What to eat in Chicago, Usa
Chicago‘s love affair with Polish sausages runs deep. As Hyde Park is to academics, and Near North is to department stores, so Avondale is to Polish sausages. Cavernous delis line the streets here, particularly up Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago is one of the great restaurant towns in America. If you’re looking for a specific kind of cuisine, check out the neighborhoods. Greektown, the Devon Ave Indian corridor, Chinatown, and Chatham’s soul food and barbecue are just the tip of the iceberg. Other areas are more eclectic: Lincoln Square and Albany Park have unrivaled Middle Eastern, German, and Korean food, while Uptown offers nearly the whole Southeast Asian continent with Ghanaian, Nigerian, contemporary American, stylish Japanese, and down-home Swedish a few blocks away.
If you’re interested in celebrity chefs and unique creations, Lincoln Park and Wicker Park have plenty of award-winners. River North has several good upscale restaurants. No matter what you enjoy, you’ll have a chance to eat well in Chicago, and you won’t need to spend a lot of money doing it — unless you want to, of course.
But while Chicago has a world class dining scene downtown, it is the low-end where it truly distinguishes itself. No other city on earth takes fast food so seriously; for those who don’t concern themselves with calorie counting, Chicago is cheap, greasy heaven. Head northwest and you’ll find sausage shops and old-style Polish restaurants that carry on as if health food and celebrity chefs never happened in Jackowo – Chicago’s Polish Village, as well as at Belmont-Central – an Eastern European culinary heaven. The suburb of Des Plaines on the northwest side of the city near O’Hare is where you can find the world’s first McDonalds. Quite a few other local “culinary specialties” in particular deserve further description.
The city’s three most iconic dishes are Chicago-style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and Italian beef. However, there are other unique fast foods that are local favorites (particularly in the South Side). These lesser-known include the Maxwell Street Polish (a grilled kielbasa served on a hot dog bun with grilled onions), the pork chop sandwich (a tender pork chop with grilled onions and hot pepper on a hamburger bun; be advised, this tasty sandwich has a bone in the pork chop), and Chicago-style thin-crust pizza (which has a much crispier crust than that of a New York thin-crust pizza). Maxwell Polishes and pork chop sandwiches are available throughout “Maxwell”-style eateries in the city, but are much more prevalent in the West Side and the South Side. Chicago-style thin-crust pizza is available in almost every pizzeria in the South Side.
Chicago’s most prominent contribution to world cuisine might be the deep dish pizza. Delivery chains as far away as Kyoto market “Chicago-style pizza,” but the only place to be sure you’re getting the real thing is in Chicago. To make a deep dish pizza, a thin layer of dough is laid into a deep round pan and pulled up the sides, and then meats and vegetables — Italian sausage, onions, bell peppers, mozzarella cheese, and more — are lined on the crust. At last, tomato sauce goes on top, and the pizza is baked. It’s gooey, messy, not recommended by doctors, and delicious. When you dine on deep dish pizza, don’t wear anything you were hoping to wear again soon.
But deep dish is not the end of the line in a city that takes its pizza so seriously. Chicago also prides itself on its distinctive thin-crust pizza and stuffed pizzas. The Chicago thin crust has a thin, cracker-like, crunchy crust, which somehow remains soft and doughy on the top side. Toppings and a lot of a thin, spiced Italian tomato sauce go under the mozzarella cheese, and the pizza is sliced into squares.
The stuffed pizza is a monster, enough to make an onlooker faint. Start with the idea of a deep dish, but then find a much deeper dish and stuff a lot more toppings under the cheese. Think deep-dish apple pie, but pizza. Allow 45 minutes to an hour for pizza places to make one of these and allow 3-4 extra notches on your belt for the ensuing weight gain.
This may come as a surprise to New Yorkers, but the Chicago hot dog is the king of all hot dogs — indeed, it is considered the perfect hot dog. Perhaps due to the city’s history of Polish and German immigration, Chicago takes its dogs way more seriously than the rest of the country. A Chicago hot dog is always all-beef (usually Vienna beef), always served on a poppy-seed bun, and topped with what looks like a full salad of mustard, tomato slices, a dill pickle spear, sport (chili) peppers, a generous sprinkling of celery salt, diced onion, and a sweet-pickle relish endemic-to-Chicago that is dyed an odd, vibrant bright-green color. It’s a full meal, folks.
Ketchup is regarded as an abomination on a proper Chicago-style hot dog. Self-respecting establishments will refuse orders to put the ketchup on the dog, and many have signs indicating that they don’t serve it; truly serious hot dog joints don’t even allow the condiment on the premises. The reason for Chicago’s ketchup aversion is simple — ketchup contains sugar, which overwhelms the taste of the beef and prevents its proper enjoyment. Hence, ketchup’s replacement with tomato slices. Similarly, Chicagoans eschew fancy mustards that would overwhelm the flavor of the meat in favor of simple yellow mustard. And for the hungry visiting New Yorkers, the same goes for sugary sauerkraut — just no.
At most hot dog places, you will have the option to try a Maxwell Street Polish instead. Born on the eponymous street of the Near West Side, the Polish is an all-beef sausage on a bun, with fewer condiments than the Chicago hot dog: usually just grilled onions, mustard, and a few chili peppers.
In a tragic, bizarre twist of fate, the areas of Chicago most visited by tourists (i.e., the Loop) lack proper Chicago hot dog establishments. If you are downtown and want to experience a Chicago hot dog done right, the nearest safe bet is Portillo’s. Although, if you’re up for a little hot dog adventure, you can eat one right at the source, at the Vienna Beef Factory deli.
The Italian Beef sandwich completes the Chicago triumvirate of tasty greasy treats. The main focus of the sandwich is the beef, and serious vendors will serve meat of a surprisingly good quality, which is slow-roasted, and thinly shaved before being loaded generously onto chewy, white, Italian-style bread. Two sets of options will come flying at you, so prepare yourself: sweet peppers or hot, and dipped or not. The “sweet” peppers are sautéed bell peppers, while the hots are a mixed Chicago giardiniera. The dip, of course, is a sort of French dip of the sandwich back into the beef broth. (Warning: dipped Italian Beefs are sloppy!) If you are in the mood, you may be able to get an Italian Beef with cheese melted over the beef, although travelers looking for the “authentic Italian Beef” perhaps should not stray so far from tradition.
The Italian Beef probably was invented by Italian-American immigrants working in the Union Stockyards on the Southwest Side, who could only afford to take home the tough, lowest-quality meat and therefore had a need to slow-roast it, shave it into thin slices, and dip it just to get it in chewable form. But today the sandwich has found a lucrative home downtown, where it clogs the arteries and delights the taste buds of the Chicago workforce during lunch break. Some of the city’s favorite downtown vendors include Luke’s Italian Beef in the Loop and Mr. Beef in the Near North, while the Portillo’s chain is another solid option.
With the Great Migration came much of what was best about the South: blues, jazz, barbecue — but following a legendary meal at which a young, hungry Harold Pierce saw the last piece of bird flee his grasp into the mouth of the local preacher, Harold made it his mission to add fried chicken to that prestigious list, and to ensure that no South Side Chicagoan ever run out.
Harold’s Chicken Shack, a.k.a. the Fried Chicken King, is a South Side institution like no other. The Chicago-style fried chicken is considered by many connoisseurs to be some of the nation’s best (certainly in the North), and it is fried in a home-style mix of beef tallow and vegetable oil, and then covered with sauce (hot or mild). Crucially, it is always cooked to order — ensuring that essential layer of grease between the skin and the meat. A half chicken meal includes coleslaw, white bread, and sauce-drenched fries — make like a local and wrap the fries in the bread.
Initially, the fried chicken chain spread throughout black neighborhoods, which were ignored by other fast food chains, but in later years the franchise has extended its greasy fingers to the West and North Sides, as well as downtown. While chances are you will not find better fried chicken outside of Harold’s walls, the quality, pricing, and character vary between individual locations. Your safest bets are on the South Side — if you are served through bullet-proof glass under signs bearing a chef chasing a chicken with a hatchet, rest assured you are getting the best.
Chicago is a drinking town, and you can find bars and pubs in every part of the city. It is believed that Chicago has the second highest bars-per-capita in the U.S. (after San Francisco). Chicagoans have their choice of the hottest clubs or the best dive bars in town. Most areas that thrive on the bar culture do so for the variety, and bar hopping is quite common. Grab a drink or two, have a good time, and then try another place. It is all about variety. Be prepared to be asked for identification to verify your age, even at neighborhood dive bars. Smoking is banned in Chicago bars (and restaurants).
The best places to drink for drinking’s sake are Wicker Park and neighboring Logan Square and Bucktown, which have a world-class stock of quality local breweries and dive bars, which can be reached by the CTA Blue Line. These two areas are where the majority of Chicago’s hipsters live, with the effect that most of the bars are considered Hipster Bars. North Center and Roscoe Village are also great destination for the art of the beer garden. Just to the west of the Addison CTA Red Line stop and near Wrigley Field in Lakeview is the Wrigleyville district with bars that are popular with twenty-somethings. These bars are crowded on weekends and whenever the Cubs are playing. Just to the south, the Lincoln Park neighborhood has bars and beer gardens, and some trendy clubs for the neighborhood’s notorious high-spending Trixies. This is another very expensive neighborhood.
Tourists and locals also converge upon the nightclubs of Rush and Division St. This area remains very popular although other areas of the city are becoming increasing popular as nightlife destinations as well. For the last few years the West Loop’s warehouse bars were the place to be, but more recently the River North neighborhood has become popular. Still, the Rush/Division bars do huge business. Streeterville, immediately adjacent, exchanges the dance floors for high-priced hotel bars and piano lounges.
Although good dance music can be found in Wicker Park and the surrounding area, the best places to dance in the city are the expensive see and be seen clubs in River.
Jazz and Blues
The Lower Mississippi River Valley is known for its music; New Orleans has jazz, and Memphis has blues. Chicago, though located far away from the valley, has both. Former New Orleans and Memphis residents brought jazz and blues to Chicago as they came north for a variety of reasons: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 brought a lot of itinerant musicians to town, and the city’s booming economy kept them coming through the Great Migration. Chicago was the undisputed capital of early jazz between 1917-1928, wih masters like Joe King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Earl Hines, and Jelly Roll Morton. Most of Chicago’s historic jazz clubs are on the South Side, particularly in Bronzeville, but the North Side has the can’t-miss Green Mill in Uptown.
The blues were in Chicago long before the car chase and the mission from God, but The Blues Brothers sealed Chicago as the home of the blues in the popular consciousness. Fortunately, the city has the chops to back that up. Maxwell Street (Near West Side) was the heart and soul of Chicago blues, but the wrecking ball, driven by the University of Illinois at Chicago, has taken a brutal toll. Residents have been fighting to save what remains. For blues history, it doesn’t get much better than Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation (Near South), and Bronzeville, the former “Black Metropolis,” is a key stop as well. Performance venues run the gamut from tiny, cheap blues bars all over the city to big, expensive places like Buddy Guy’s Legends (Loop) and the original House of Blues (Near North).
But don’t let yourself get too wrapped up in the past, because Chicago blues is anything but. No other city in the world can compete with Chicago’s long list of blues-soaked neighborhood dives and lounges. The North Side’s blues clubs favor tradition in their music, and are usually the most accessible to visitors, but offer a slightly watered down experience from the funkier, more authentic blues bars on the South and Far West Sides, where most of Chicago’s blues musicians live and hang. If one club could claim to be the home of the real Chicago blues, Lee’s Unleaded Blues in Chatham-South Shore would probably win the title. But there are scores of worthy blues joints all around the city (many of which are a lot easier to visit via public transport). A visit to one of these off-the-beaten-path blues dives is considerably more adventurous than a visit to the touristy House of Blues, but the experiences born of such adventures have been known to reward visitors with a life-long passion for the blues.
Although playing second fiddle to the blues in the city’s collective consciousness, jazz thrives in Chicago, too, thanks in no small part to members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and their residencies at clubs like The Velvet Lounge and The Jazz Showcase (both of which see regular national acts) (Near South), The New Apartment Lounge (Chatham-South Shore) and The Hideout (Bucktown), with more expensive national touring acts downtown at The Chicago Theater (Loop). If you are staying downtown, the Velvet Lounge will be your best bet, as it is an easy cab ride, and its high-profile performances will rarely disappoint.
Fans should time their visits to coincide with Blues Fest in June, and Jazz Fest over Labor Day Weekend. Both take place in Grant Park (Loop).
Wicker Park and Bucktown are the main place to go for indie rock shows: the Double Door and the Empty Bottle are the best-known venues, but there are plenty of smaller ones as well. In Lakeview, the Metro is a beloved concert hole, with Schubas, Lincoln Hall, The Vic, and the Abbey Pub nearby (the latter on the Far Northwest Side). Other mid-sized rock, hip-hop and R&B shows take place at the Riviera and the awesome Aragon Ballroom in Uptown. The Near South has become an underrated destination for great shows as well.
The legendary Chicago Theater
The Park West in Lincoln Park has light jazz, light rock, and other shows you’d sit down for; so does Navy Pier (Near North), particularly in the summer. The venerable Chicago Theater in the Loop is better-known for its sign than for anything else, but it has rock, jazz, gospel, and spoken-word performances by authors like David Sedaris. The world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is the main bulwark in the city for classical and classy jazz, with occasional curve-balls like Björk. You’ll find musicians from the CSO doing outreach all over the city, along with their counterparts at the Lyric Opera. Both are in the Loop.
A few big concerts are held at the UIC Pavilion, the Congress Theater, and the United Center on the Near West Side every year, and some huge concerts have taken place at Soldier Field (Near South). The Petrillo Bandshell in Grant Park and the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, both in the Loop, tend to host big, eclectic shows and festivals in the summer, which are sometimes free.
Otherwise, most big shows are out in the suburbs, primarily at the Allstate Arena and the Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley Park, Star Plaza in Indiana, and the Alpine Valley Music Theater over the Wisconsin border in Elkhorn. You’ll also have to head out to the suburbs for Ravinia, which features upscale classical, jazz, and blues outdoors throughout the summer.
Groceries and other basics
The major supermarket chains in Chicago are Jewel Osco, Mariano’s, Meijer, Food 4 Less, Aldi, Whole Foods Market, and Trader Joe’s. In addition, the nation’s three largest discount store chains Walmart, Target, and Kmart have several stores in Chicago as well. 7-Eleven convenience stores are usually found every couple of blocks and are always open 24-7, but have limited selection and high prices. The Walgreens drug store chain which is based in the city is also ubiquitous throughout Chicago with many locations open twenty four hours a day. Competitor CVS also has many locations in the area.
Due to its huge expat and immigrant population, Chicago also features a large variety of ethnic grocery stores, including Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Polish, and Mexican.