11 ways to eat like a local in Chicago

It’s not all deep dish and hot dogs—but we do recommend trying both while you’re here
Photograph: Nick Murway
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As the third-largest city in the U.S., Chicago is a veritable melting pot of cultures. The metro area is home to strong, vibrant immigrant communities that have not only shaped its neighborhoods but have also infused the food scene with rich, traditional eats and new takes on cultural staples. Citydwellers enjoy chowing down on cuisines from around the globe, including Mexican, Polish, Thai, Chinese and Italian. We’ve even put our own twists on classics—like our infamous deep dish pizza, which is undoubtedly thicker, meatier and saucier than any pie on the planet.

If you haven’t already guessed, we like to indulge—it's part of our mission here at Time Out. For the last 50 years, we've been helping readers find the most worthwhile dining experiences in cities around the world. Yes, we've been stuffing our faces with the best local fare for five decades, and we don't plan on slowing down anytime soon. Check out the 11 culinary delicacies that made the list in Chicago.

How to eat like a local in Chicago

Photograph: Martha Williams

Pizza

Whether you’re craving a massive slice or a proper pie, Chicago has you covered on the pizza front. Locals devour everything from coal-charred Neapolitan ’za to thick dough topped with wild ingredients. But it’s deep dish pizza that really put Chicago on the map. Though its origin is often debated (for the record, most purists point to Pizzeria Uno), the city’s devotion to the delicacy is uncontested. The anatomy of a true deep dish pie starts with sturdy, buttery crust that’s molded into a high-sided pan. The dough is layered with cheese, a thin patty of Italian sausage (optional) and whatever other toppings you choose before the whole thing is blanketed in chunky tomato sauce. Plan to share—you won’t need more than a slice or two of this gluttonous treat.

Where to get it: Lou Malnati’s has locations all over the city, making it easy to find one of the most consistent deep dish pies we’ve tried, but most locals will point you to Pequod’s, a Lincoln Park pizzeria that’s famous for its caramelized crust. Be prepared to wait for a table at both.

Photograph: Nick Murway

Italian beef

As the story goes, Al Ferrari dreamed up the Italian beef sandwich in 1938 in reaction to the scarcity of meat during the Great Depression. In order to do more with less, he tucked thin slices of beef into thick loaves of Italian bread and sold his signature sandwich from a small storefront in Little Italy. Fast-forward to today and you’ll find Al’s #1 Italian Beef Restaurants all over Chicago—there are eight locations in the city alone. Though the city is thriving today and in no danger of running out of meat anytime soon, the sandwich remains an icon. To order like a local, you’ve got a few decisions to make. Sweet or hot peppers? Cheese or no cheese? Dry, wet or dipped in jus? If it’s your first time, we recommend going dipped with sweet peppers, no cheese.

Where to get it: If you’ve got a car, drive to Elmwood Park for Johnnie’s Beef. If not, hit the original Al’s #1 Italian Beef, which is still kicking in Little Italy.

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Photograph: Nick Murway

Chicago-style hot dog

The Chicago-style hot dog has a surprisingly complex history, so let’s go over a quick anatomy lesson before we dive in. Chicago dogs are stuffed into a soft poppy seed bun before they’re topped with yellow mustard, bright green relish, chopped onions, tomatoes, a kosher pickle spear, sport peppers and a pinch of celery salt. Just like the Italian beef, this handheld was born in the Great Depression, when hot dogs were cheap, filling and easy to come by. Its unique ingredients are a reflection of Chicago’s complex cultural makeup. Jewish immigrants from Germany introduced the city to the all-beef dog; a Polish-born immigrant crafted the first poppy seed bun; market vendors from Italy, Greece, Poland and beyond piled the sausage with vegetables to make it more sustainable. The combination locals know and love today is the variation that stuck. Whatever you do, just don’t ask for ketchup. 

Where to get it: We’re big fans of the classic dogs at Byron’s, with two no-frills locations in Lakeview and Ravenswood.

Photograph: Nick Murway

Tamales

The tamale has been present throughout history (some say as early as 8000 B.C.), and although its roots cannot be traced to Chicago, locals have a special connection to the savory, corn-husk–wrapped bundles. The city is home to tamale shops and vendors that run the gamut—from cooler-touting purveyors who roam dive bars after hours (a.k.a. the Tamale Guy) to new-wave shops that stuff their masa with funky ingredients. For the uninitiated, tamales start with masa or dough and are stuffed with meats, veggies, cheeses and fruits; each handheld package is then wrapped in a corn husk and steamed. To discover the city’s best versions, head to Pilsen, where you’ll find everything from traditional pork-filled tamales soaked in salsa verde to a vegan option that’s stuffed with root vegetables and topped with onion marmalade.

Where to get it: For something traditional, book it to Yvolina’s Tamales in Pilsen. Those looking for something funkier should check out Dia De Los Tamales, with locations in Pilsen and the Loop.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Jibarito

Believe it or not, the jibarito—a sandwich that uses fried plantains instead of bread—originated right here in Chicago at the now-defunct Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park. These days, you can find the Puerto Rican handheld all over the city, with a higher concentration in Humboldt Park and Logan Square. Thin but sturdy planks of fried plantains are brushed with garlic mayo and topped with meat, veggies and cheese. After one messy bite, you'll wonder why more sandwich shops don't carry this ingenious creation.

Where to get it: The steak jibarito at the Jibarito Stop in Pilsen made our list of 100 best dishes in 2017. It's slathered in buttery garlic and loaded with tender steak, tomatoes, lettuce and Chihuahua cheese. (Are you drooling yet?)

Fried Chicken
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

Fried chicken

You can’t visit Chicago without indulging in some crispy, oil-dappled poultry. If you dig into fried chicken’s cultural significance in Chicago, you’ll come across Harold Pierce’s name again and again. He and his wife, Hilda, founded Harold’s Chicken Shack in 1950; today the chicken empire boasts dozens of locations in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. Later known as the “Fried Chicken King,” Pierce became a entrepreneurial pioneer in the city’s black community. Rappers Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco and Kendrick Lamar have all worked the chicken shop into their lyrics, making Harold’s a true Chicago icon.

Where to get it: If you like it hot, get your fix at the Budlong, with outposts in the Loop, Lincoln Park and Lincoln Square. Craving something a bit more soulful? Chicago’s Home Of Chicken & Waffles has you covered with its namesake dish every day of the week.

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Do-Rite Donuts
Photograph: Christina Slaton

Donuts

Chicagoans are serious about their fried dough, making it easy to find quality doughnut shops in most neighborhoods around town. The donut made a brief historical appearance in Chicago at the 1934 World’s Fair, where the pastry was emblazoned on posters and advertised as “the food hit of the Century of Progress,” according to the Smithsonian. The hype hasn’t faded—if anything, it’s only intensified. Today Chicagoans like ’em baked, fried, glazed and rolled in sugar; we top them with nuts, sprinkles, bacon and cereal. As an added bonus, it’s a cheap alternative to Chicago’s best brunch spots.

Where to find it: Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken and Doughnut Vault are two of the best. If you love a good glazed donut, check out Dat Donut in Chatham for cloud-like morsels. 

Small Cheval
Photograph: Kevin J. Miyazaki

Cheeseburger

No, the cheeseburger didn’t originate in Chicago, but that hasn’t stopped this meat-loving city from fully embracing it. If you want to eat like a local while you’re here, you must make time to grab a burger and fries, which isn’t hard considering just about every restaurant has an option on its menu. City dwellers are particularly fond of the two-patty build, which hinges on thin, griddled patties that are blanketed in American cheese and accessorized with any variety of toppings. Chicago’s most notable and mimicked burger (more on that below) is dressed with Dijonnaise and house-made pickles.

Where to get it: Once crowned America’s best burger by the Food Network, Au Cheval is the patty you’ll hear all about from locals and visitors alike. There’s no denying it’s an excellent burger, but the wait list for a table can set you back three to four hours. If you don’t have time, head nearby to the Loyalist for a very worthy replacement.

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Carnitas Uruapan
Courtesy Carnitas Uruapan

Carnitas

Carnitas, which translates to “little meats,” is a traditional Mexican dish that originated in the state of Michoacán, sandwiched between Guadalajara and Mexico City. Pork is braised and roasted and shredded into small pieces that can be consumed on their own or swaddled in a tortilla. Unsurprisingly, the city’s best carnitas can be found in Pilsen, a neighborhood where Mexican, German, Irish and Czech immigrants settled during World War I. By the ’60s the community was predominantly Mexican; and in 1975, Inocencio Carbajal opened Carnitas Uruapan on the main drag of 18th Street. Today the restaurant—and the dish—remain popular fixtures of the community.

Where to find it: Carnitas Uruapan—this one’s a no-brainer.

Pierogi
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

Pierogi

Chicago is home to a vast and vital Polish population, which has forever changed the way locals eat. Poles started immigrating to Chicago in earnest in the 1860s, when liberated peasants flocked to the U.S. for the promise of a better, more prosperous life. The Archdiocese of Chicago made the city a particularly attractive option for incoming families with its Polish-speaking schools and churches. Since then, Poles have continued to immigrate to Chicago, bringing with them paczki, zurek and, of course, pierogi. The filled dumplings can be found throughout the city and tell a special story of an immigrant community making its mark on a Midwestern city. 

Where to find it: Find dense, perfectly stuffed pillows at Podhalanka in Wicker Park. 

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bars.jeppsonmalort

Malört

Ah, Malört. You might as well taste this bitter wormwood liqueur on your own accord; if you don’t, a local will likely trick you into taking a shot of it. Like many items on this list, this polarizing beverage is a byproduct of immigration. Carl Jeppson came to Chicago from his native Sweden in the the mid-1880s and first produced and bottled Jeppson’s Malört in 1934. It survived Prohibition as a medicinal alcohol (wormwood is a parasite-killing herb), and today it’s regarded as a rite of passage for many Chicagoans. Google “Malört face” at your own risk. 

Where to find it: The dirtier the dive bar, the better.

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