So, I just got back from another trip to Chicago, which, of course, means another round of non-stop eating! Really anytime I travel back to the US, I have a list of foods I want to have while there, but with Chicago, the list is always much longer than usual. Maybe it’s the city’s infamous specialties, the wide variety of cultural influences you can find, or the nostalgia-factor, but whatever the reason, to me, Chicago is a foodie’s dream destination! In fact, anytime someone asks me for recommendations when visiting Chicago, I always include a list of specific foods to try, and for this month’s post, I’m going to share my list for anyone else who plans to visit my favorite US city. Warning: this might make you hungry.
Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza
One of the first things that comes to mind when you think of Chicago has to be the pizza. Specifically, the deep-dish pizza. It is undoubtedly something everyone has to try at least once in their life – it’s like pizza on steroids! It’s baked in a pan to give it that two to three inches of thick buttery crust layered with everything you love about pizza: mounds of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and all the traditional topping options. There is definitely a reason this style of pizza is world famous. And fortunately, thanks globalization (and shipping companies around the world), you don’t necessarily have to be in Chicago to sample the majesty that is Chicago deep-dish. Many of the larger chains will ship these one-of-a-kind, ridiculously heavy pies directly to your door. But which chain should you go with? Oof, that conversation is bound to start an argument with any Chicagoan.
Chicago Thin-Crust Pizza
Another common Chicago argument is deep-dish versus thin-crust pizza. Although Chicago deep-dish pizza clearly enjoys more notoriety, most locals usually prefer thin-crust (me included). There’s just something about a super thin, crispy crust, loaded down with toppings, and always cut into squares (something I once thought universal) that just hits the spot. And if you’re thinking “hey, I’ve had ‘thin-crust’ pizza before at *insert national chain here*”, think again because Chicago thin-crust is fundamentally different and 100% worth trying if you’re ever in the city. Trust me.
Another Chicago staple is the Chicago Dog. Traditionally an all-beef hotdog “dragged through the garden” with mustard, sweet pickle relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, and sport peppers all atop a steamed, poppyseed bun. I’m honestly not a huge hotdog fan in general, but the quality and uniqueness of Chicago Dogs makes them so much better than what you typically get at a baseball game or backyard BBQ. Just like with Chicago pizza, there are very strong opinions on who makes the best dogs and what can/can’t or should/shouldn’t go on them. Unfortunately, I always add ketchup to mine, which is decidedly very un-Chicagoan. Please, don’t judge me!
Alongside pizza and hotdogs, an Italian beef sandwich is another must-have whenever you find yourself in the Windy City. Thinly sliced, seasoned and simmered beef served on squishy bread dipped (or double dipped) in the au jus and topped with giardiniera (a sort of pickled relish), sweet peppers, and/or cheese – it’s an amazing sandwich to be sure. I pretty much always order both a hotdog and a beef because I just cannot decide which I prefer! This is absolutely why I cannot afford to live in the Midwest ever again – my pants would never fit!
Another thing everyone should try (especially if/when in Chicago) is Polish food. I’m a bit biased here, but I think Polish food is one of the best cuisines in the world, and if you can’t make it to Poland, Chicago is your next best bet for some truly delicious and authentic Polish eats. Kielbasa, kabanosy, pierogi, bigos, gołąbki, placki ziemniaczane, żurek, rosół, and so much more can be found all over Chicago. If you pick the right place, you’ll absolutely feel like you’ve been transported to another country, and you won’t soon forget the homey, delicious dishes that have had a huge cultural influence on Chicago’s food scene.
In addition to all the amazing Chicago-specific restaurants and dishes you can try, I always recommend going to a local bakery as well. With all the immigrant groups that have continued to flow into Chicago throughout its history, the city has been blessed with some of the most amazing breads, pastries, and desserts in the US. Salt sticks are a favorite of mine; my mom loves Italian butter cookies; and my dad always goes straight for the decadent, dark chocolate desserts found at all the Polish bakeries. Unlike your basic grocery store bakery, a lot of these specialties have to be ordered in advance and sometimes only on certain days, so do some homework, get up early, and get the good stuff!
Similar to its incredible bakeries, Chicago’s delis are another thing you have to check out while in the city. Whether you want to get some cured sausages, delicatessen lunchmeat, or a sandwich the size of your head, a deli should be on your list. They have such an old-school, bustling community vibe (yes, even in the suburbs), and the prices are almost as amazing as the quality. Jewish delis in particular are so worth the trip because it’s really an experience as well as an incredible meal – just be sure you know what you want before you step up to order, like a lot of major cities, locals can be a bit impatient with the out-of-towners!
Chicago Mix Popcorn
Another famous Chicago treat that is making itself known even outside the city, is Chicago Mix Popcorn. A mix of sweet, buttery caramel popcorn and salty, tangy cheese popcorn seems like a strange combination, but somehow it works amazingly well and is super addicting. One of the most famous brands of Chicago Mix is Garrett’s, which has been around since the 1940s and is marketed as “gourmet popcorn” (so you know it has to be good). But you probably don’t have to find a Garrett’s to get the good stuff anymore – most grocery stores nationwide sell a version of the “Mix” in the chip aisle.
Fannie May Chocolates
And finally, a little dessert…another thing I absolutely always make time for when in Chicago is a trip to Fannie May. A confectionary founded in 1902, Fannie May has a plethora of chocolates and candies that are so unique, I travel thousands of miles to buy and transport them so my friends living abroad can also experience their exquisiteness. If I had to recommend just one thing to try from Fannie May, it would have to be the Mint Meltaways (even the most anti-mint people usually enjoy these perfectly balanced, creamy bites of chocolate). I literally have to ration them after a trip to Chicago! But even if mint isn’t your thing, they have a wide-variety of other truffles, caramels, and any other chocolate-dipped creation you can possibly imagine.
There you have it: my must-have list when it comes to Chicago eats. In my somewhat biased opinion, Chicago is a such great city to visit for a huge number of reasons, but if you’re a food-driven traveler (like I am), it absolutely has to be on your bucket list. So, I suggest you start planning your trip to the Windy city now, and just be sure to bring your stretchy pants with you!