Chicago has a storied love affair with food and drink. The city was dubbed “The Hog Butcher for the World” by native son and poet Carl Sandburg in the early 1900s. Or if your hankering was for steak, “The City of Big Shoulders” was where you could find the thickest and juiciest between New York and Dallas. Steakhouses flourished as well as neighborhood taps, where a guy could stop for a cold brew after putting in a hard day at the stock yards, tanneries and factories before heading home.
A city of immigrants, Chicago developed around neighborhoods with identifiable names and ethnic inhabitants: Irish, Germans, Poles, Swedes, Jews, Greeks and Italians. Later, large numbers of African-Americans migrating from the Deep South as well as Hispanics and Asians established their own enclaves. Over the last 20 years, a blur of new settlers joined the mix.
Today with more than 8,000 restaurants, the Windy City is a virtual melting pot of international cuisine. No wonder Chicago ranks the second most popular destination among business travelers. Beside its signature hot dogs and deep-dish pizza, the city boasts some of the nation’s finest restaurants, not to mention one of the largest outdoor food festivals in the world.
39th Annual Taste of Chicago
If you love food, drink and music in the open air on a summer day, you’ll relish the city’s Annual Taste of Chicago food festival. As always, this year’s event, July 10 to 14, will be staged along the central downtown lakefront at Grant Park with its glorious crown jewel, Buckingham Fountain. This gathering is arguably the biggest block party on the planet.
More than 1.5 million foodies indulge themselves unabashedly during the five-day bash. Representing a big helping of Chicago’s extraordinary culinary and cultural offerings, you’ll find 82 restaurant booths and 17 food trucks serving up more than 300 menu items. To hone your culinary skills, stop at a cooking demonstration while sipping on an ice-cold beer or wine.
Admission is free, as well as sample offerings from some exhibitors. Otherwise, food and beverage tickets are sold on site in strips of 14 tickets for $10 (includes $3 charge for Taste amenities). Smaller Taste portions are available for 3 to 6 tickets. Ticket booths accept cash, credit and debit. Open Wednesday-Friday 11:00 AM – 9:00 PM, Saturday-Sunday 10:00 AM – 9:00 PM.
Taste of Chicago Classics
If your business travel plans aren’t in sync with the Taste of Chicago gala, don’t cry in your beer. The following bucket list of select Taste of Chicago eateries and their classic offerings, as compiled by the Chicago Tribune and my own fond memories, will fill in the gaps.
Dessert: Eli’s Cheesecake Café
Voted Chicago’s best place for dessert, Eli’s Cheesecake Café claim to fame is its eponymous show-stopping meal-ender. Eli Schulman created his signature cheesecake in 1966 at Eli’s the Place for Steak located in Streeterville. The original plain cheesecake, topped with strawberries is a longstanding favorite. There’s a delicious lunch offering too, including homemade soup, freshly prepared artisan sandwiches and gourmet salads. Choose to dine in their vaulted ceiling coffeehouse atmosphere or outdoor patio during warm weather months. (Eli’s is also at O’Hare Airport.) Open daily 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM; Saturday 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM; Sunday 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM; 6701 West Forest Preserve Dr., Tel. 773-205-3800; elicheesecake.com
Dessert: Original Rainbow Cone
The Original Rainbow Cone has been a South Side institution since 1926, and a Taste of Chicago regular for more than 30 years. The Rainbow Cone is stacked with chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House and pistachio ice creams, topped with orange sherbet. Other flavors are Black Walnut, Butter Pecan, New York Vanilla, Cookie Dough, Cookies and Cream, Chocolate Peanut Butter, Bubble Gum, and Mint Flake. It also offers shakes and sundaes, and delicious cakes and cake rolls. It’s worth standing in line for – and they cater too.Open Monday-Thursday, 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM; Friday-Sunday, 11:00 AM – 10:30 PM; 9233 S Western Ave., Tel. 238-7075
Barbecue: Robinson’s No 1 Ribs
With mouth-watering daily lunch specials under $6.95 it would be unfair to say people rave about Robinson’s for its prices. That’s because its BBQ tips, boneless ribs, pulled pork, angus cheeseburger and fish sandwich lunches served with fries are fantastically good on their own. But the real deal diva is its memorable dinner menu – baby back ribs, St. Louis style ribs, rib tips and fried chicken and fish dinners. Opening his restaurant in 1982, Charlie Robinson never forgot his Southern roots growing up in Mississippi. Some of his favorite memories are of his grandfather’s barbecues. Inheriting the secret of a sauce cherished by 14 generations of Robinsons, Charlie has spent long hours refining the treasured 200-year old recipe. Open 10:30 AM – 8:00 PM every day; 225 S Canal St; Tel. 312-258-8477
Cheeseburger: Billy Goat Tavern
This was one of my regular haunts when I was a young ad exec with the Chicago SunTimes in the late 70s. Made famous in part by hometown comedians Bill Murray and John Belushi (and Dan Aykroyd) on Saturday Night Live in 1978, this legendary hideout tucked under Michigan Ave. has been flipping famous “cheezborgers” for beer-thirsty journalists since 1934. That’s when Greek immigrant William “Billy Goat” Sianis founded it. Back in the day, I bumped elbows with acerbic columnist Mike Royko at its small bar after work. If you like Chicago journalism history, this is a living museum. Open daily 6:00 AM – 2:00 AM; 405 Michigan Ave., Tel. 312-733-9132; billygoattavern.com
Hot Dogs: Gold Coast Dogs
When it comes to dog fights between “Chi-Towners” and New Yorkers, Chicago-style hot dogs win paws down. The first Gold Coast Dogs opened in 1985, but Chicago-style dogs go way back to the 1920s, when Jewish merchants sold them on “Maxwell Street,” a famous flea market. Better than Coney Island’s, an authentic Chicago dog is a kosher-style, all-beef frankfurter that is either steamed or water-simmered. Served inside a poppy seed bun and ordered with the “works,” it’s topped with yellow mustard (ketchup is taboo), sprinkled with white chopped onions, bright green, sweet pickle relish, two dill pickle spears, plump tomato slices or wedges, pickled sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt, the whole thing paired with a mound of french fries.Open daily 10:00 AM – 7:30 PM; Sunday 11:00 AM – 6:00 PM; 159 N. Wabash Ave., Tel. 312-917-1677;
Italian Beef: Buona
Chicagoans crave juicy, Italian beef sandwiches, and Buona is a Chicagoland classic. Claiming to offer the “Original Italian Beef Sandwich,” Buona was founded by the Buonavolanto family in 1981. True to form, the hefty meat lovers delight is served on gravy-soaked, thick sliced Italian bread that’s filled with layer after layer of super-thin meat slivers that are seasoned, seared, slow roasted and hand trimmed for an unforgettable, belly-busting experience. Numerous locations can be found around the city and suburbs. Dine-in, carryout, catering. Open daily 10:00 AM – 10:00 PM; 613 N. McClurg Ct.; Tel. 312-643-0677;
Pizza: Lou Malnati’s
Ask any Chicago ex-pat what they miss about home the most and they’ll reply, “Deep Dish Pizza!” It’s absolutely unmatched. The origin of deep dish pizza is the subject of legend. Some aficionados say the recipe was created in 1943 by Ike Sewell, owner of Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. But others say it was the restaurant’s pizza chef, Rudy Malnati, who developed the secretive, seductive recipe and then opened his own restaurant in 1971.Malnati’s unique flavor can be found it its flaky, buttery pizza crust, exclusive sausage blend, vine ripened plum tomatoes from California, and Wisconsin cheese. Delivered to your table in a piping hot, three-inch deep iron skillet on a cutting board, the bad boy is eaten with a knife and fork. After one bite, you’ll be like a baby crying for more. Customize your pie with onions, mushrooms, bell peppers, and extra ground Italian sausage laden with fennel, or spicy pepperoni. Personally, I like double sausage with mushrooms – and the sausage doesn’t come in a patty, and it definitely doesn’t look like rabbit droppings. Sample a slice of history. Dine-in, carryout, delivery or ship it! Multiple locations, including Arizona.Open Monday-Thursday, 10:30 AM – 12:00 AM; Friday and Saturday, 10:30 AM – 1:00 AM; Sunday, 10:30 AM – 12:00 AM; 439 N. Wells St., Tel. 312- 828-9800;
Seafood: Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp
If you love fish and shrimp anytime, Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp is open 24 hours, seven days a week at three locations. The popular eatery, founded in 1950 by Lawrence Schweig, offers a large variety of reasonably priced seafood and chicken. Shrimp is their specialty; order it fried, boiled or smoked. I remember stopping there with my teenage friends in the late 60s to pick up a brown bag of juicy fried shrimp to go – it was the snack of kings. They also serve coconut and popcorn shrimp and Shrimp Po Boy sandwiches. Other seafood includes scallops, oysters, clam strips, crab cakes, frog legs, fish chips, catfish strips, ocean perch, crunchy cod and whole catfish. Check out their slaw and banana pudding. During the summer enjoy a cruise and some seafood aboard their BBQ Pontoon, located right off the restaurant’s dock on Canal St. on the Chicago River.Open 24/7; 2120 Canal St., Tel. 312-225-2113;
Steak Sandwich: Ricobene’s
USAToday called Ricobene’s Breaded Steak Sandwich the “best in the world.” Chef Anthony Bourdain said, “There’s no delicate way to eat this. You just hoist and go. That is a thing of beauty. And tasty.” Established in 1946, the restaurant is located in historic Bridgeport, the hometown neighborhood of Mayors Daley. A combination of ingredients makes it stand out – perfectly seasoned, tender steak, served piping hot, slathered with sweet tomato sauce inside crispy tasty wrap-around breading. (Ask for mozzerrella cheese and hot giardiniera for extra kick.) It has menu offering too: pizza, pasta and wings – anyway you like it. But the world beats a path to its door for the sandwich! Open Monday-Thursday, 9:00 AM – 12:30 AM; Friday, 9:00 AM – 2:00 AM, Saturday, 10:00 AM – 2:00 AM, Sunday 10:00 AM – midnight; 252 W. 26th St., Tel. 312-225-5555;
Dining at Arun’s Thai Restaurant is an exotic experience. It was featured in the NY Times bestseller 1000 Places to See Before You Die, and world-renowned Thai chef and owner Arun Sampanthavivat won a James Beard Award for Best Chef in 2000. Enjoy the prix fixe menu which offers multi-course individual or family banquet presentations in the central dining room or private room upstairs. Since 1985, Arun’s focus has been food served as art, and the restaurant’s beautiful interior complements that mission with Thai artifacts and craft work from the Chef’s private collection. Open Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday 5:00 PM – 9:00 PM; Friday and Saturday, 5:00 PM – 9:30 PM; 4156 N. Kedzie Ave., Tel. 773-539-190; arunsthai.com
These are just a few of the many eateries that have made “that Toddlin’ Town” legendary as a cornucopia of iconic native and international gastronomic adventures. Now the future belongs to a new wave of traditional and fusion restaurants throughout Chicago’s growing patchwork of ethnic neighborhoods – Asian, Caribbean, Indian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, North African, South American and more.