to your list. Happy eating!