The Bear, now streaming Season 2 on Hulu, introduced many viewers to the Chicago delicacy of an Italian beef sandwich—a combo of spiced, thinly sliced meat and peppers on a crispy length of Italian bread. The show’s central character, an Italian American chef at an acclaimed New York City restaurant, moves home to Illinois to cook the dish at his late brother’s Italian beef joint.
The sandwich, like many iconic Chicago foods, is rooted in the city’s multicultural history. In 1900, immigrants made up three quarters of the population. Among them were southern and eastern Europeans (see the still-vibrant Ukrainian Village on the city’s Near West Side) who adapted flavors and cooking techniques from their homelands to suit local produce, meat, and other ingredients.
“Chicago became the heart of America’s food processing industries,” says Chicago food historian Bruce Kraig. “With industry came immigrants who brought their cuisines, making it a great ethnic food town.”
In our new book, Made in Chicago: Stories Behind 30 Great Hometown Bites, Monica Eng and I dig into the immigrant foodways that help make our city delicious. Here’s a sampling, plus where you can try them.
Italian beef sandwich
Chicago’s juicy beef sandwich was born in the early 20th century. Depending on which historian you ask, it either originated with workers at the city’s Union Stock Yards or at inexpensive “peanut weddings” in Little Italy. “In the old days, nobody had money for weddings, so my uncle Al would slice beef super thin to feed lots of people,” says Chris Pacelli, Jr., whose family opened Al’s #1 Italian Beef in 1938.
Other spots on Little Italy’s Taylor Street serving the sandwiches include Patio Restaurant and Damenzo’s Pizza & Restaurant. The neighborhood’s vintage storefronts and turreted, brick Victorian houses hold other long-running immigrant businesses. Mario’s Italian Lemonade has been selling Italian ices (try the unusual pomegranate flavor) since 1954; Conte di Savoia is a decades-old grocery with wine, pasta, and Italian beef sandwiches.
Chicago hot dog
The first Chicago hot dog was probably concocted in the late 19th or early 20th century at Maxwell Street Market, where immigrants from multiple cultures still hawk food, groceries, crafts, and other goods each Sunday. Though many cultures serve hot dogs, Chicago’s wiener (always beef) generally comes on a poppy seed bun dressed with sport peppers, mustard, unnaturally green relish, onion, pickles, tomatoes, and celery salt.
Kraig, who wrote Hot Dog: A Global History, believes the hot-sweet-pickled combination is a cross-cultural mash-up of a German sausage, a Jewish Eastern European poppy seed bun, and peppers that arrived after “the railroad was built to Mexico.”
Try Chicago dogs around the city at Wiener’s Circle in Lincoln Park, which specializes in charred links, or Devil Dawgs on the Gold Coast, where preparations range from classic to a deep-fried, chili-topped Bulldawg. No-frills Fat Johnnie’s on the South Side operates out of a tiny shack and wins fans for its overloaded hot dogs.
In Greece, saganaki is cheese—usually a dry, medium-hard variety like kasseri—warmed in a sagano or small pan. In Chicago’s Greektown, immigrant restaurateurs in the 1970s started dousing cheese with ouzo and setting it on fire tableside. The sizzling dish stars at neighborhood restaurants such as Athena and the long-running Greek Islands, where servers present it amid Acropolis-style columns and island blue walls.
Dive deeper into the area’s Greek heritage at the National Hellenic Museum, where a striking limestone and glass building hosts art and history exhibits, or at Artopolis café, with its menu of filo-based sweets such as baklava and custard-filled galaktoboureko.
Cracker Jack and Garrett Mix
Popcorn exploded in popularity in the late 19th century in Chicago when the world’s first large-scale, commercial popping machine debuted at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. That expo also saw two local German immigrants, Frederick and Louis Rueckheim, showcase their new snack: a mix of peanuts and molasses-coated popcorn they called Cracker Jack.
Cracker Jack became widely available—and wildly popular—in Chicago and around the world. Perhaps that’s why homegrown Garrett Popcorn Shops have been hawking kernels spiked with cheese, chocolate, and other flavors around the city since 1949. In the 1980s, it started dishing up another Chicago invention: a sweet-savory blend of caramel- and cheddar-coated popcorn called Garrett Mix.
On Chicago’s West Side, outsized metal sculptures of Puerto Rican flags mark the entrance to the Humboldt Park neighborhood. Though the area was settled by Scandinavian immigrants in the early 20th century, by the 1970s Puerto Rican transplants like Juan Figueroa were opening restaurants and other businesses here. Figueroa dreamed up a new kind of beef “sandwich” in 1996, calling the stack of fried green plantain slices, griddled steak, American cheese, and mayo the jibarito, a play on a Puerto Rican slang word for hillbilly.
“It’s about layers of flavors,” says Figueroa. “Crispy plantains, juicy meat, cool tomatoes, and cheese.” The combo was a hit. Though Figueroa’s original restaurant is closed, jibaritos still appear at Humboldt joints such as Papa’s Cache Sabroso and Nellie’s, where a breakfast version gets stuffed with ham and eggs. Visitors to Humboldt Park will also find the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, which displays artwork and clothing from the island.