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The first thing you notice when you saunter up to the service window at Jim’s Original (1250 S Union Ave, 312-733-7820) on the Near South Side—other than the heavenly smell of onions sizzling on the grill—is a large sign that reads: WE ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OTHER HOT DOG STAND IN THE AREA.
This is important. Because when you’re the original, there are always imitators.
Plenty of local hot-dog stands peddle a dubious connection to the old Maxwell Street Market by simply including the words Maxwell Street in their name; some even mimic the bright yellow-and-red color scheme from Jim’s Original, the stand most synonymous with the market’s mid–20th-century heyday. But don’t be fooled.
Not much has survived from those days when Chicago’s Jewish shop owners, entrepreneurial European immigrants and street-playing bluesmen dominated the shopping destination around Maxwell and Halsted Streets, but what does remain is served here 24 hours a day, usually with mustard, and piled high with those delicious caramelized onions.
For more than 60 years, a trip to the original Maxwell Street Market meant a stop at Jim’s. Perhaps best known for its Maxwell Street Polish sausage, Jim’s also dishes out a high-quality hot dog. And while its steamed Viennas feature that signature snap when you bite into the casing, they’re distinguished from strict “Chicago-style” offerings because their dogs are served with mustard and grilled onions only (raw onion, relish and peppers available upon request) on a fresh Rosen bun, but sans poppy seeds.
Jimmy Stefanovic established Jim’s Original in 1939, the same year he arrived in Chicago. An industrious Yugoslavian who had escaped both the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and Nazi Europe, he bought his aunt’s small street stand and slowly built up the business, eventually taking over the building occupied by a deli on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted. “It was the cornerstone of the market,” explains owner Jim Christopoulos, 40, Stefanovic’s grandson and namesake. “People would tell stories of [the crowds] being seven or ten people deep. There would be a constant flood of people.”
Stefanovic passed away in 1976, but his son Gus Christopoulos (father to current owner, Jim) took over, and the stand thrived even as the Maxwell Street area fell into decay. Still, Jim’s Original remained synonymous with the culture of the neighborhood. When Jake and Elwood visit Maxwell Street in The Blues Brothers, there’s a quick shot of the grill at Jim’s. (“I pause that scene every so often,” Jim says with pride.)
By the time The Blues Brothers came out in 1980, however, the expanding University of Illinois at Chicago was already buying up buildings in the area, and the legendary spot’s days were numbered—at least at its original locale. (The northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted is now home to a place unfortunately more indicative of today’s culture: a Jamba Juice.) In 2001, Jim’s took up temporary digs a few blocks away at the northwest corner of Union Avenue and James M. Rochford Street before moving in 2005 to its current spot across the street on the southwest corner, just off the Dan Ryan Expressway.
And the crowds keep coming. Although now instead of shoppers making their requisite stop after buying a suit or tube socks at the original Maxwell Street Market, it’s a steady flow of hungry UIC students and a diverse crowd of residents from every corner of the city who pull up along Union all day and night, throw on their blinkers, and take a break at one of the two remarkably clean counters for a few bites of nostalgia on a bun.
“I’ve been coming here for about 30 years,” says Willie Stenson, 70, a sharply dressed regular who drove from Hyde Park. “They treat you all right, the food’s good and they give you enough of it. You can’t beat the prices for what you get here.”
“I don’t eat a lot of hot dogs. So when I do have the taste for one, I’ll come here,” adds Dali Smith, a 50-year-old from South Shore. “It has a certain flavor that other places just can’t imitate.”