Iconic Illinois Eats: Where to Eat the Greatest Foods in the Land of Lincoln

Here are the most-quintessential plates in the Prairie State — and the best spots to score them.

Photo By: Derek Richmond

Photo By: Dimo Raychev

Photo By: Jason Little ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: David Grunfeld ©17th Street BBQ David Grunfeld

Photo By: Jason Little ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jason Little ©2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Prairie Plates

When it comes to iconic food, Illinois is more than gut-bomb pizza and salad-topped hot dogs. Thanks to a diverse population, it’s also a culinary odyssey waiting to be discovered, rife with Polish, Latino, Italian and Pakistani-inspired fare. So dig in and discover the iconic dishes of Illinois.

 

Bacon-Wrapped Chorizo-Stuffed Dates

Though Chicago features a world-class dining scene with thousands of restaurants, the scene is always changing. Menus turn over daily, and hundreds of new dishes are invented. One constant, and maybe one of the most-identifiable dishes other than deep-dish pizza and hot dogs, is Avec’s bacon-wrapped date. It’s a Mediterranean play on the classic Devil’s on Horseback, with the pork factor upped by stuffing chorizo into the sweet, caramelized fruit. Instead of eating it dry on a toothpick in classic form, the dates swims in a spicy, tangy piquillo-pepper tomato sauce that makes diners swoon.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Noto

Go to: Avec

The Original Maid-Rite Sandwich

Though Maid-Rite was originally founded in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1926 by Fred Angell, generations of Illinoisans on their way to the quad cities or the historic Abe Lincoln sites in Springfield have made a special stop at a Maid-Rite. Most want the signature “original” Maid-Rite, a pillowy bun filled with zesty hot ground beef. Some people compare it to a sloppy joe, but Sloppy Joes are usually doused in a cloying tomato-based sauce that masks any meaty flavor, whereas the Maid-Rite’s rich beefiness is front and center, balanced by a tangy pickle or two.

Photo courtesy of Adam Reynolds

Go to: Maid-Rite Sandwich Shop

Deep-Dish Pizza

Because it’s a knife-and-fork affair that threatens your cardiac health, most Illinoisans eat deep-dish pizza only a few times a year. But when they do, the best places to get it are the restaurants run by the sons of deep-dish pizza co-inventor Rudy Malnati Sr.: Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s (owned by Rudy Malnati Jr.). Rudy Jr.’s spot gets the edge over his brother’s, because his crust is more buttery and golden and a little less hefty. The sauce is delectably salty and ripe with tomato. You can get any topping, but if you want to keep it real, stick to — as the locals pronounce it —“ssaaah-sidge.”

Apple Fritter

When you think of apple fritters, you probably think about those tiny, glazed, dried hunks of pastry that, if you’re lucky, have maybe one apple chunk inside each. The Old Fashioned Donuts version, which is deep-fried, separates into moist gossamer threads when you tear it apart and has a whole apple’s worth of diced cinnamon-coated cubes nestled in its interior. It’s also Texas-sized and can feed a family if necessary.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Old Fashioned Doughnuts

Hackney’s Original French-Fried Onions

Hackney’s Original French Fried Onions are sort of like a Bloomin’ Onion that’s been smashed into a tiny shoebox. Rather than a kind of tempura fry, the Hackney’s onion loaf has a mahogany-colored bready batter and features super-thin sliced Spanish onions, which make the whole thing deeply savory and craveworthy. 

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Hackney's

Grand Champion Baby Back Ribs

The Memphis in May World Championship Barbeque Cooking Contest is known as the Super Bowl of Swine. And its Tom Brady is Mike Mills. In the 1990s, Mills and his Apple City Barbecue team won four world championships and three grand world championships at the vaunted event. Mills then turned to launching a restaurant empire, which now includes spots in Las Vegas, Illinois and New York. The original restaurant is in Murphysboro, Ill., and it serves Mills’ grand-champion slab of baby backs sprinkled with Magic Dust and slow-smoked over apple and cherry woods for six hours. 

Go to: 17th Street Bar & Grill

Hot Dog

Though it’s not found within Chicago’s proper city limits, the best Chicago dog — a hot dog that’s been dragged through the garden, so to speak, to double as sort of a meat sandwich topped with a salad — can be found in nearby River Grove. The casing of the boiled dog is snappy, and its richness finds a foil in zippy yellow mustard, a tangy pickle, spicy sport peppers and sweet green relish. There is no tomato and absolutely no ketchup (this would be an egregious faux pas), but there is a crown of twice-fried perfect french fries.

Go to: Gene & Jude's

Pizza Pot Pie

If French onion soup, spaghetti Bolognese and a sausage-stuffed pot pie formed a trio, the pizza pot pie here would be their offspring. Winey mushrooms and fennel-kissed sausage mingle underneath a dome of bubbly cheese inside a thick, bready crust filled with deeply savory tomato sauce. In a city of deep dish, this is the deepest.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co.

Cemita Atomica

Technically the cemita is a Mexican sandwich not seen outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. But Cemitas Puebla owner Tony Anteliz, who longed to eat them in Chicago between visits to his ancestral home, decided to re-create the sandwich in Illinois. His work is now a local legend, thanks to its crusty sesame-seeded bun baked in-house and stuffed with a pig’s worth of fried, breaded Milanese-style pork, guajillo-chile-slathered roast pork and a slice of ham. The meats are topped with a mozzarella-like Mexican cheese, chipotle-pineapple sauce, avocado and, when in season, a spicy-citrusy herb called papalo, grown in Anteliz’s family’s yard.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: Cemitas Puebla

The Horseshoe

The Horseshoe is a drunk-food dare dating to 1920, when Chef Joe Schweska of the Leland Hotel threw two thick-cut slices of bread on a sizzle plate (aka the anvil), topped it with a thick slice of horseshoe-shaped ham and french fries (the nails) and doused the whole thing in a white sharp-cheddar sauce inspired by Welsh rarebit. Today, any respectable restaurant in Springfield, Ill., serves a version, though they tend to include nuclear yellow cheese, frozen fries and any variety of meats — think corned beef, ground beef, Italian sausage, bacon or steak. There’s even a breakfast version where hash browns stand in for fries. D’Arcy’s Supreme, topped with ground beef, spicy cheese sauce, tomatoes, bacon and scallions, aka Irish nachos, is our winner.

Photo courtesy of Adam Reynolds

Go to: D’Arcy’s Pint

Garrett Mix

Braving a blizzard or sweltering summer heat to stand in line for popcorn — as so many do here — sounds like a tourist thing. But the sweet-and-savory mix of popcorn freshly lacquered in hot buttery caramel and neon-orange finger-staining cheese powder is so addictive that jaded longtime Chicagoans also partake in the ritual many times a year just to get a fix. 

Go to: Garrett Popcorn

Maxwell-Style Polish Sausage

In theory, the Maxwell-Style Polish is not rocket science. It’s a big, thick, garlicky sausage modeled on Polish kielbasa, topped with caramelized onion and yellow mustard. And yet, although 1,000 stands sell it in Illinois, only a handful get it right. Often, the sausages are overcooked, the buns are dry, the mustard drizzle is parsimonious and the onions are soggy. But at Edzo’s, you get a smoky charred dog sliced so the ends curl like claws. Those claws grip at the golden onions and the ample slather of tangy yellow mustard, making this one of the best versions of the classic in the state.

Go to: Edzo's Burger Shop

Garlic Rolls and Crab

Chicago might be landlocked, but thanks to Bob Chinn’s, one of America’s largest and highest-grossing independent restaurants, it also serves more king crab than most places outside of Alaska. Annually, thousands of people gorge on crab as well as the house garlic rolls — soft, pillowy Parker House-style rolls dripping with butter, garlic and fuzzy, fluttering green herbs. 

Go to: Bob Chinn’s Crabhouse

The Cozy Dog

The founders of Cozy Dog didn’t invent the corn dog, but they were allegedly the first to put one on a stick and sell it at the Illinois State Fair, in 1946. Originally, the batter-enrobed hot dogs were called Crusty Curs and sold at a U.S. Air Force base in Amarillo, Texas, by Ed Waldmire Jr. When Ed left the Air Force and returned to Springfield to sell his wares, his wife didn’t like the name, so she dubbed them Cozy Dogs, and the rest is history.

Go to: Cozy Dog Drive In

Smoked Salmon

Second-generation owner Mark Kotlick carries on the work of his dad and uncle by slow-smoking salmon, shrimp and other assorted fish in blackened smokehouses charred by almost a century’s worth of fire. The ruby-hued skin on Alaskan salmon is luscious, fluffy and flaky, and redolent of black pepper. Gravlax is great, but this stuff will really make a bagel’s day.

Go to: Calumet Fisheries

Bistec/Steak Jibarito

Though found at pretty much every Puerto Rican joint in Chicago, the Jibarito — a sandwich featuring lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and meat stuffed in between two fried, salted green plantains (instead of bread) — isn’t really found in Puerto Rico itself. That’s because it was invented in the Windy City by Juan Figueroa of the now-defunct Borinquen, in Humboldt Park. Though the original home of the Jibarito is now closed, the best example is a garlicky, crisp number sold at The Jibarito Stop in Pilsen.

Photo courtesy of Jason Little Photography

Go to: The Jibarito Stop

Roast Beef Sandwich

There is always a line at Johnnie’s. But you wait in it. When the line moves along and you find yourself at the door of Johnnie’s, you do not open the door and hang out in the doorjamb. You keep that door closed until there’s enough room for you in the lobby, or risk being shamed. You also rehearse your order, because the hardscrabble dudes behind the counter don’t suffer the indecisive. You endure these rituals to earn the best thin-shaved roast beef topped with spicy and sweet pepper giardiniera (no, they do not offer cheese; this isn’t Philly), all stuffed into an airy white roll dipped in gravy in all of Illinois. Which is to say, when you do go to Johnnie’s, make sure you also know the lingo and order a “beef, sweet, hot and dipped.”

Photo courtesy of Mike Gebert

Go to: Johnnie's Beef

Pierogis

Illinois boasts over 1 million people of Polish descent. As a result, there is no shortage of examples of Polish cuisine, including stuffed cabbages, city chicken, kielbasa and those carb-tastic dumplings, pierogi. So many pierogi can be frozen, underseasoned, gluey and chewy. Smak-Tak, however, serves standard-setting pierogi, the kind of stuff your babcia, or Polish grandmother, would create. They are light, well-salted dumplings overflowing with potato and cheese, glistening in butter and served with a swirl of sour cream.

Photo courtesy of Mike Gebert

Go to: Smak-Tak

Pork Tenderloin

Hand-cut, hand-trimmed, hand-pounded and hand-breaded since 1937, the pork tenderloin cutlet at The Igloo overflows its bun like wine pouring over the edge of a goblet. The Igloo was founded by Louis and Pat Mazzorana on the Fourth of July in 1937. These days, Rich and Chris Decker, lifelong Peru, Ill., residents and restaurateurs, carry on the traditions of the Mazzoranas by making sure the pork is never frozen, always fresh, and reliably crispy and tantalizing.

Go to: The Igloo Diner

The Mr. G

From Bari Grocery to Fontano’s in Little Italy, basic Italian subs are legion in Illinois. To really stand out, you’ve got to spice things up, which is just what fourth-generation owner Jim Graziano does here with his Italian hero. He starts with Roman-style artichokes, then adds in basil, lettuce dressed in red wine vinegar and a tangy, funky housemade truffle-mustard vinaigrette and serves it all over provolone, prosciutto, Genoa salami and hot soppressata on a crusty Italian white bun. It’s so good your nonna won’t have to tell you to clean your plate.

Go to: J.P. Graziano Grocery & Sub Shop

The Rainbow Cone

In 1926, at the corner of 92nd Place and Western Avenue, Joseph Sapp started serving a combo of five slices (not scoops) of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla studded with walnuts and cherries) and pistachio ice creams and orange cream sherbet packed on top of a wafer-style cone. Sapp grew up as an orphan, and his ice cream stand was a tribute to the fact that ice cream cones were a rare treat during his childhood. The walnuts and cherries were added during the Depression to make the cone a sort of substantial value meal. Today, a Rainbow Cone is an inevitable rite of summer in Illinois.

Go to: Original Rainbow Cone

Fried Chicken

Very few Illinoisans’ Thanksgiving or Christmas vacations are complete without a family visit to White Fence Farm. They come for the golden fried chicken served with a smorgasbord of dressings and sides, including pickled beets, corn fritters and bean salad. Equally worth a trip is the museum like atmosphere, which includes old cars, a curio stuffed with creepy teddy bears and an army of gonging grandfather clocks.

Go to: White Fence Farm

Guacamole del Dia

Illinois has more than 2 million Hispanic citizens, and hundreds, if not thousands, of taquerias. The best, hands down, however, is Bien Trucha, located in the cute sleepy riverside town of Geneva, 40 miles outside of Chicago. Guacamole might not seem like a particularly Midwestern thing, but Bien Trucha twists theirs by studding it with fruit like melon or pomegranate to create a uniquely local combo of salty and sweet.

Go to: Bien Trucha

Italian Lemonade

Italian lemonade is not lemonade. It’s more like a lemon shaved ice or snow cone stuffed with curls of lemon zest. But that’s the just the base. There’s a veritable rainbow of flavors on offer at Mario’s, and unlike many local imitators who infuse their Italian ice with artificially flavored syrups, Mario’s includes huge chunks of actual fruit in its cups of frozen goodness. Pomegranate, watermelon and Tutti Fruity, aka fruit cocktail, are the best, at least until a seasonal gem, peach, makes its celebrated appearance in August.

Go to: Mario's Italian Lemonade

Chicken Boti

Smoky bits of juicy-to-the-bone chicken — blistered from their turn in a clay tandoor — are slathered with fiery green chiles to taste like a transcendent backyard summer barbecue via Pakistan. Slap some of the chicken on the puffy, fresh made-to-order naan along with a slather of cucumber-studded raita and you’ve got yourself a sandwich of the gods.

Go to: Khan BBQ