Sure, Chicago’s got all of the trappings of a formidable, contemporary food city—thanks to venerable restaurateurs like Rick Bayless and Paul Kahan, modern innovators such as Grant Achatz and Jason Hammel, young trailblazers such as Stephanie Izard and Abe Conlon, and a burgeoning beer, cider and whiskey scene besides. But the most fundamental signifier of a true gastronomic mecca (and we say this as a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker), is that it’s steeped in the multi culti culinary traditions of the immigrants that made it great. So while Chicago may be indelibly associated with deep dish pizza and poppy seed-sprinkled hot dogs, they barely scratch the surface of the Windy City’s roster of incredible, edible inventions, from Puerto Rican jibaritos to gravy-soaked Italian beef!
This famous sandwich is comprised of tougher cuts of sirloin, slow roasted in broth and spices, cut thinly against the grain, and piled into a jus-soaked sub roll along with spicy giardiniera (hot pickled vegetables). Believed to have been invented by Italian immigrants in the 1900’s, as a way of reviving bits of meat acquired from their jobs at the Union Stockyards, the sandwich was popularized by Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company in the 1920’s, who sliced their meat especially thinly during catering events, in order to spread it out amongst guests. This ended up inspiring a proliferation of stands and shops in the 1930’s, some of which are still around today—most notably Al’s #1 Beef — which also lays claim to the genesis of the sandwich, served in four different levels of “juiciness”—followed by other essential spots like Joe Boston’s (1949) and Mr. Beef (circa 1963).
Similar to Colombian patacones, this Puerto Rican sandwich swaps out bread for twice fried slices of flattened green plantain, encased around meat fillings (traditionally steak), and augmented cheese, lettuce, tomato and garlicky aioli. Originally offered at Borinquen (where you’ll still find a series of jibaritos, alternately stuffed with ham, roasted pork or off the bone chicken), they’re now a mainstay at Latin American restaurants throughout Chicago, including Café Central, Papa’s Cache Sabroso and La Bomba.
Deep dish isn’t Chicago’s only claim to fame on the pizza front. Using flour tortillas in lieu of dough, then wrapped like a blintz and fried, these oozy centered pockets are a favorite of fast food spots, pizza parlor and hot dog stands, manufactured by local purveyor, Iltaco Foods, and distributed to eateries like Damenzo’s Pizza, Little Mel’s and Budacki’s.
Breaded Steak Sandwiches
Essentially a steak parm (enlivened with Chicago’s favorite condiment, giardinera), this hero is dominated by a floppy cutlet of pounded, breaded and pan-fried steak, rolled around rivers of tomato sauce and mozz, and notably peddled by Italian American meccas like Ricobenes (a go-to since 1946), and Fabulous Freddie’s Italian Eatery, a husband-and-wife outfit in Bridgeport.
Yet another over-the-top Chicago sandwich, the colorfully dubbed “Mother-in-Law” consists of a chili-topped tamale, deposited in a hot dog bun. And they’re available 24 hours a day at Johnnie O’s—a 50-year-old staple of the South Side, as well as nearby, short order shack Fat Johnnie’s, which drags its Mother-in-Law through the garden in true Chicago style, crowning it with tomatoes, onions and pickled chilies.
Also associated with Chicago’s South Side, found at area sweet shops like Orland Park Bakery and Ace Bakery, along with a few outliers like Ingram’s Busy Bee, the origins of this celebratory cake are murky (it was likely created during the Nuclear Age in the 1950’s). But the moniker is apt enough, considering the pastry’s unbridled explosion of flavors: think layers of banana, yellow, and chocolate cake shellacked with banana, strawberry, and fudge fillings, and finished with a mushroom cloud of thick whipped cream.
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