Deep dish pizza, Italian beef, Chicago hot dog. The original Chicago food triumvirate comprises our most well-known city specialties. They’re what people feel they must try when they visit the city.
There are many other Chicago original foods, some of which you likely have never enjoyed. Here are just a few of the Chicago original foods that few tourists arrive to Chicago expecting to sample, usually because they don’t know these tempting foods exist.
Since 1972, Fat Johnnie’s Famous Red Hots in Marquette Park on Chicago’s South Side has been housed in what is lovingly referred to as “the shack.” This tumbledown wooden building, with hand-painted signage and menu, looks like it was hit by a hurricane; there are few right angles on the grubby white structure, which has a sloping wooden awning in front. It does not look like the most promising place to grab lunch. It is, however, a landmark of Chicago food greatness, as the home of the Mother-in-Law, a Chicago corn roll tamale in a hot dog bun, covered in chili, dressed like a dragged-through-the-garden Chicago hot dog. When Anthony Bourdain came to Chicago, one of his stops was Fat Johnnie’s, where he chomped into a Mother-in-Law and pronounced it “Wrong in so many ways.” John T. Edge, winner of the M. F. K. Fisher writing award from the James Beard Foundation and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, visited Fat Johnnie’s, ate a Mother-in-Law, and declared that he loved it. The assessments by Bourdain and Edge are not mutually exclusive. The Mother-in-Law is an odd culinary creation with a devoted following and an equal number of people who look upon it with disbelief and dread.
The word “saganaki” comes from the Greek word for a small pan with two handles: sagani. Foods cooked in this small pan become saganaki (-aki is a diminutive suffix in Greek, like the “y” of Davey or Danny). There are many types of saganaki, including scallop saganaki and shrimp saganaki. In Chicago, saganaki means basically one thing: Cheese. Flaming cheese. Where it was invented is debatable. Standing in line outside Dianna’s Opaa (212 South Halsted) in Greektown in the mid-1970s, you’d have seen owner and host Petros Kogiones working the line, shaking the hands of men, kissing the ladies, offering everyone a complimentary shot of ouzo. Once inside Kogiones’ restaurant, you’d see him dancing, sometimes balancing a water glass on his head, randomly shouting “opaa!” He was a powerful self-promoter, and according to him, the inventor of Saganaki. The other vocal claimant to the title “Originator of Flaming Saganaki” is The Parthenon (314 South Halsted), and most who write on the topic of saganaki side with The Parthenon’s version of the origin story. In “Lost Restaurants of Chicago,” Greg Borzo recognizes that “The bygone Parthenon… is widely credited with inventing in 1968 the flaming saganaki and ‘Opa’ [sic] custom.” Wherever the dish originated, it is now one of Chicago’s culinary gifts to the world.
Shrimp DeJonghe is such a simple dish—shrimp, breadcrumbs, butter and garlic—that it may have been invented in the Mediterranean long before it was on the menu around the turn of the twentieth century at the DeJonghe Hotel and Restaurant (12 East Monroe). As with chicken Vesuvio, which has led to dishes such as steak Vesuvio and pork Vesuvio, there are many variations on the classic shrimp DeJonghe recipe, and it’s not uncommon to discover lobster or crab DeJonghe. Some variations of the traditional dish even show up in places like Red Lobster. There’s no denying it: garlic and butter complement fruits of the sea. At Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House (1024 North Rush), chef Russell Kook prepares a traditional version of shrimp DeJonghe. This is the right dish to serve at Hugo’s, says Kook, “because we want to serve food that fits the surroundings. We have an old-school space, and we want our food to reflect the atmosphere.” Shrimp DeJonghe, Kook tells us, is a “big favorite with customers, who appreciate the tradition. When they’re eating Shrimp DeJonghe, they’re eating Chicago history.”
Chicken Vesuvio is a colorful name that suggests Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii with a shower of fire and ash. Must be spicy hot, right? No, there is no hint of heat in the traditional chicken Vesuvio, which it’s generally accepted was not named after the volcano but rather after Chicago’s long-gone Vesuvio Restaurant (15 East Wacker). A hearty meal of roasted chicken and potato wedges, and sometimes peas, Chicken Vesuvio may be the most popular of all Chicago original dishes, found on menus across the country and even around the world. Italian Village (71 West Monroe), Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant, also claims to be the birthplace of Chicken Vesuvio.
According to owner Gina Capitanini, “The information is vague as to if my grandfather invented Chicken Vesuvio. I was told it’s a dish that he brought over from Italy, and when he opened his restaurant in 1927, he put it on his menu. Our Chicken Vesuvio has never had peas on it and many other restaurants use peas. The name Vesuvio stems from this dish being so flavorful it bursts in your mouth.“
Corn Roll Tamale
A key component of the Mother-in-Law, Chicago corn roll tamales are made of corn meal and lightly seasoned meat. The two largest local producers are Supreme Tamale and Tom Tom Tamale. These yellow cornmeal tamales are sold by Italian beef or hot dog vendors, explaining why the product stars in the Mother-in-Law at Fat Johnnie’s. According to the Southern Foodways Alliance, the tamale was brought to the United States by Mexican workers who may have taken a few tamales in their pockets as they went off to work in the fields. In those fields, specifically in the Mississippi Delta, Mexicans would have encountered African Americans and, perhaps, shared their tamales. Although tamales have been a staple of Chicago street-food culture for around a century, one could not make a strong argument for the deliciousness of the corn roll tamale. In a blind taste test, a taster would likely be stymied to distinguish between the outer layer of corn meal and the meat interior. But for lifelong Chicagoans, the Chicago tamale carries powerful nostalgic power, and these humble, inexpensive corn rolls are good for filling up the last bit of belly space after consuming a far meatier hot dog or Italian beef sandwich.
Da Best Fest
On April 17 at UIC’s Dorin Forum (725 Roosevelt), Seth Zurer and the guys who brought you Baconfest are launching Da Best Fest, what they describe as “a celebration of Chicago’s culinary heritage, a chef tasting festival that explores the iconic dishes of the city, with traditional and imaginative versions of the classics created by the city’s best chefs.” Chef Oliver Poilevey of Le Bouchon plans to make a “Frenchified version of a Mother-in-Law,” perhaps, he says, with foie gras mixed into the chili and duck meat in the tamale. “I remember having the Mother-in-Law as a kid,” says Poilevey, “and I thought that with a good chili and a good tamale, it could be very good.”
All the Chicago original foods featured at Da Best Fest, and a few dozen or so more, will be featured in a book to be published by University of Illinois Press, written by me and Monica Eng, WBEZ reporter and one of the finest food journalists in Chicago.
Note: as a result of the C-19 plague, Da Best Fest has been rescheduled for next year, though the food it’s intended to celebrate will endure.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org