Chicago

The 13 Best Barbecue Joints in Chicago, According to Top Pitmasters

Because there’s more to Chicago than hot dogs and steakhouses.

Babygold Barbeque
Babygold Barbeque | Photo by DTKindler Photography
Babygold Barbeque | Photo by DTKindler Photography

Chicago may not have the most famous barbecue on the planet, but it might just be the most delicious. Unbound from the more rigid traditions that define iconic ‘cue destinations like Kansas City or Memphis, Chi-town pitmasters are free to experiment 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 institution Lem’s Bar-B-Q.

To help us dip our toes into our local barbecue scene’s saucy waters, we consulted a trio of local experts: Lillie’s Q chef-owner Charlie McKenna; Lettuce Entertain You restaurant Bub City executive chef-partner Christian Eckmann; and John Manion, culinary director at Babygold Barbeque and executive chef-owner at El Che Steakhouse & Bar. Between the three of them, 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 Rogers Park to South Shore. So without further ado, oll up your sleeves, tuck that napkin into your collar, and get ready to sink your teeth into a barbecue landscape that, according to McKenna, ranks as “one of the most underrated in the country.”

Babygold Barbecue
Babygold Barbeque | Photo by DTKindler Photography

The basics: This new 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 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 evening. Try a Berwyn-Style Super Deluxe BBQ Board and wash it down with their own Babygold branded brews.
What the pitmasters 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: Reserve via OpenTable or call 708-637-4364 and order via Toast for take-out.

Lem's BBQ House
Lem’s Bar-B-Q | Photo by JIM VONDRUSKA for THRILLIST

Lem’s Bar-B-Q

Grand Crossing

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 pitmasters 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.” For his part, McKenna notes that the Chicago-style aquarium smoker is a local institution and says not to miss the rib tips.
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, call 773-994-2428 for take-out, or order delivery via GrubHub and PostMates.

Earl's Drive-Thru BBQ

Jefferson Park

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 pitmasters say: “Chicago has so many diverse neighborhoods and the restaurants that feed them also highlight these diverse flavors,” says Eckmann, 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, or get delivery via GrubHub and PostMates.

The Full Slab

Avalon Park

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 pitmasters 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, order take-out online, or get delivery via GrubHub and DoorDash.

Smoque

Irving Park

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. 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 pitmasters 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.”
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 and DoorDash.

Leon's Barbecue

Brighton Park

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 pitmasters 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, call 773-247-4360 for take-out, or order delivery via PostMates.

Bub City
Bub City | Photo courtesy of LEYE PR

Bub City

River North

The basics: As the first location to announce the return of a large-scale local music festival with this summer’s annual Windy City Smokeout, this country-fried Lettuce Entertain You’s Bub City staple is helping ease us 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 hot 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 pitmasters 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.” 
How to book: Reserve via Tock or order take-out and delivery via ChowNow, GrubHub, Caviar, and PostMates.

Lillie's Q
Lillie’s Q | Photo courtesy of Lillie’s Q

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 last year. 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 pitmasters 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.” 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.”
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out and delivery via Caviar and Toast.

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 housemade 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 pitmasters 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 GrubHub and Uber Eats.

The basics: Rustic, rock 'n' roll roadhouse stylings meet cheffy precision inside this West Loop hideout. The take-out and delivery faithful might not be able to recreate Green Street’s atmosphere at home—depending on their apartment’s particular level of late ‘80s Patrick Swayze aesthetic, of course—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 vaxxed, masked, and ready to dine in can take full advantage of the irresistible retro ambiance. The poison is yours for the picking.
What the pitmasters 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.” 
How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out via Toast, and get delivery via Caviar, Uber Eats, and DoorDash.

Chicago q

Gold Coast

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 pitmasters 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.”
How to book: Reserve via OpenTable, order take-out online, or get delivery via Uber Eats and Caviar.

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 pitmasters 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.”
How to book: Call 312-266-1616 for reservations or order delivery via GrubHub and DoorDash.

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 has sidelined the once never-ending stream of Hank Williams cover bands, there’s nothing stopping you 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 pitmasters say: “This place has a classic Chicago bar and the mix between very good meats and honky tonk bands makes for a great time,” says McKenna. “Willie the pitmaster-owner has put together a great place.”
How to book: Order online for take-out or get delivery via GrubHub, Caviar, Uber Eats, Postmates, and ChowNow.

Jay Gentile is a contributor for Thrillist.
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