America's Next Big Pizza Chains
For years only a few large delivery chains dominated the national pizza scene, while mom-and-pops fought over a slice of the fast-casual pie. But in the last decade or so, there's been a boom of small pizza chain expansion that has shaken Big Pizza to its greasy core.
These 11 regional chains -- which range from old-school favorites just now stepping outside their cities, to venture-backed artisan dough upstarts, to tried-and-true delivery operations finally catching up to their elders -- are poised to enter into the national conversation.
Number of locations: 42
What makes it unique: Chicago has a national reputation for deep dish, but the true Windy City style is actually a square-sliced crispy cracker crust that goes by many names -- our Chi-town mozz-head sources call it "tavern style." Aurelio's is the perfect suburban family expression of this particular slice, but it also pacifies natives with a deep "stuffed" pie and "calabereses," which the rest of the world refers to as calzones.
Why it might blow up: Because certain food writers might have celebrated youth soccer wins here and spent all of their allowance on the Simpsons arcade game, but also because it's just now starting to expand outside of the Midwest and crispy, thin crust is one of the more underappreciated styles in the pizza canon.
Number of locations: 98
What makes it unique: Two words: unlimited toppings. Pieology isn't the only one on the list with that promise, but its topping arsenal boasts 78 billion possible pizza outcomes based on combinations of crusts (white, wheat, gluten-free), sauces (house red, alfredo, herb butter, pesto), the usual meat/cheese/veggie suspects, and "after bakes" sauces like fiery Buffalo or BBQ.
Why it might blow up: Designing your own pie is nothing revolutionary, but the fun factor in unleashing unlimited toppings while walking down a Chipotle-esque ordering line is a combination for success, as evidenced by the chain's explosive growth of 32 new locations in California alone during 2015. Plus, it recently received an investment from Panda Express.
Number of locations: 106
What makes it unique: MOD has gone all-in alongside Pieology with a catch-all, single-price system that encourages customization, but it's also crafted a list of specialty pies that seem innovative yet grounded in reality, like the white-sauced Dominic (asiago, fresh chopped basil, red onion, sliced tomatoes, mild sausage).
Why it might blow up: MOD is helmed by a former Starbucks exec so you know it can scale, the innovative second-chances hiring mentality earns it a level of employee loyalty seldom seen in the food industry, and the twin offering of total customization and reliably delicious signature pies corners both the creative and lazy consumer.
Number of locations: Seven
What makes it unique: Artichoke makes the thickest non-Chi pies on this list. The best is topped with a "secret recipe" of equal parts artichoke dip and stringy cheese. It's unparalleled late-night munchie material, and deserves bonus points for a solid vodka sauce square slice and untraditional toppings like crab.
Why it might blow up: The novelty and excess of the artichoke dip top makes it a flashy export, and lines around the door every night of the weekend mean it's already having trouble keeping up with demand. Plus, the owner/operators are now hosts of a new Cooking Channel pizza tourism show, which means the groundwork is laid for a national expansion.
Number of locations: 660+
What makes it unique: Playing the delivery game just like the big boys, Marco's offers specialty American-style pies -- like the double Pepperoni Magnifico -- and the latest pizza tech -- like custom crusts -- but with an emphasis on Old World Italian roots.
Why it might blow up: It already is. Although Marco's doesn't have the ubiquity of the big four (Domino's, Papa John's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars), this chain is by far the most established on our list but still remains one of the fastest-growing overall food chains in the country.
Number of locations: 16
What makes it unique: Gino's deep-dish pan pizza is closer to a tomato sauce and mozzarella casserole than a traditional pie. The style has become synonymous with Chicago, but has serious critics, like Jon Stewart who called it an above-ground marinara swimming pool for rats. We don't agree with him, though.
Why it might blow up: There's no other local chain with such revered name recognition, and its five-location expansion to Texas proves that it can work outside of Chicagoland.
Number of locations: 32, with 18 more on the way
What makes it unique: LA is a notoriously subpar pizza town, which has led to a flood of fast-casual pizza concepts looking to fill the void. One of the leaders of the Cali-slice revolution is the custom-pie baron PizzaRev. Like several others on this list, it functions on an assembly-line, build-your-own model, but the secret weapon is a four-ton, open-flame, stone-bed oven that wins the temperature arms race.
Why it might blow up: Despite the similarities to other chains like 800 Degrees and Pieology, there are enough slices (!) of the pizza concept pie out there that Buffalo Wild Wings has taken note as a minority shareholder and the chain's first franchise.
Number of locations: 112, plus 50 more coming soon
What makes it unique: Blaze's dough is made from custom flour that responds well to longer fermentation and rapid cook times. This results in a light, chewy crust with just the right snap, served at a low price point. It's also boldly going where no slice joint has gone before with a forthcoming breakfast-style pizza.
Why it might blow up: We tapped Blaze as a fast-casual chain to watch back in 2014 when it only had 12 locations, and now it's at nearly 10 times that number. And with ovens that can crank out a pie every 180 seconds, it doesn't seem like it will be slowing down anytime soon. It doesn't hurt that Lebron "The Chosen One" James is on board as an early investor, and that it's already eyeing locations outside of the country.
Number of locations: 85, with 400 announced locations on the way
What makes it unique: An offshoot from another successfully cheesy concept (Pizza Inn), the "five" in Pie Five refers to the number of minutes that it takes to craft one of its made-to-order pizzas. Like other chains on this list, the oven is built for thin-and-crispy speed (145 seconds per pie!) and the toppings aren't too far outside the box, but it emphasizes creative add-ons like Sriracha marinara, “magic dust” powdered cheese, and oregano mix.
Why it might blow up: A deep (dish) knowledge of the pizza sphere through its previous concept means that Pie Five has an insider edge on many of the other fast-casual pizza concepts.
Number of locations: 15
What makes it unique: Alongside PizzaRev, 800 Degrees led the charge in LA's fast-casual pizza scene, but with an emphasis on nailing a traditional Italian flavor profile with super-fresh ingredients, a monger's case's worth of different cheeses, and seldom-seen toppings like fried eggs.
Why it might blow up: It's second outpost was at LAX so it's been priming travelers' cravings from the start, the founder was the guy behind Umami Burger so he knows a little something about empire expansion, and it's already conquered Dubai.
Number of locations: 390+
What makes it unique: The elusive Detroit-style pizza
Why it might blow up: Detroit-style pizza -- think of it like an airier version of Sicilian, but with a wall of semi-burnt, caramelized cheese backed up onto the corners of the square-pan crust -- is perhaps the perfect combination of New York sensibilities and deep-dish excess (yes, Chicago, there are other kinds of deep dish). Jet’s is the chain to beat when it comes to getting it close enough to the real thing to keep full-blooded Michiganders and would-be converts believing. The chain -- like Domino’s and Little Caesars before it -- started as a suburban Detroit secret before spreading down the I-75 corridor and then making a hard right turn for a westward expansion. Folks may not know they’re eating Detroit-style pizza when they have it, but they sure as hell will remember the name Jet’s once they’ve demolished a few squares. -- Andy Kryza, senior editor
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.