Pronounced hee-bar-ee-to, jibarito is the diminutive word for jíbaro, which is one of those words that's either an insult or a term of endearment, depending on who's saying it to whom. It denotes someone from the rural, mountainous region of Puerto Rico. But the term's namesake sandwich is less synonymous with the Caribbean territory that coined its name and more with the frigid winters and sweltering summers of Chicago.
How did that happen? Chicago, like other major American metropolises, is a melting pot of cultures, and has long drawn disparate American communities to its center.
The jibarito is just one example of the impact that Chicago’s Puerto Rican community has had on the city over the years. The Midwest city is home to the second largest Puerto Rican population off of the island, and has been since the mid-20th century, when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans began migrating to the mainland. The majority made their way to New York, but many also continued on to Chicago, eventually settling in in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. And while the community experienced poverty and hardship, it also made a huge impact. Bilingual education became more common. Healthcare clinics opened. The Puerto Rican People’s Parade, the second largest such parade in the country, became a tradition. And food immediately became embraced… then evolved. That's where the jibarito comes in.
The exact origin of the sandwich’s recipe is a bit unclear. A 2003 article by Chicago Tribune reporter Monica Eng traces Figueroa’s inspiration for the jibarito to a sandwich de platano, which forgoes bread for flattened plantains. According to the Tribune article, Figueroa read about the sandwich in the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero. Specifically, the article pointed to a restaurant on the island, Platano Loco, founded by Jorge Muñoz in the Puerto Rican town of Aguada. The restaurant claimed to have invented the sandwich de platano in 1991, says Normariliz Soto, CEO of the family-owned business.
Soto says that her father-in-law came up with the idea one late night when the family was craving sandwiches but had no bread. Thinking on the fly, Muñoz went to the backyard, grabbed some plantains, and fashioned two long tostones to use as buns instead -- later calling it the sandwich de platano. Muñoz began making the sandwich for friends and family members and eventually the family bought a small storage shed where they opened Platano Loco.
The plantain sandwich gained in popularity, Soto says, with local and international media interviewing the family, which she says the family believes is how Figueroa learned about the recipe.
Today Soto and her husband, Jorge Muñoz Jr. operate the restaurant in Rincón, having relocated after the original location collapsed following Hurricane María.