The 18 Best Barbecue Joints in Chicago, According to Top Pitmasters
From Texas-style brisket at Smoque to old-school rib tips at Chicago instituion Honey 1 BBQ, these are your must-hit spots for Chicago smoked meats.
In the pantheon of iconic barbecue regions (ya know, the kinds of places that take their barbecue so seriously that people will fight you with a cleaver over something as trivial as sauce), Chicago doesn’t typically take top billing. This isn’t Kansas City or Memphis, after all. But this is a city that layers sausage into deep-dish pizza the same way bakers frost a cake, so this is clearly a city that takes meat seriously, including the smoked kind.
The fact that Chicago isn’t the kind of city tethered to regional pastimes frees it up to innovate its own styles of ‘cue—unbound from the more rigid traditions that define iconic cookery in, say, Texas or the Carolinas. Rather, Chi-town pitmasters are free to tinker with new styles and techniques, draw on myriad influences, and even invent their own contraptions, like the legendary glass aquarium smokers found at South Side institutions Honey 1 BBQ and Lem’s Bar-B-Q. “Chicago’s really become an amazing barbecue town,” says Barry Sorkin, owner of Smoque. “The nice thing about being in a city that doesn’t have a deeply rooted style of barbecue is that chefs, as they discover barbecue, have license to do whatever they want. So what we have here is a diverse and eclectic spectrum of barbecue options that you couldn’t say about some of these other classic barbecue cities.”
John Manion, culinary director at Babygold Barbeque and executive chef-owner at El Che Steakhouse & Bar, echoes those sentiments. “Chicago barbecue is its own animal. In Chicago it’s rib tips and saucy, and the scene has definitely evolved. There are a lot of people doing much better barbecue now.”
Starving yet? With summer on the horizon, and thus the unofficial green light to eat smoked meat with reckless abandon for months on end, cravings for brisket, ribs, and pulled pork are reaching a fever pitch. To help us dip our toes into our local barbecue scene’s saucy waters, we consulted local experts—pitmasters who know their way around a smoker, as well as barbecue-loving chefs who appreciate a finger-licking feast as much as the next diner. From tri-tip ninjas to Texas barbecue whisperers, these insiders are more than qualified to guide smoke-curious Chicagoans through this meat-centric labyrinth, as evidenced by the following rundown of noteworthy joints from Irving Park to South Shore. So without further ado, roll up your sleeves, tuck that napkin into your collar, and get ready to sink your teeth into a barbecue landscape that, according to Charlie McKenna, owner of Lillie’s Q, ranks as “one of the most underrated in the country.”
Flat & Point
The basics: To call Flat & Point, Logan Square’s singular Alpine-inspired smokehouse, a barbecue joint would be an egregious over-simplification. Courtesy of chef Brian Bruns, an alum of fine dining titans Spiaggia and TRU, this cozy lodge-like restaurant combines passions for local sourcing, Alpine inspirations, and as the website points out, “wood-fired everything.” The result is a restaurant that feels like barbecue that’s taken a semester abroad, with a major in pyrotechnics. Along with charcuterie, pastas, and bagels, the menu emphasizes smoked meats, which take the innovative form of brisket gougeres, smoked duck with grilled cornbread, and grilled pork chops with braising greens puree. Come weekends, snag a brisket bagel sandwich off the bakery menu and blow your brunch expectations out of the water.
What the experts say: “They’re not exclusively barbecue, but they do it right,” proclaims Manion of this charming husband-and-wife spot. “It pays homage to barbecue without trying to intellectualize it. They’re doing composed dishes, but it feels authentic and not contrived at all. What they’re doing makes sense, and when you talk about doing composed barbecue dishes, it oftentimes does not.” Tim Cottini, executive chef of Bub City, is also a fan of Flat & Point’s elevated barbecue: “I love seeing what chef Bruns is doing at Flat & Point, where he has taken his passion for barbecue and evolved it into an elevated dining experience."
How to book: Make a dine-in reservation on Tock or order takeout via Toast.
Soul & Smoke
The basics: With a fine dining pedigree that’s seen him spend time in acclaimed kitchens like Moto, the bygone Willy Wonka factory of a tasting menu restaurant, D’Andre Carter brings a distinguished sensibility to his barbecue. Now at his home-y Evanston restaurant that he runs with his wife Heather Bublick, it’s out with the molecular gastronomy and in with the low-and-slow traditions he came to love while helping his grandmother cook barbecue on the southside. Nowadays, he keeps the familial comforts alive with a menu of slow-roasted, braised, and smoked meats aplenty, from brisket sandwiches and tender rib tips to smoked pastrami and even spicy ‘Nduja sausage. Along with sides like creamy apple slaw and roasted sweet potatoes with cinnamon butter, every element of the menu is meticulously refined, from the specs of his seasoning blends to the hours spent cooking over low heat.
What the experts say: “I had some of the most delicious barbecue of my life from Soul & Smoke at a fundraising event recently. Like, mind-blowingly good,” proclaims Christine Cikowski, chef/partner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken. “The brisket was so tender, perfectly sauced and seasoned. They are crushin’ it!” According to Brian Bruns, chef/owner of Flat & Point, they’re part of the new guard of Chicago ‘cue, carving their own path. “They’re doing a nice job putting their own spin on things,” he says. “There’s no specific style to what we do here, so everyone has the opportunity to mix and match and do their own thing.” And Manion feels that Carter really puts the soul in Soul & Smoke: “It’s really super soulful, and as much as it can be, personal. Sometimes with barbecue you have the feeling that everyone’s doing the same thing. It’s f&cking terrific.”
How to book: Order online from the Evanston restaurant via Toast, and there’s also a delivery-only ghost kitchen in Avondale. Soul & Smoke has a location inside Time Out Market Chicago, for dine-in or delivery via Uber Eats.
Lexington Betty Smokehouse
The basics: Another instance of grandmothers instilling an early love for barbecue, Dominique Leach has gotten back to her culinary roots (after a stint in fine dining at Spiaggia, as one does) with this food truck-turned-restaurant. Black- and queer-owned—distinct in an industry stereotypically featuring straight white men—Lexington Betty started with food trucks before planting roots in Galewood near Oak Park, and adding a stall in Pullman’s One Eleven Food Hall. Evidently, the fanfare for her applewood-smoked pork, chicken, and brisket was sky-high, because not only is she expanding, she’s taking over the entire food hall and turning it into a larger, full-service barbecue restaurant (which means she’s also closing the Galewood location in order to centralize).
What the experts say: Rob Levitt, head butcher at Publican Quality Meats, values the restaurant for what it represents (in addition to just having straight-up good food). “I’m a big fan of Lexington Betty,” he says. “Dominique is a great chef and a really nice person and I love that Chicago can show the world that women can make first-rate barbecue.”
How to book: Online ordering is available via Clover, and dine-in and takeout are available at both locations until Leach shifts all operations to Pullman.
The basics: Around since 1994, which is basically ancient by restaurant standards, Smoke Daddy was a progenitor of Chicago’s barbecue renaissance. A fixture on the Division Street drag before it became the infamous sports bar strip it is today, this neighborhood cornerstone has endured with its increasingly lengthy craft beer list, nightly live music (with an emphasis on blues), and bountiful platters brimming with rotisserie chicken, baby back ribs, burnt ends, and brisket. Nearing 30 years in business, Smoke Daddy has also always been able to dexterously evolve, from adding a huge new patio to rounding out its menu with thoughtful new options, like smoked corned beef, Cajun fish sandwiches, rotisserie chicken salads, and pimento cheese hush puppies with green chili jam.
What the experts say: “Before we opened, that was always my go-to place,” Sorkin says, calling Smoke Daddy a longtime favorite. “In my mind, they’re one of the mainstays that’s always been really good, and they’ve evolved really nicely, and upped their game multiple times over the last decade.” For Bruns, he’s long been a fan of their pulled pork sandwiches in particular.
How to book: Reservations are always on Tock. There’s also a newer location in Wrigleyville in the Hotel Zachary.
Honey 1 BBQ
The basics: In terms of hallowed old-school classics, Honey 1 BBQ is to barbecue as Gene & Georgetti is to filet mignon. Helmed by Robert Adams, himself a local icon for his timeworn recipes and innovations with his glass-walled aquarium smoker, which cooks rib tips, chicken, and pulled pork to smoky perfection over a wood fire. By entombing his meat in smoke, over a crackling flame, each plate comes out reliably succulent and fragrant, doled out on trays at this frills-free counter-service staple in Bronzeville.
What the experts say: “It’s old-school Chicago barbecue, and they’ve held true to it,” says Sorkin, citing his love for the venerable Southside institution, and for Adams. “Even as barbecue has changed around them, they’ve clung to what they do, and it’s timeless.”
How to book: Dine at the restaurant on a first come, first served basis, or place a carryout order by calling Honey 1 at (773) 285-9455.
The basics: This newer spot from El Che executive chef-owner John Manion is located inside legendary Berwyn music venue FitzGerald’s, which has undergone a host of welcome upgrades under new owner Will Duncan, including an Airbnb “sleepover castle” above the venue and mobile musician-in-truck concerts that drove around the neighborhood throughout the pandemic. Now back in full swing with live music almost nightly, Babygold Barbeque offers the perfect culinary compliment to a rollicking post-vax summer evening. Try a Berwyn-Style Super Deluxe BBQ Board, an ever-changing chef’s choice of smoked meats, fixins, and sides, and wash it down with their own Babygold branded brews.
What the experts say: “Traditional BBQ [regions] are beholden to tradition and what people expect,” says McKenna, emphasizing the unique vantage point that gives way to a Chicago ‘cue pop-up like Babygold’s flexible, wide-ranging approach. “We have more room to experiment and try different things.”
How to book: Call 708-637-4364 and order via Toast for take-out.
The basics: When Mississippi-born brothers Bruce and Myles Lemons first opened their modest Southside BBQ shop back in 1954, they had no idea they’d be launching a Chicago legend. Fast-forward 65+ years and the pair’s fall-off-the-bone ribs, tender smoked rib tips, crispy fried chicken, and tangy original sauce continues to elicit a near-constant line out the door.
What the experts say: “Barbecue coexists with fried offerings in a harmonious symbiosis and you need to experience both to fully understand Lem’s,” says Manion. “Go with large tips, links, a quarter fried chicken dark, fried chicken livers (you’ve come all this way), a quarter slaw, a quarter potato salad, and extra sauce. This is a meal best enjoyed standing up.” McKenna notes that the Chicago-style aquarium smoker is a local institution and says not to miss the rib tips, while Sorkin and Bruns put Lem's in the same OG column as Honey 1: “To me, they’re in the same category. If you want old-school Chicago barbecue, that’s where you go,” says Sorkin, while Bruns compares it to Calumet Fisheries, another local institution, and shouts out their rib tips as something special—and uniquely Chicago.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or call 773-994-2428 for take-out.
Earl's Drive-Thru BBQ
The basics: This old-school ‘cue shop offers more than a few incentives to make the trek out to the far Northwest side. For starters, there’s the requisite pulled pork, baby back ribs, buttermilk fried chicken, and brisket, all prepared with the signature touch of a seasoned pitmaster. Add to that smoked salmon, overstuffed burritos, Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, smoked Polish sausage, and Cheerwine on draft and you’ll wonder why any other joint even bothers serving lunch.
What the experts say: “Chicago has so many diverse neighborhoods and the restaurants that feed them also highlight these diverse flavors,” says Christian Eckmann, executive chef-partner of Bub City, backing up this staple’s smorgasbord of meaty offerings. “Around the city you can find everything from solid Chinese BBQ to Southern-style BBQ, Korean BBQ to Caribbean, and so much more.”
How to book: Stop by for counter service, call 773-628-7870 or order online for take-out.
The Full Slab
The basics: Pitmaster Sam Gilbert knows his rib tips. Heralded far and wide as some of the city’s very best, Gilbert begins by marinating the prized Southside original at length before rubbing them down with a proprietary spice blend and letting them roast slow-and-low in a giant hickory smoker. Last but not least, he throws the juicy pork nubs atop a fiery grill for the ultimate charred, flame-kissed bark and toothsome bite. A heap of fresh-cut, made-to-order fries serves as a worthy supporting act.
What the experts say: “What makes us unique is we offer every style out there depending on the place, unlike some other cities where you will get a lot of the same thing,” says McKenna.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out online.
The basics: If Texas-style is your thing, this venerable Northside smoke shack has your slow-smoked cravings covered. Unsurprisingly, succulent, perfectly rendered, and bark-topped brisket tops the menu, followed by ribs, pulled pork, and juicy smoked sausages shipped all the way from Taylor, Texas. You’ll even find a few plot twists, like chopped brisket tacos, strewn with fresh cilantro and chile de arbol salsa. And save some room for dessert—the pecan bread pudding, thick and velvety beneath a generous drizzle of bourbon caramel sauce, is a true sleeper hit.
What the experts say: “I distinctly remember Smoque being the first barbecue spot that food writers and bloggers took seriously,” says Manion. “I think it was the introduction of Texas-style brisket into the Chicago barbecue vernacular, but people took notice, lines were formed, and BBQ sold out daily. Smoque lives up to its reputation and although not very old, seems like the OG of the new wave of BBQ spots.” Eckmann calls it “the place to go for St. Louis style ribs,” and McKenna dubs the brisket “the showstopper.” Being in the same neighborhood as Smoque, Levitt has been a longtime fan as well: “I have to give some love to Barry and the team at Smoque. They are in my neighborhood and we’ve been eating there since day one. The food is always delicious and there is none of the usual barbecue pretense.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served patio seating, call 773-545-7427 and order take-out via Toast, or order delivery via Caviar.
The basics: This no-frills Southside counter-serve has been dishing up copious amounts of classic Chicago rib tips, chicken dinners with all the fixings, and fiery hot links plus buckets upon buckets of plump Gulf shrimp for the past 75+ years. And like any good BBQ joint worth its rub, fussy dine-in service was never the draw. Get in and get out, or stick around a while if you want but don’t expect a tablecloth.
What the experts say: “Chicago is pretty unique in the barbecue world,” says Manion. “I don’t think there’s anyone in KC, Memphis, or Texas trying to make ‘Chicago-style’ barbecue. To me, it’s characterized by aquarium smokers, tips, links, and sauce—shit gets saucy.”
How to book: Stop by for counter service or call 773-247-4360 for take-out.
The basics: As the first location to announce the return of a large-scale local music festival with last summer’s annual Windy City Smokeout, this country-fried Lettuce Entertain You’s Bub City staple has helped us ease back into normal life—that’s if normal life involves absurd amounts of BBQ goodness. Stock up on backyard cookout bliss like hickory smoked chicken wings, dreamy baby back ribs, brisket-topped nachos, and waffle fries loaded with pulled pork and molten cheese, then wash it all down with a bottle of single barrel bourbon or a refreshing tropical cocktail from neighboring tiki icon Three Dots and a Dash.
What the experts say: “There’s a real interest and initiative by Chicago pitmasters and chefs to emulate the traditions of other regions and make these methods and techniques their own,” says Manion, nodding to Bub City’s eclectic spread. “It feels like there’s a freedom to inject some of what makes Chicago such a dynamic cooking scene into the ‘cue. And while the end results sometimes deviate from regional purity, they tend to be freewheeling, fresh, and innovative.” For Sorkin, he applauds Bub City for its upbeat vibe and contributions to the city over all. “It’s a fun place to go, they do a great job with their barbecue, they have great music, and they’re responsible for one of the best barbecue fests in the country with the Windy City Smokeout,” he says. “They’re a hugely important part of Chicago’s barbecue landscape.”
How to book: Reserve via Tock or order take-out and delivery via ChowNow and Caviar.
Lillie’s Q at District Brew Yards
The basics: A maestro when it comes to Southern-style seasonings, Chef Charlie McKenna proudly presided over his saucy empire’s original North Avenue flagship for a full decade before it permanently shuttered several weeks after the statewide virus-induced lockdown went into effect, seemingly forever ago in 2020. Lucky for us, though, the pulled pork specialists seamlessly transitioned to West Town’s bustling District Brew Yards shortly after closing the Wicker Park outpost and the sudsy team-up proves to be the ideal landing place for McKenna’s meaty delights and comfort classic sides.
What the experts say: “Do you know about smoked tri-tip? Do you like delicious sauce(s)? Have you ever had truly, legitimately, award-winning pulled pork?” asks Manion. “If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, you might like Lillie’s Q as much as I do.” Bruns is also a fan of their delicious sauces (“I have their Carolina Gold sauce in my fridge.”) According to Eckmann, the smoked tri tip and baby back ribs are “insane,” and “the new location is a perfect day drinking spot for a sunny day.” Sorkin hops on the tri-tip bandwagon too: “If you’ve eaten tri-tip in Chicago, there’s a good chance it was at Lillie’s Q.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out and delivery via Caviar and Toast.
Trice’s Original Slab BBQ
The basics: Another Southside favorite, this relative newcomer continues to make a serious play for the area’s top barbecue destination with massive smoked turkey legs, spicy rib tips, bold and juicy sausage links, and crunchy fried chicken wings, all glistening under a blanket of invigoratingly zesty yet expertly balanced house-made sauce. And don’t sleep on the sides, either—potato salad, creamy slaw, and hand-cut, never-frozen fries drive the whole thing home.
What the experts say: “I see a lot of cooks going away from rigid ‘these are KC style ribs’ or this is ‘true Texas brisket’ and just making delicious smoked meats in a manner that’s true to them and their experience,” Manion explains, basically spelling out Trice’s poultry-savvy prerogative. “The future is bright for Chicago ‘cue.” “I think that we will continue to see chefs getting more and more creative by incorporating the use of local ingredients with traditional cooking techniques,” adds Eckman.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, call 773-966-5018 or order via Toast for take-out, or order delivery via Uber Eats.
Green Street Smoked Meats
The basics: Rustic, rock 'n' roll roadhouse stylings meet cheffy precision inside this sprawling West Loop hideout. The take-out and delivery faithful might not be able to recreate Green Street’s atmosphere at home—unless their apartment just happens to look like an oddly endearing mashup of Texas Chainsaw Massacre-meets-late ‘80s Patrick Swayze aesthetic—but at least they can eat like a badass with a full bill of brisket, hot links, pulled pork, smoked chicken, ribs, finger lickin’ sides, and cold canned beer. Those hungry for a true Texas vibe can take full advantage of the irresistible retro ambiance. The poison is yours for the picking.
What the experts say: “Bringing the Texas aesthetic to Chicago, I love the vibe of the big old warehouse minimally decorated with lots of smoke on the walls,” says McKenna. “Great place to hang and have some cold beers. And BBQ doesn’t always have to be about meat—definitely check out their smoked salmon. It’s a hidden gem.” Eckmann further spills the beans, naming it as “the only place in the city for Texas beef short ribs on the weekends,” and Bruns cites it as his most-visited barbecue place in town, for their always-consistent food, fun atmosphere, and Texas-style barbecue.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out via Toast, and get delivery via Caviar.
The basics: Fine dining barbecue? You bet your USDA prime beef. Celebrity chef Art Smith is behind this seemingly contradictory Gold Coast destination, a culinary idea so crazy that it just might work—and work it does. We’re talking brisket meatballs, fried green tomatoes, brisket burnt ends, hanger steak burgers, pulled pork shoulder, and more, each bearing the mouthwatering mark of a bonafide high-end chef.
What the experts say: “Since this isn’t a traditional BBQ region, it’s taken some time to educate our consumers that BBQ isn’t just a cheap style of food that everyone can do,” McKenna explains. “We have spent hours and hours working on our fire management, seasoning blends, product quality, and finishing technique. I’ve worked in some of the best restaurants in the world—TRU and Norman’s in Miami—and BBQ is one of the hardest foods to cook.” Sorkin echoes those sentiments, calling Chicago q the first of the fine dining barbecue places. “If you can get used to eating barbecue in an upscale environment, that’s the place to do it. Great bourbon and whiskey choices too.”
How to order: Order take-out online, or get delivery via Uber Eats and Caviar.
Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern
The basics: An Old Town fixture since Old Town was young, this handsome barroom has been quietly serving up some of Chicago’s finest baby back ribs for nearly a century. Old-fashioned fish fry, slow-roasted chicken, stellar BBQ wings, and melt-in-your-mouth hand-pulled pork add some color to the downhome Midwestern nostalgia.
What the experts say: “I really think Chicago is on the rise, and that’s not with more barbecue restaurants,” McKenna clarifies with a nod to this humble eatery’s long standing yet understated grip on the city. “It’s more about the people in Chicago and tourists [visiting] Chicago becoming more aware of how great the scene is here.” Helping to set that scene are the legendary ribs, which Bruns calls fall-off-the-bone tender and “super saucy.”
How to book: Call 312-266-1616 for reservations.
Honky Tonk BBQ
The basics: Accomplished pitmaster Willie Wagner helms this homey woodclad Pilsen saloon, complete with a stage for live acts, a lavish mahogany back bar, and more hokey cowboy art than an Oklahoma flea market. And while quarantine initially silenced the once never-ending stream of Hank Williams cover bands, there’s nothing stopping you this summer from pulling on your finest wranglers, grabbing a dusty guitar, and jamming away in your living room to an outsourced backdrop of peppery dry-rubbed brisket, meaty St. Louis-style ribs, and some of the most flavorful pulled pork this side of Memphis.
What the experts say: “It’s a classic place with so much character,” says Steve Lewis, owner/partner of Logan Square’s charcuterie wonderland, Lardon. “The music is awesome and the BBQ is great.” McKenna concurs: “This place has a classic Chicago bar and the mix between very good meats and honky tonk bands makes for a great time. Willie the pitmaster-owner has put together a great place.”
How to book: Order online for take-out or get delivery via Caviar, Uber Eats, and ChowNow.
working on a memoir about the epic ups and downs from life on the road as a gay couple—and the lessons learned along the way. Follow him on IG @mattkirouacofficial.