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Chicago, the largest city in the Midwest and third largest in the nation, is home to a large concentration of Poles, Italians, Germans and many other ethnic groups who settled in the city because of its many opportunities and made the city what it is today. Polish immigrants are an especially large part of Chicago’s history, forming what is known as Polonia, or Polish patches, neighborhoods in which many Poles reside. Italian immigrants also settled in Chicago, making their mark on the city by influencing several of the city’s best culinary specialties.
Chicago’s signature dishes are true American specialties, and although they can be found in various versions and adaptations around the country, classic Chicago-style food is only done right in the Windy City itself.
Chicago-style Deep Dish Pizza
The deep dish pizza is a departure from the Neapolitan style pizza brought to the United States by early Italian immigrants in New York City. This pan pizza is made with a thicker crust that is strong enough to contain a multitude of toppings, and baked in a well-oiled cast iron pan, giving it a crunchy, fried crust. Since the Midwest is famous for its many casseroles, the Chicago-style pizza can be described as the casserole version of the pizza. The pan is first dusted with cornmeal, then the crust is placed inside to cover the bottom and sides of the pan, similar to a pie crust. Cheese is sprinkled directly over the crust, followed by meats, like pepperoni and sausage, vegetables, such as onions, bell peppers, and mushrooms. Unlike other styles of pizza, the sauce is poured over the top of Chicago-style deep dish pizza before baking it in the oven. This style of pizza, like other Midwestern cuisine, is hearty and filling, and has created the hotly debated topic: deep dish or thin crust?
The history of Chicago-style pizza is uncertain and much debated, but historians have been able to reach a few generally accepted conclusions. Ike Sewell, a former football player from Texas, partnered with restaurateur Ric Riccardo to open a restaurant they called Pizzeria Uno in 1943 (now called Uno Chicago Grill). The two partners, possibly with the help of their restaurant manager, Rudy Malnati, created a more filling version of the pizza, cooking it in a deep dish rather than flat in order to allow more room for fillings, like extra cheese and meats. The general consensus is that Riccardo invented the pizza, and Sewell advertised it, but some claims state that Sewell tried to take credit for the invention after Riccardo’s death. Malnati, who was Italian American, may have played a crucial role in the pizza’s creation, and today his descendents run a pizzeria called Lou Malnati’s. Nonetheless, they modified the pizza to make a real Midwestern meal.
Other similar styles of pizza include the stuffed pizza and pan pizza. The Chicago-style deep dish differs from stuffed pizza, which was also first created in Chicago, because stuffed pizza has two layers of crust. The second layer goes on top of the toppings, followed by sauce on the very top. Pan pizza is also similar to Chicago-style deep dish, but it has a thicker crust and the toppings, including the cheese go over the sauce. A dessert deep dish pizza is also commonly served around Chicago, and is called a chocolate chip pizza.
It is possible to find thin crust pizza in Chicago, though the city has its own take on this style of pizza as well. Chicago thin crust is much crunchier than other types of thin crust, found in Italy or New York, and is cut into squares rather than wedges.
Chicago-style Hot Dogs
Chicago is known far and wide for its signature hot dogs. Sold at hot dog stands, and now mostly restaurants, this meal was once known by the name Depression Sandwich, which first sold for a nickel in around 1929 as a cheap but square meal for tough economic times. Fluky’s restaurant claims to have invented the Chicago-style hot dog, which is an all-beef, kosher hot dog in natural casing. Vienna Beef was the early favorite, premiering at the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo (the Chicago World’s Fair).
Standard toppings on Chicago-style hot dogs include yellow mustard, chopped onions, sweet pickle relish, tomato slices, Serrano peppers, and celery salt. These ingredients top the hot dog which rests in a bun, often crusted with poppy seed. This combination of ingredients is ordered by requesting a hot dog “dragged through the garden,” since there are a number of vegetables on the hot dog. The relish that tops Chicago-style hot dogs is called piccalilli, and is often an artificial neon green color.
Ketchup is one condiment that Chicago hot dog vendors often refuse to allow customers to apply, causing a surprising amount of controversy. Chicagoans are typically adamant that ketchup, with its overly sweet and notorious flavor-disguising abilities, does not belong anywhere near a Chicago-style hot dog, even on the side of fries.
Gene & Jude’s (also spelled Gene’s & Jude’s) is a hot dog restaurant that has frequently been voted the best hot dog in the United States. Gene & Jude’s hot dogs come topped with mustard, onions, relish, sport peppers, and French fries which are piled on top and wrapped with the hot dog. This style, with fewer ingredients and vegetables and a plain bun, is what is known as a depression dog, or minimalist style. Gene & Jude’s, like many hot dog stands, does not have a seating area for the restaurant customers, so they must stand at the counter or outside to enjoy their hot dogs.
Chicken Vesuvio is a signature dish of Chicago, influenced by Italian immigrants in the 1930s. This dish consists of chicken sautéed with potatoes, peas, herbs and spices. This cooking style probably originated at Vesuvio’s Restaurant in Chicago, and can also be used to cook steak, pork chops, or just potatoes.
Italian Beef and Giardiniera
Italian beef originated in the Italian enclaves on the South Side of Chicago, and is another Depression-era meal. This variation on the French Dip sandwich consists of thinly sliced roast beef, sautéed green bell peppers, and sauce on a bread roll. The beef is sliced so it can feed many people, and may have started as a dish served at Italian weddings. The beef is slow roasted in beef stock, creating watery gravy or juice. The meat is soaked in the juice and layered onto the roll, making the bread soft and a bit mushy.
Giardiniera, or sotto aceti (Italian for “under vinegar”) is a dish consisting of pickled vegetables, including bell peppers, olives, celery, pimentos, carrots, and cauliflower. These ingredients are diced and marinated in a vegetable or olive oil, or pickled in vinegar. The pickled salad has become a condiment for Italian beef sandwiches, similar to the olive salad found on the Muffuletta. The Italian beef sandwich is not well known outside of the Chicago or Midwestern region, but the dish is an important symbol of the Italian American heritage in Chicago.