Food & Drink

The best places to get Chicago's 12 most classic dishes

Published On 08/20/2014 Published On 08/20/2014
Mike Gebert

Sure, we already handpicked Chicago's best spots for classic sandwiches, but Chicago has invented or co-opted plenty of other tasty dishes not on a bun. Here's the list of Chicago's favorite native dishes (and one cocktail!), and the best classic joints to get them at.

Stuffed Pizza

The Art of Pizza (address and info)
When out-of-towners like Jon Stewart defame Chicago pizza as a casserole, this style -- invented in the 1960s at Nancy’s and (very loosely) inspired by the Italian Easter pie scarciedda -- is what they’re ragging on. Never mind them though, go to this Lakeview parlor for the ultimate in pizza critical mass.

Wikimedia Commons

Rib Tips and Hot Links

Lem’s BBQ (address and info)
Grand Crossing
Chicago’s iconic barbecue meat got its start because the price was right -- meat packers were throwing rib tips away as scrap, and they were happy to have South Side pit masters like the Lemons brothers haul them away. They’re not that cheap any more, but smoky tips and sausage are still a common man’s meal fit for a king at this South Side BBQ classic, open since the 1940s.

Mike Gebert

Deep Dish Pizza

Pizano’s (address and info)
Near North Side
The original deep dish wasn’t as crazy-deep as Chicago pizza has gotten since, but it was taller than a hand-tossed New York pizza, and used a more biscuit-like short dough, topped with chopped tomatoes over the cheese. Rudy Malnati Sr. is thought to have devised it at Pizzeria Uno, and his son Rudy Jr. still runs this local chain (and can be found in residence at the Sinatra-era State St original), making them the way his Dad did.


Shrimp Kogane-Yaki

Ron of Japan (address and info)
Here’s one the suburbs invented that remains largely unknown to the city. If you were ever a 12-year-old boy on the North shore, you probably had your birthday at a teppanyaki place like Ron of Japan or Tsukasa, and ordered what American diners called “Golden Shrimp in Golden Sauce”: fried shrimp topped with a gooey, mayonnaise-y confection. It was apparently invented at Ron of Japan in Northbrook, and quickly spread to every place where Japanese chefs put on a show on the grill in the middle of the table.


Pan Pizza

Burt’s Place (address and info)
Morton Grove
All thick pizza goes in a pan, but in the 1960s, Burt Katz invented his own unique Chicago-style -- in which cheese along the rim caramelizes into crispy black wonderfulness. Call ahead for a spot at his suburban spot to get the authentic thing, or get something close to it delivered from Pequod’s, which he started and then sold.

Mike Gebert

Italian Lemonade

Mario’s Italian Lemonade (address and info)
University Village
Italian ice, a descendant of granita, is a common Summertime treat around town. Italian lemonade is often confused with it, but it’s very different -- a lemonade-base mixed with other fruit flavors, slushy enough to sip with a straw. The world capitol of Italian lemonade is a ramshackle stand across from Al’s Italian Beef on Taylor St, only open a few months each Summer. It's one of the great crossroads of the city where everyone (from cops to perps to immigrant Grandmas to little kids) comes together, united by a love of a cold refreshment on a warm Summer night in the city.

Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf

Shrimp De Jonghe

Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf (address and info)
River North
Shrimp cooked under a layer of garlicky bread crumbs, this might be the oldest dish on the list -- invented at DeJonghe’s Hotel and Restaurant on Madison near State in the first years of the 20th century. It’s still on the menu at seriously old-school places like Gene and Georgetti’s or the Cape Cod Room, but we like the revived and modernized version at Bavette’s, which is less of a casserole and more of a lightly topped shrimp dish.


Cohasset Punch

The Drawing Room (address and info
Near North Side
It’s forgotten (except by cocktail historians now), but for much of the 20th century, Chicago had its own unique classic cocktail -- named, for some reason, for Massachusetts. Basically rum and Vermouth with half of a canned peach floating in it, it was officially the exclusive recipe of a bar called Ladner Bros. in the Loop, but common enough around town that it turns up causing trouble at a party in a Saul Bellow novel. To be honest, by modern standards, it’s kind of an insipid drink, but a number of today’s mixologists have played with their own take on it, such as the Cohasset Punch No. 2 invented a couple of years ago at The Drawing Room. 


Black Truffle Explosion

Alinea (address and info)
Lincoln Park
There’s lots of mad scientist inventiveness going on in Chicago’s high-end restaurants, but if one dish has spread widely enough to endure, it’s this unabashedly sensual one conceived by Grant Achatz while he was still at The French Laundry, and on Alinea’s menu since opening day. A truffle-flavored gel is sealed in a ravioli, and you’d better pop the whole thing into your mouth, because it’s going to explode with the musky, intoxicating liquid as soon as you bite down. 

Flaming Saganaki

The Parthenon (address and info)
Greektown/Near West Side
It’s a ritual of Greektown dining -- rubbery Greek cheese is splashed with grappa or some other alcohol, and lit aflame as the waiter cries “Opa!”. It was invented at The Parthenon, unless it was invented at a long-gone place called Diana’s, but either way, it’s surefire tourist bait at any restaurant in the Greek neighborhood just West of the Loop. Apparently there were also many failed catchphrases before arriving at "Opa".

Margie’s Candies 

New York Cherry Ice Cream

Margie’s Candies (address and info)
Logan Square
Chicago has its own ice cream flavor, which is named, for some reason, for... New York? New York Cherry, which is basically just vanilla with cherries in it, can be found on the menu at almost any old-school ice cream place -- Rainbow Cone, Cupid’s, or the place where The Beatles went after they played Comiskey -- Margie’s.

Mike Gebert

Chicken Vesuvio

Bacchanalia (address and info)
No one’s quite sure where this name for roast chicken comes from (one good bet is a Loop restaurant called The Vesuvio from the 1920s), but the hearty, generously portioned dish has been on Chicago menus for close to a century, even as the recipe seems to change from place to place. It’s chicken, oven-roasted in a white wine & garlic sauce, sometimes with lemon, with potato wedges (always), and peas (optional). This friendly place in the tiny Heart of Italy neighborhood does a great robust version.

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Mike Gebert is a James Beard Award-winning food video producer and writer and Founder of Follow him on Twitter @skyfullofbacon.

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1. Pizano's Pizza 61 E Madison St, Chicago, IL 60603 (Loop)

This Chicago mini chain comes from a line of pizza royalty -- as the story goes, Rudy Malnati Sr. is one of the people credited for inventing deep dish at Pizzeria Uno, and his son Rudy launched Pizano's while his other son Lou founded Lou Malnati's. Pizano's uses a recipe similar to that of the original Uno -- the pies are made with a biscuit-like shortbread dough and topped with cheese then chopped tomatoes. If a thousand calorie slice of deep-dish isn't what you're in the market for, you'll find just as satisfying a meal in Pizano's thin-crust pies and pasta specials.

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2. Burt’s Place 8541 Ferris Ave, Morton Grove, IL 60053

The pizza at Burt's is simply the freshest you'll get this far out of the city. It's a celeb favorite, adorned with unique trinkets, and's got an impressive accompanying beer menu.

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3. The Art of Pizza 3033 N Ashland Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 (Lakeview)

This simple and unfussy counter-serve pizzeria in Lakeview serves quality deep-dish pizza without the tourists and crowds. The Art of Pizza gets everything right, from the flaky crust to the brightly spiced tomato sauce on top, and even serves pan pizza by the slice for those who don't want to commit to the entire thing. Even though the spot is known for its deep-dish pies, it also makes thin-crust and stuffed pizzas.

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4. Lem's BBQ House 311 E 75th St, Chicago, IL 60619 (South Chicago)

Lem's has racked up throngs of fans since it opened in 1954 thanks to its juicy BBQ ribs, which are served out of a retro roadside stand complete with a tall, neon-lit sign. This South Side institution still tops its meats -- from hot links and rib tips to chicken and shrimp -- with the original spicy BBQ sauce that late owner Myles Lemons created back in the 1940s. Prepare for large portions at small prices, and to take your order with you -- this tiny counter doesn't have seating.

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5. The Parthenon 314 S Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60661 (West Loop)

If you couldn't already tell by the name, this place is Korean. WE KID, obviously, it's Greek, and it's doling out some impeccable Saganaki, flaming cheeses, and generously poured cocktails.

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6. Bavette's Bar & Boeuf 218 W Kinzie St, Chicago, IL 60654 (River North)

More a promise than a clever name, Bavette's Bar & Boeuf unapologetically delivers an abundance of whiskey and slab-after-slab of expertly prepared meat. Bavette's 24 oz. bone-in ribeye may be the best piece of meat your money can buy in Chi-town, but, if steak's not your thing, they also offer fresh oysters, Southern-style fried chicken, and double-cut Berkshire pork chops. And because nothing goes together better than a rare steak and a fine whiskey, Bavette's offers more than 50 whiskeys to stir into classic cocktails like mint julips, rye Old Fashioneds, and modern alternatives like spicy picklebacks.

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7. Margie's Candies 1960 N Western Ave, Chicago, IL 60647

To put it in blunt terms, you simply haven't lived the true Chicago life until you've been to the legendary Margie's Candies. Serving Bucktown since 1921, this generations-old candy shop offers every confection imaginable, all made by hand every day. The ice cream, scooped into homemade waffle cones and delicately dipped in a rich chocolate sauce, is so decadent that both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles have ventured here after shows to satisfy their (brown) sugar cravings.

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8. The Drawing Room 937 N Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611 (Near North Side)

The Drawing Room has got top-notch cocktails as well as a dish entitled "Bacon 'Squared'", which needs to be consumed by you, like, right now.

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9. Bacchanalia 2413 S Oakley Ave, Chicago, IL 60608 (Pilsen)

A Pilsen staple that's been drawing pilgrims from all over the city since 1979, Bacchanalia guides its diners through a narrow, unpretentious bar area that’s coated in old neighborhood charm. Still family owned, it’s hearty Italian classics like veal scallopini and chicken vesuvio are homestyle recipes that founder Belfonte Pieri brought with him from Tuscany in 1958.

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10. Ron of Japan 230 E Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60611

This is THE primo spot in Chi to order a plate of shrimp kogane-yaki (as well as myriad other delicious Japanese options), which is fried shrimp topped with a gooey, mayonnaise-y confection.

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11. Mario's Italian Lemonade 1068 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL 60607

Brain freezes are a necessary evil at Mario’s Italian Lemonade in University Village, the local favorite for Italian shaved ice treats. Armed with both a spoon and a straw, the tropical fruit-flavored Italian ices at Mario’s will make a frozen warrior of you, as long as you don’t leave your cash at home (no cards are accepted here). With flavors like cantaloupe, lime, piña colada, and watermelon, it’s fitting that Mario’s is only open during the summer months.

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12. Alinea 1723 N Halsted St, Chicago, IL 60614 (Lincoln Park)

Alinea, the three-star Michelin restaurant in Lincoln Park, is a pinnacle of technique and creativity. If the ticketed reservation system tells us anything, it’s that a night at Alinea is more than just a meal: it is an unforgettable culinary experience featuring modern molecular gastronomy at its finest. And if its slew of accolades tells us anything -- namely that it is consistently included in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants List” -- it’s that Alinea is one of the best restaurants in the world. The revolutionary restaurant on Halsted is the brainchild of acclaimed Chef Grant Achatz -- who cut his teeth under Thomas Keller -- and the dining room is his stage to fuse art and science into dynamic, sensory-evoking menus. Deep pockets required.



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