Like most of the Midwest, Illinois is a haven for delicious comfort foods to help keep you warm and happy on those cold, winter days. While visiting “The Prairie State” be sure to try as many of its iconic dishes as you can.
When traveling in Illinois, you won’t want to miss Millennium Park in Chicago and the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. Of course, in between your excursions, don’t forget to fill up on the most famous foods, of which Chicago has many.
Below, in no particular order, are eight of our favorite iconic dishes in Illinois.
Funnily enough, one of the foods most often associated with Illinois is also the most controversial. You can’t talk about deep-dish pizza without mentioning Chicago, but most Chicagoans actually prefer thin-crust pizza on a day-to-day basis. Chicago thin-crust pizza is typically cut into squares and is eaten unfolded, unlike New York pizza.
Even so, it’s undeniable that when “Chicago-style pizza” is mentioned, most people will conjure up an image of thick-crusted, sauce-slathered deep-dish. The origin of deep-dish pizza is most often attributed to Pizzeria Uno. The name has since been changed to Uno’s and is now a large national pizza chain.
Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo opened Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943. They are credited with being the first to cook pizza in a pan, rather than on a tray. This method of cooking creates a thick crust, filled with several layers of pizza. The sauce is often the top layer, to prevent the cheese and toppings from burning in the deep dish.
Another Chicago deep-dish icon is Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria. Lou Malnati worked as a pizza chef in Chicago in the 1940s, then opened his own restaurant in 1971. Today, they have locations throughout Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Arizona. They also ship anywhere in the United States.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Creating a Chicago dog is something of a science. The all-beef hot dog is topped with seven specific ingredients: chopped onions, sweet relish, tomato, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, mustard, and celery salt. Everything is piled into a poppy seed hot dog bun.
German immigrants brought Vienna sausages with them to America in the 1800s. Meatpacking was already a major industry in Chicago, so hot dogs took hold there. However, true Chicago dogs did not become a staple of the city’s cuisine until the Great Depression.
Hot dogs were relatively cheap fare, and when topped with vegetables and condiments, they could almost be considered a full meal. Fluky’s, a hot dog vendor at the time, piled the toppings high and called the dog a “Depression Sandwich”. It cost a nickel.
Even after the Depression, Chicago was full of working-class citizens, so the inexpensive hot dog remained a popular lunch option. Hot dog vendors could be found in neighborhoods throughout the city by the 1950s.
Superdawg Drive-In has been serving true Chicago dogs on the same street corner since 1948. The two hot dog statues on the roof have made the restaurant something of an iconic landmark in the city. Order and enjoy your Chicago dog from the comfort of your car– just don’t forget the napkins.
If you’re in the mood for a dish that’s a little more substantial (and possibly even greasier) than a hot dog, you might consider the horseshoe. Technically an open-faced sandwich, the horseshoe is a combination of toast, meat (usually hamburger), and French fries, all smothered in Welsh rarebit sauce (a type of seasoned cheese sauce).
The invention of the horseshoe is somewhat of a controversial topic. However, it’s often attributed to Joe Schweska, chef at the Leland Hotel in Springfield in the 1920s.
The story goes that Schweska wanted to add a new dish to the lunch menu. He used leftover Easter ham and the Welsh rarebit sauce his wife made. He added fried potato wedges and put it all on toasted bread. The dish was a hit.
Horseshoes are excellent for sharing, as they can be heavy fare. One plate can boast as many as 1900 calories. Some restaurants serve breakfast horseshoes, which come with eggs, bacon, sausage gravy, and hash browns.
Horseshoes are very much a regional favorite, and the best place to get them is Illinois’ capital city. Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery in downtown Springfield serves the dish, along with a ponyshoe, which is the smaller version. They also have a location in Peoria.
Popcorn’s history in the Americas stretches back thousands of years, originating with the Native Americans. Flavored popcorn, however, is a much more recent invention. The Chicago version of the snack was first created in the 1970s.
Garrett Popcorn, often just called Garrett’s, started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but has been operating out of Chicago since 1949. When they opened their store in the Windy City, they debuted what would become one of their most popular popcorn flavors: CaramelCrisp.
Later down the road, they introduced CheeseCorn, a sharp cheddar-flavored popcorn. They noticed that customers would often order both CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn, along with an empty bag to mix them in. In 1977, Garrett decided to put a mix of flavors on the menu, and Chicago-style popcorn, also known as Garrett Mix, was officially born.
Garrett Mix is the perfect combination of sweet and salty. It can be purchased year-round, but it’s especially popular around the holidays. There are a number of Garrett Popcorn shops in Chicago, including the original location on Madison Street and State.
Italian Beef Sandwich
The Italian beef is one of Chicago’s most famous dishes. The sandwich was first created by Italian immigrants in the 1900s. Interestingly, it got its start as a common wedding food.
Because immigrants often didn’t have a lot of spare money to spend on wedding parties, cheap food was a necessity. Sliced beef fit the bill– the thinner the slices, the more people the meat would feed. Anthony Ferrari, a street peddler from the West Side, cooked thin-sliced beef in its own juices and put it on bread, then delivered the sandwiches to weddings throughout the city.
Eventually, the Ferrari family made a business from their Italian beef sandwiches. They opened Al’s Bar B-Q– though it’s impossible to prove that this was the first Italian beef restaurant in Chicago.
Today, Italian beef sandwiches start with a large cut of beef, seasoned with dry herbs then slow-roasted in beef stock. The meat is then thinly sliced, soaked in broth, and piled onto bread. “Sweet” Italian beef sandwiches usually contain bell peppers, while ordering a “hot” Italian beef will get you giardiniera, an Italian relish.
Bob-O’s Hot Dogs in Dunning offers both Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago dogs. Their meat is made in-house. Their menu also features hand-cut French fries.
Maxwell Street Polish
Once upon a time, Maxwell Street in Chicago was a bustling marketplace. It was started by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Vendors and peddlers sold just about anything you could imagine from roadside stands, often at very reasonable prices. It was there that the Maxwell Street Polish sausage sandwich was born.
Jimmy Stefanovic, a Macedonian immigrant, took over his aunt’s Maxwell Street hot dog stand in 1939. He introduced his version of a Polish dog– kielbasa, grilled onions, and mustard on a bun– and created yet another iconic Chicago sandwich. He renamed his hot dog stand to “Jim’s Original”.
Jim’s Original Polish sausage stand operated on the same corner for more than 60 years, serving Maxwell Street dogs 24/7. The company still exists but has since moved locations.
The Maxwell Street Market was relocated in 1994 due to the expansion of the University of Illinois campus. Jim’s Original moved to the corner of Union Avenue and James Rochford Street. They are no longer open 24 hours a day, but they still serve delicious Polish sausage sandwiches.
Rainbow Cone Ice Cream
As some ice cream fans will tell you, more flavors mean more fun. That was Joe and Katherine Sapp’s philosophy when they opened the first Rainbow Cone ice cream stand in Chicago in 1926.
The Rainbow Cone consists of five flavors of ice cream: chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (New York vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and orange sherbet. For purists, it may sound like a nightmare, but to many 20th-century Chicagoans, it was heaven on a cone.
The first Rainbow Cone stand stood on 92nd and Western. It was near a major cemetery, and visitors to the cemetery often stopped by the stand on their way home. The Rainbow Cone stand evolved into a community gathering spot– during World War II, Joe put a shortwave radio in the backyard, so customers could listen to the news.
There are now Rainbow Cone stores throughout Illinois. They serve many ice cream flavors, not just the original Rainbow Cone. They also offer milkshakes, sundaes, donuts, and cakes. The first stand is still in operation in its original location.
Pierogi are unquestionably an eastern European dish, but they have close ties to Illinois. Polish immigrants settled in Chicago throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in the neighborhood now called “Little Polonia”. With them, they brought their culture, traditions, and food.
Chicago had a particular draw to immigrants, thanks to its many blue-collar industries. Settlers from many countries worked in factories all throughout the city. This is, in large part, why so many Chicago dishes have European origins.
Pierogi are pockets of dough that can be filled with a variety of foods, depending on the meal. The most common pierogi fillings include meat, sauerkraut, potatoes, cheese, and fruit. They can be fried, baked, or grilled.
Tata’s Pierogi in Elk Park Village is a family-run Polish restaurant serving traditional pierogi. They offer several different flavors of pierogi, both sweet and savory. They also have a rotating pierogi of the month.
With world-famous pizzerias, innumerable hot dog stands, and quaint sweet shops, Illinois has something for every palate. If you find yourself in the Land of Lincoln, don’t miss out on their best local dishes.