9 Food Dishes That Symbolize Illinois

Written by Justin Sexton
Published: October 14, 2023
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Downtown Chicago view from the Park

View of Downtown Chicago from the Lakefront Park

©LevKPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Illinois is one of the most populated midwestern states. They take pride in their Chicago Cubs, Bears, Bulls, and White Sox sports teams. Chicago is the third most populated city in the United States and has become a cultural hub in music, sports, and television. Notable heroes of Chicago include Kanye West, Common, and Derrick Rose. Illinois is much more than just the city of Chicago. It’s the “birthplace” of presidents because eight United States presidents were born in Illinois. Some presidents that are from Illinois include Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Barack Obama.

Illinois has several famous food spots like the Original Pancake House in Chicago, Hackney’s on Harms in Glenview, and Mustard’s Last Stand in Evanston. These spots are iconic such as these nine food dishes that symbolize Illinois.

Deep-Dish Pizza

A YouTuber tours Chicago to find the best deep-dish pizza places.

This is the most synonymous dish with Chicago and probably all of Illinois. The deep-dish pizza in Chicago is associated with one name: Lou Malnati. Lou started in 1940 by working in Chicago’s first deep-dish pizzeria. He eventually took his pizzeria expertise to a northern suburban Chicago neighborhood called Lincolnwood and opened his pizzeria shop in 1971. After a few hurdles in the family’s pizzeria history, they have a strong presence in Chicago.

Deep-dish pizza is made in a round pan that resembles a pie or cake pan. The dough is pressed upward on the sides of the pan to form a basin for the cheese and fillings. The fillings are layered in an inverted order. For the order, the cheese is at the bottom, the meats/vegetables are in the middle, and the tomato sauce ends on the top.

Chicken Vesuvio

A step-by-step tutorial on how to make Chicken Vesuvio

This dish is a specialty in the Italian-American Restaurants in Illinois. It’s named after the Mount Vesuvius volcano near Naples. People cook the Chicken Vesuvio with chicken on the bone. Then, they would add potatoes, olive oil, white wine, garlic, and oregano. Lastly, they finish it off with green peas. Some people say that adding white wine to the oil causes the pot to get smokey like a volcano. A common ingredient people add to the dish is lemon juice. In Chicago, chefs also apply the cooking method of the Chicken Vesuvio to other food dishes like Steak Vesuvio, Vesuvio Potatoes, or Pork Vesuvio.

Vienna Beef Hot Dog

A how-to tutorial on how to make a Chicago Style Vienna Beef Hot Dog

This delicacy is famous for satisfying hungry citizens across downtown Chicago or at a local Cubs or White Sox game. The Vienna Beef Hot Dog is one of the most famous food dishes that symbolize Illinois. The tutorial above is from the Vienna Beef company which supplies millions of patrons with the vintage Chicago Vienna Beef Hot Dog. Chicago-style Vienna Beef Hot Dogs consist of 75% ground bull beef, salt, paprika, garlic juice, and a secret blend of seasonings encased in a natural sheep intestine.

The Vienna Beef company was founded in 1983 by two Viennese immigrants Sam Ladany and Emil Reichel. These two sold hot dogs that year during the Chicago World’s Fair. How they make their Vienna Beef Hot Dogs taste the way they do is that they slow cook it to absolute perfection. Then, the beef hot dogs go through a smoking process to bring out the flavors. Their quality product is famous for the “snap” people hear when they chew into the hot dog. The sausages can be added to casserole, chilis, or stir-fries.

The Mother-In-Law

No, we’re not talking about relatives. Many Illinois citizens call The Mother-In-Law sandwich a “sandwich within a sandwich.” It consists of a tamale topped with chili, tomatoes, cucumbers, and raw onions packed into a hotdog bun. Anthony Bourdain made a segment about this Illinois staple on his show No Reservations. Bourdain called The Mother-In-Law “the evil stepbrother of the hotdog.” There are plenty of variations about it. One of the more popular variations is the Humdinger. The Humdinger is just a normal Mother-In-Law smothered with melted cheese.

Maxwell Street Polish

The Chicago Best YouTube channel visiting the famous Jim’s Original Restaurant to try out their Maxwell Street Polish hotdog

Now, onto another one of the food dishes that symbolizes Illinois. Maxwell Street Polish hotdog’s history is a long one. Yugosalvian-born founder Jimmy Stefanovic is credited for the invention of the Maxwell Street Polish. Jimmy is the person behind the famous Jim’s Original food spot. This culinary invention is synonymous with the Windy City and the Birthplace of the Presidents. It all began in 1939 on the corner of Maxwell and Halsted at the Maxwell Street Market. Its components are simple. A flat grilled smoked Polish pork and beef sausage piled with caramelized onions topped with (an Illinois signature we’ll get to later) sports peppers in a yellow mustard-smeared hot dog bun.

Its popularity grew further outside of the Maxwell Street Market District. Jim’s Original has two separate locations in Chicago today. The Illinois food staple has been recognized as a key piece in the city’s culture for keeping the market’s history alive.

Italian Beef

This is a video from the “Chicago’s Best” YouTube channel covering the famous Al’s Italian Beef restaurant.

The Italian Beef sandwich contains thinly sliced and seasoned layered roast beef in a dense and chewy Italian-style roll. It’s topped usually with pickled giardiniera relish or roasted green peppers. One name is synonymous with the Italian Beef creation and that’s Al Ferreri and his family at the start of World War II. Families during the late twenties up to the early forties used to cut the beef very thin to stretch out their rations and feed enough mouths either for dinner or for large events like weddings. The founder of Al’s Italian Beef helped his brother Joe Buonavoltano open his shop outside of the Chicago city lines in Berwyn, IL. Joe’s “Buona” restaurant opened in 1981 and increased the popularity of the delicacy throughout Illinois.

There are many different variations of the Italian Beef. Some of them are:

  • “Sweet Dry” where the Italian beef is on dry bread with sweet peppers on top.
  • “Hot Dipped” where the beef is on gravy-wetted bread and has giardiniera relish on top. There’s a combination variant that has the Italian beef with sausage on it with the giardiniera.
  • The Cheesy Beef or “Cheef” is an Italian beef sandwich with different types of cheeses.
  • There’s a cheesy beef on garlic which is the “Cheef” served on garlic bread.
  • Some substitute the bread with a croissant.

Sport Peppers

A video that explains sport peppers and their history.

Sport peppers are popular in the Southern United States and some parts of the Midwest. They’re an element of the Chicago hot dog. Sport peppers are usually pickled in vinegar.

Pierogi

The history of the Pierogi goes back to the immigration of the Polish to the Midwest. It’s a filled dumpling. Some of the fillings include ground meat, lobster, beef, chicken, potato, cheese, sauerkraut, fruits, berries, sour cream or quark. The growing love for Pierogi influenced a Pierogi Fest that takes place in Whiting, Indiana every year. Nowadays, people eat Pierogi everywhere in the United States. But it wasn’t popular until the mid-20th century.

Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches

Peoria Magazine cited this dish as “The Quintessential Central Illinois sandwich”. The Pork Tenderloin sandwich is also famous in Indiana. However, there have been debates on who originated the sandwich between Indiana and Illinois. It’s popular in Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. Many people in Illinois see the pork tenderloin sandwiches as a central Illinois thing, not a northern or southern Illinois thing.

The recipe is basic. It involves a thinly hammered pork tenderloin dipped in flour and egg. Then, it’s either in a coat of crushed saltines or bread crumbs. Then, it goes into the deep fryer. Many bars and food places try to outdo each other with oversized tenderloins. Places like Cuba (the city, not the country), Bartonville, London Mills, and Pekin have some famous spots for natives and travelers to try the pork tenderloin sandwich.

Summary Of The Food Dishes That Symbolize Illinois

These food dishes epitomize what the state of Illinois tastes like. Many of the dishes came from different European cultures such as the Polish and the Italian during the industrialization of Chicago in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza is a Windy City signature that many different pizzerias imitate but can never duplicate the beauty that is a vintage Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza.

The Chicken Vesuvio is a grand Italian-American dish that pays homage to a popular volcano out in Europe. There are many different variations to it such as the Steak Vesuvio, Vesuvio Potatoes, and Pork Vesuvio.

Vienna Beef Hot Dogs are a common staple of downtown Chicago. Two Viennese immigrants Sam Ladany and Emil Reichel garnered popularity for their Vienna Beef company and their creation of the Vienna Beef Hot Dogs. The company grew into becoming a provider of many Vienna beef dogs to Americans to this day. Their quality product is famous for the “snap” people hear when they chew into the hot dog. People usually add their beef dogs to chilis, stir-fries, and even casseroles.

The “evil step-brother of the hot dog”, in the words of Anthony Bourdain, aka The Mother-In-Law is a popular sandwich within a sandwich. It’s a tamale that has chili, tomatoes, cucumbers, and raw onions on top and in between a hotdog bun. Yes, that sounds like a lot, but it all fits perfectly together.

One of the mainstays of Illinois dishes is the Maxwell Street Polish dog. This culinary invention is synonymous with the Windy City and the Birthplace of the Presidents since 1939. People from all over visit the two Jim’s Originals to try out one of the main food symbols of Illinois.

Other Notable Italian Dishes

Aside from the Italian beef sandwiches, sport peppers, pierogis, and pork tenderloin sandwiches, there are many other delicacies based in Illinois. Pancakes are a popular breakfast option that arrived from Portland’s Original Pancake House in the last one hundred years. The state’s official snack food is popcorn and Illinois natives love it caramelized. People can find bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates in different parts of the state.

Hackney’s in Glenview made the French fried onions dish famous. Rather than doing a tempura fry, the onion loaf features super thin onion slices that have a mahogany hue-bready batter. Check out the video below for a brief history of the legendary Hackney’s.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Nicholas Boddy/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Justin is an A-Z Animals Writer that loves to cover places, unique natural disasters, and travel. He has eight years of experience as a writer in the medical and media fields. He wrote for the likes of VCU Health, theMSQshop, PayDay LA, and Comic Book Resources under the penname Jay Guevara. Although he's a full time writer, Justin graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2019 with a Bachelors in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science with a background in Community Engagement. After spending over two decades in Richmond, Virginia, Justin now resides in the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga, California. He's a dedicated gymrat. He's also a two-time poetry author who's influenced by rappers Joe Budden and IDK along with Dante Alighieri.

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