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July 2023

Best Chicago Food: 20+ Signature Dishes You Must Try On Your Next Visit

Deep Dish Pizza from Lou Malnati's

Best Chicago Food: 20+ Signature Chicago Dishes

Admit it:

Your No. 1 reason for visiting Chicago is the food. Believe me, you’re not the only one that loves Chicago foods.

The city has been a foodie haven since its inception and publications like Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and USA Today have all praised its culinary scene. With over 8,000 restaurants, hundreds of Chicago food festivals, a smattering of Chicago food trucks, and at least one legendary tamale guy, it can be hard to choose where your next meal will be.  After all, you want to make sure you take a big bite out of Chicago’s most popular food creations, right?

There’s no reason to fear:

The city is known for certain iconic dishes no visitor to the city can pass up. We’re here to help you focus on the true taste of Chicago and show you where locals go to satisfy their cravings. In this Chicago food guide, we’ll give you a list of 20+ Chicago signature dishes you must try when you’re eating your way through the city.

Hungry? Let’s dive in.

#1 Deep-Dish Pizza from Lou Malnati’s

Deep Dish Pizza from Lou Malnati's

Photo Credit: Chicago Food & City Tours

Let’s kick things off right - with THE most famous Chicago dish of all time. This is why you came to the city! To finally sink your teeth into a thick wedge of melted cheese, personalized toppings and zesty tomato sauce.

Why is this so important?

There are many fierce competitors claiming that they have the best Chicago deep dish pizza, but Lou Malnati’s is the crown jewel. Its unique butter crust sets it apart and every single inch of the aluminum pan is covered in a lip-smacking layer of high-quality ingredients.

Insider Tip: There’s often a long wait at this Chicago cult classic, but you can sink your teeth into Lou Malnati’s irresistible crust much sooner if you make a late-night trip or visit for an early lunch. Or, even better, join us there on our Iconic Foods of Chicago Tour for the VIP experience.

#2 Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich at Al’s Italian Beef

Photo Source: Al's Beef

There may be debates about who has the best Chicago deep dish pizza, but there’s no argument over who makes the best Chicago Italian beef. The most Chicago of all Chicago sandwiches, Al’s Italian Beef’s specialty is a flavor bomb: slices of roasted sirloin cooked in a seasoned broth are stuffed inside an Italian-style roll thick enough to soak up the meat’s juices.

The best part?

Al’s allows you to customize your experience so you can get your sandwich just so. Diners can order it “dry” (only a touch of gravy), “wet” (extra gravy) or “dipped” (soaked). You can also top it off with a variety of cheeses, sweet pepper or a hot giardiniera for an extra kick.

Insider Tip: Al’s Italian beef sandwich is one of the many delicious Chicago signature dishes you can try in Iconic Foods of Chicago Food Tour. Chicago Food & City Tour's expert guides will share this and other must-have foods like deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, all while giving you some background on what makes Chicago food great. It’s an easy way to cross off items on your foodie wish list while learning more about this fantastic city.

#3 Basic Fried Chicken Dinner at Harold’s Chicken Shack

Harold's Chicken Shack Chicago

Photo Source: Stu Spivack

Harold’s Chicken Shack is such a Chicago staple that it’s been referenced in hip-hop hits by legendary rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Common.

Try this rapper’s delight yourself:

Head to Harold’s for the standard fried chicken dinner, which includes cooked-to-order chicken with a side of fries, coleslaw, and two slices of white bread to scoop up every drop of their tangy hot sauce.

Think all Harold’s birds are created equal? Think again.

We recommend Harold’s No. 88 for overall quality, Harold’s No. 55 for its traditional setting, Harold’s No. 36 for its location, and Harold’s No. 47 for hungry Blackhawks fans.

#4 Buttermilk Old-Fashioned Chicago Doughnut at Do-Rite Donut

#1 Chicago Do-Rite Donuts West Loop

Photo Source: @thebitesizedbaker

When the doughnut craze hit the city, there was one ring to rule them all: Do-Rite Donut’s Buttermilk Old Fashioned Donut.

This treat is the one thing folks always leave our Buildings and Bites tour raving about.

Crunchy on the outside, pillowy on the inside, and coated in a vanilla-bean glaze, this doughnut reaches perfection when dunked in coffee.

It’s a classic take on a breakfast staple that shines precisely because of its simplicity—though we totally understand if you want to have it for lunch, dinner, or as midnight snack.

#5 Chicago-style hot dogs at Portillo’s

Portillo's #1 Chicago style hot dog

Photo Source: WGLT.org

You’ve seen them on sticker, posters, and t-shirts. It's been admired by the likes of Chefs Grant Achatz, Rick Bayless and the late, great Anthony Bourdain. Now is your chance to try the Chicago-style hot dog, the dish that truly captures the hearts of locals and visitors alike.

Don’t sleep on this dog:

At Portillo's, you get the quintessential example of this Chicago signature dish: an all-beef frankfurter tucked into a steamed poppy seed bun, topped with relish, celery salt, chopped onions, sliced tomatoes, sport peppers, and a pickle. It’s the pièce de résistance of our Iconic Foods of Chicago Food Tour.

Squeeze mustard — never ketchup, for God’s sake — on that beauty and you’re good to go.

#6 The Famous Kuma Burger at Kuma’s Corner

Kuma's Corner Burger Avondale

Photo Source: Chicago Food & City Tours

Only in Chicago could a joint that blasts heavy metal music, refuses to carry Budweiser, and stirs a controversy with the Catholic Church, be adored. Kuma’s Corner has become a destination in every food lover’s pilgrimage.

Depending on what you order, your burger may include bourbon poached pear, roasted poblano peppers, avocado mash and other inventive ingredients.

Still, the one that most people return to is The Famous Kuma: 10 ounces of prime ground beef served with applewood smoked bacon, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and red onion. A fried egg crowns this imposing patty, securing its epic status.

It gets better:

Though Kuma’s may have an edgy attitude, their heart is pure gold. They make sure to have a selection of vegetarian offerings, including an Impossible Burger. Every month, they pick a different charity to donate to. They also support local, homegrown producers and breweries, making it an extremely Chicago experience.

#7 Jibarito at Papa’s Cache Sabroso

Jibarito Papa's Cache Sabroso

Photo Source: Papas Cache Sabroso

The jibarito is yet another original Chicago sandwich, created by our vibrant Puerto Rican community. Though it may look like a regular sandwich, there is one element that sets it apart:

There’s no bread!

Instead, crispy plantains hold together layers of meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The condiment of choice is garlic-flavored mayonnaise. Steak tends to be the typical filling, but we stan the chicken jibarito at Papa’s Cache Sabroso in the city’s quintessential Boricua neighborhood, Humboldt Park.

#8 Butter Toffee at The Fudge Pot

The Fudge Pot Old Town Butter Toffee

Photo Source: The Fudge Pot

Make your Chicago visit a little sweeter by heading to The Fudge Pot, an Old Town mainstay for over 50 years. Chocoholics can’t go wrong with any of their offerings, but we’re particularly fond of their Butter Toffee. One of their most sought-after products, the buttery sweet caramel is covered in either dark or milk rich chocolate and finished off with a generous sprinkle of crunchy nuts.

That’s not all:

The Fudge Pot has gift boxes that make the perfect Chicago present for your loved ones back home. Don’t have room in your carry-on? No worries because it also ships nationwide.

Insider Tip: Looking for other Chicago souvenirs for your favorite gourmand? Chicago Food & City Tours offers gift certificates for that person in your life who is always hungry for exciting experiences.

#9 Malbec Beef Empanada at 5411 Empanadas

Empanadas 5411 Chicago Top Rated

Photo Source: Groupon

There’s so much to do in Chicago, it’s tempting to forego a sit-down meal and opt for the portable capabilities of street food. Behold, then, the mighty empanadas at one of Chicago’s best food trucks: 5411 Empanadas. Baked to a dark golden hue and served with a side of herbaceous chimichurri sauce, they’re easy to carry around and even easier to eat.

Our go-to order?

The Malbec Beef, a blend of shredded Angus beef slow roasted in red wine reduction.

#10 Green Chicken Tamal at 5 Rabanitos

Photo Source: Chicago Food & City Tours

Chicago’s Mexican population is one of the largest in the country and their cuisine is woven tightly into the fabric of the food scene here. If you're searching for authentic, tasty Mexican fare, Pilsen is the neighborhood to go to. 

A standout on the scene is Chef Alfonso Sotelo and his team at 5 Rabanitos, who haven't yet figured out how to make a bad dish. Their ceviche, their tortas, their tacos, and their enchiladas are all a cut above.  We recommend giving their green chicken tamal a try - it'll put most other tamales to shame.  

Want to make your own? 

Join us on our Street Foods of Pilsen tour and you'll get to try your hand at rolling your own tamal. But don't worry, we won't make you eat the one made!

#11 Lemon Italian Ice at Miko’s Italian Ice

Italian ice Miko's Chicago

Photo Source: Miko’s Italian Ice

Nothing says summer in Chicago like grabbing a cup of cool and colorful Italian ice at Miko’s. The sorbet-like dessert is made exclusively out of crushed, frozen fresh fruit and is completely dairy-free. Though Miko’s boasts exotic flavors like cucumber and guava, nothing beats the classic lemon on a hot July night.

#12 Tony’s Dry Chili Chicken at Lao Sze Chuan

Chicago Chinatown Tony’s Dry Chili Chicken at Lao Sze Chuan

Photo Source: LA Weekly

Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood is like a city within itself, bustling with enough food courts, restaurants, noodle shops, bakeries, and teashops to keep us fed for days. Lao Sze Chuan stands out by providing elevated Szechuan dishes that raise the diner’s expectations of what Chinese food can be.

Case in point:

Chef Tony Hu’s dry chili chicken is a must-eat, especially if you prefer your stir-fries with a kick.

Tender bites of chicken are tossed in a savory blend of ginger, garlic, green onion, Szechuan peppercorns, and a generous handful of dried chilies for a kind of spicy that hurts so good.

Insider Tip: Interested in learning more about traditional Chinese cuisine but don’t know where to start? Chicago Food & City Tours’ Chinatown Adventure Food Tour explores the hidden gems of one of the city’s most enigmatic neighborhoods. In addition to Szechuan specialties, you’ll try Hong Kong Dim Sum, sweet milk egg tarts, delicious bubble tea, and more.

#13 Pulled Pork at the Smoke Daddy

Chicago BBQ pulled pork smoke daddy's

Photo Source: The Smoke Daddy

Long before you see Wicker Park’s Smoke Daddy, you’ll smell the intoxicating wafts of smoked meat lingering in the air. The barbecue is described as “Memphis-Texarkana” and, though we don’t know exactly what that means, we can definitely say it makes our taste buds sing. The slow-cooked pulled pork is no-frills but absolutely heavenly.

#14 Saganaki at Greek Islands

Chicago Saganaki at Santorini

Photo Source: 10Best

If you’ve ever ordered a plate of flaming, sizzling hot cheese just so you can yell, “Opa!”—well, you have Chicago to thank for that thrill.

It’s a Greek restaurant standard:

But saganaki was actually invented right here in the city!

Greektown’s Greek Islands has been keeping the torch alive with their focus on authentic flavors, fresh ingredients, and lively atmosphere. Their version of saganaki is a gooey tribute, smothered in lemon juice and served with piping hot pita for ultimate satisfaction.

#15 Edible Balloon Dessert at Alinea

Chicago Alinea restaurant Edible Balloon Dessert

Photo Source: Business Insider

Though Chicago is a city that prides itself on tradition, it is also a city that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible. Enter Alinea, a Michelin-starred restaurant that has consistently been named one of the Top 50 restaurants in the world.

Since its opening, Alinea has redefined what fine-dining can be and nothing exemplifies that better than its edible balloon made from green apple taffy.

Get your phones ready:

This is one dessert that you’ll need to prove actually happened.

#16 Caramel Cake at Brown Sugar Bakery

Chicago best cupcakes Brown Sugar Bakery Navy Pier

Photo Source: Chicago Food & City Tours

Chicago has been a center of black culture since its very founding and there are a wide variety of eateries that pay homage to that. Case in point is Brown Sugar Bakery, a popular South Side venue.

Owner Stephanie Hart serves up a slice of her southern roots with decadent cakes, cupcakes, and puddings that taste like grandma’s cooking.  The deliciousness at Brown Sugar Bakery did not go unnoticed.  In 2019, the bakery was nominated for a James Beard award.

#17 Garrett Mix at Garrett Popcorn

Chicago best popcorn Garrett Navy Pier

Photo Source: Garrett Popcorn

If your understanding of popcorn is based solely on the sad, dry kernels of a microwave bag, then Garrett Popcorn is about to blow your mind. Since 1949, Garrett Popcorn has been serving handcrafted, freshly made, kettle popcorn to the masses (including the lucky folks on our Iconic Foods of Chicago Food Tour).

Their menu items go from plain for your Aunt Jane to Buffalo Ranch for your sassy friend Ange. We love the Garrett mix though because it blend the savory taste of cheddar cheese with the crème brulee sweetness of caramel. As the meme says, why not both?

#18 Carne Asada Tacos at L’Patron

Chicago best tacos carne asada L'Patron

Photo Source: Yelp

What pizza is to New York, tacos are to Chicago: we use it to fuel the party. Nothing will make you feel more prepared to take on a night of barhopping than the carne asada tacos.

Enter Logan Square’s laid-back L’Patron, the best Chicago taco.

Each corn tortilla is brimming with tender chunks of charred steak marinated in lime juice and a secret family seasoning.

#19 Egg Custards at Saint Anna

Chicago Chinatown egg custards Saint Anna

Photo Credit: Chicago Food & City Tours

There are so many pastries, baked goods and desserts to love at Saint Anna - but we tell our Chinatown Adventure Food Tour guests that it’s the egg custards that you can’t miss.

If an old-fashioned European pastry got married a traditional Chinese dessert, this delicious creation would be their firstborn.

Insider Tip: The best time to hit Saint Anna for an egg custard or seven is the afternoon. Fresh batches will be just coming out of the oven for the British afternoon tea tradition. You’re welcome.

#20 Tamales from The Tamale Guy

Chicago best tamales the tamale guy

Photo Source: Eater Chicago

He appears late at night in some of the darkest corners of the city. His name is mentioned in hushed, reverential tones amongst Chicago residents. Many have tried to follow his footsteps, but most have failed.

Who could this be?

It’s Tamale Guy, Chicago’s own version of a superhero and he is here to save you from pangs of late-night hunger.

The Tamale Guy appears in neighborhood dive bars, armed with a cooler that contains his secret weapon: steamed, corn tamales ready to soak up any alcohol swishing around in your stomach.

They ain’t pretty — but damn, are they good.

Cheese and chicken, smothered in green sauce or without, this is one Chicago dish that will hit the sweet spot.

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