Everything You Need to Know About 4 Must-Eat Chicago Sandwiches
On a hit list of the city's must-eat dishes, you'll find not one, not two, but four meals on bread. (And yes, one is a hot dog. Let the debate begin.) We dig into those legends and the modern twists they've inspired. Stomach growling already? Let's eat.
Take a plunge—literally—into the soul of Chicago sandwiches when you order an Italian beef. Known around the city simply as a "beef," this monster piles thinly sliced roast beef and a smattering of green peppers on crusty French bread, then generously soaks it all in jus.
Related: Top Things to Do in Chicago
Fans contest the sandwich's precise origins but agree it has roots in the Italian American community. The most widely accepted tale is that a street peddler named Anthony Ferreri, who delivered various combinations of bread and meat to locals, needed to feed a wedding of 150. He had an idea that could serve twice the amount of people with the same amount of food—before plopping the roast beef onto the bread, he sliced it as thinly as possible and cooked it in its juices. The sandwiches were a hit and led Ferreri's son, Al, to open a beef stand in 1938, known today as the popular Al's #1 Italian Beef.
Where to Eat It
Al's was originally a front for a bookie joint called Al's Bar B-Q, but the shop gained popularity and grew into a franchised chain. Dozens of other Italian beef joints now exist in the Chicago area, including Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park, which has been around since 1961 and was Anthony Bourdain's beef of choice.
Plant-Based Italian Beefless Sandwich from Buona, an Italian beef chain with locations around Chicagoland, has its own tagline: "A Chicago Taste But Plant-Based!" This vegan version of the staple holds its own with sliced seitan (a gluten-based protein), and comes with mild or hot giardiniera for an extra kick.
Order Like a Pro
Here's how to order an Italian beef sandwich like a Chicagoian.
- Pick your peppers: Ask for sweet (roasted green peppers), hot (spicy giadiniera) or both.
- Choose cheese: Cheese isn't a default, but you can add mozzarella or provolone.
- Go for gravy: Order a "dry" beef, and the meat will be snatched out of the jus and left to drip for a few moments before being placed inside the bun; "wet" means the meat will go straight from the jus into the bun; "dipped" means the entire sandwich will be submerged in the jus.
The Reuben could've been invented at a New York City deli called Reuben's around 1914, but another origin story—one that's closer to home—traces the sandwich to the Blackstone Hotel (now the Kimpton Cottonwood) in Omaha, Nebraska.
It's said that in the 1920s, a man named Reuben Kulakofsky asked for a sandwich with corned beef and sauerkraut. The hotel owner's son, Bernard Schimmel, made a concoction of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island on rye—then grilled it. That sandwich became the hotel's signature dish, later winning the National Sandwich Idea Contest (run by the Chicago-based Wheat Flour Institute) in 1956. Reubens eventually made their way to Chicago, where other assimilated Jews opened delis and began slinging similar takes in the '40s and '50s. One of Chicago's most famous renditions? The super-sized, signature Reuben at Manny's Cafeteria and Delicatessen, an institution that's been around since 1942.
Where to Eat It
At Manny's, the classic Reuben comes with the deli's award-winning corned beef, but you can opt to swap for pastrami, turkey pastrami or roasted turkey. The restaurant also offers a vegetarian-friendly Reuben made with a veggie patty.
The curing room at Lardon is a wonder, filled with the restaurant's signature meats. Chef Chris Thompson makes his Reubens with house-smoked pastrami, Midnight Moon Gouda, house sauerkraut and deli pickles on marble rye. Instead of Thousand Island, he adds a swipe of Fancy Sauce—garlic aioli with ketchup and chopped cornichons.
Italian subs exist all over the country, residing under different names: hoagie in Philadelphia, hero in New York, grinder across New England. Chicago's version comes without a special moniker, but just as much pizzazz.
At J.P. Graziano, decades of family history are heaped onto every sandwich. Vincenzo Graziano came to Chicago in 1905 without any money. He opened his first grocery store in 1922, growing the business into the J.P. Graziano Grocery Company.
Where to Eat It
In 2005, Graziano's great-grandson Jim Graziano established a sandwich shop inside the original West Loop grocery store, aiming to showcase the store's selection in a different way. Seventeen years later, J.P. Graziano has become a modern classic. Their take on the Italian sub features hot capicola, Genoa salami, mortadella, hard salami and provolone, plus tomato, lettuce, red wine vinegar and oregano—always stacked in the same order.
At deli and grocer Tempesta Market, father-son duo Agostino and Tony Fiasche upgrade Italian subs. The Dante stars a cast of Italian ingredients—soppressata, piccante, porchetta cotta, hot capicola, mortadella, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato and giardiniera—but sneaks in a spicy spreadable pork sausage known as 'nduja. The Fiasches blend their own Tempesta 'nduja into aioli, which adds a deeper, richer flavor.
Chicago-Style Hot Dog
Nine ingredients—and nine ingredients only—make up a Chicago Red Hot. They include an all-beef frank, a steamed poppy seed bun and a salad bar of toppings.
The unusual inclusion of vegetables (some fresh, some pickled) dates to the Great Depression, when street vendors attempted to make a cheap meal slightly more nutritious by adding garnishes like tomato. As for the bun, you can thank Polish immigrant Sam Rosen, who opened a bakery at age 16 and later debuted a roll studded with poppy seeds that eventually became a crucial element to the city's most famous dog. But the really critical detail is the one you don't see: ketchup. Enthusiasts claim it would ruin the masterpiece—a perfect balance of hot and cold, sour and salty, soft and crunchy. Just don't think about the sodium.
Where to Eat It
The winking red eyes of a macho hot dog and his blushing bride (named after founders Maurie and Flaurie Berman) lure passersby to Superdawg Drive-In. One of the city's most revered spots for a Chicago dog, the family-owned roadside stand has served hot dogs via carhops since 1948—though they cost a little more than 22 cents now.
At The Duck Inn, chef Kevin Hickey pays tribute to the classic with the Duck Inn Dog, a beef-and-duck-fat frank that's grilled and nestled in a brioche bun. The toppings remain true to tradition and include house-made relish and mustard. If you go whole quack and order a side of duck fat fries with Bloody Mary ketchup, make sure the red stuff stays where it belongs—off the dog.
Order Like a Pro
When you order your hot dog "dragged through the garden," here's what you can expect.
- Poppy seed bun: Secure a lightly seeded bun and steam it.
- All-beef frankfurter: Like the bun, the frank is traditionally steamed or simmered.
- Dill pickle: Yep, one entire spear, laid right in there with the dog for brine in every bite.
- Tomato: A healthy touch. Expect wedges of slices cut just fat enough to barely fit.
- Sport Peppers: These crunchy pickled peppers pack in just the right amount of spice.
- Mustard: Yellow mustard is a must, but its red partner in crime is a must-not.
- Chicago-style relish: If it's garishly, unnaturally, Hulkishly green, it's not right.
- Celery salt: Just a little sprinkle on top to boost the flavor.
- Onion: Finely chopped and always white, never purple.