Everything you need to know about iconic Chicago foods

From how to pronounce “giardiniera” to what type of bun works best for a Chicago-style hot dog, we’ve got answers to all your Chicago food questions.

Chicago food history deep dish pizza hot dogs garrett popcorn giardiniera
Chicago food history deep dish pizza hot dogs garrett popcorn giardiniera

Everything you need to know about iconic Chicago foods

From how to pronounce “giardiniera” to what type of bun works best for a Chicago-style hot dog, we’ve got answers to all your Chicago food questions.

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For the past ten years, Curious City has been answering your questions about Chicago and the region — including those about Chicago foods.

Here, you’ll find our top stories about the origins of beloved Chicago foods and some of the best places to try them.

Hot dog | Harold’s Chicken | Garrett Popcorn | Malört | Pizza slice | Korean wings | Giardiniera | Big Baby | Chicago originals | La Michoacana | Steak and lemonade | Bagels

Chicago-style hot dog
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Deconstructing the Chicago-style hot dog

There’s perhaps no dish more closely associated with Chicago than the Chicago-style hot dog. Smothered in yellow mustard, chopped onions, neon green relish, two slices of tomato, sport peppers and a final whoosh of celery salt, it’s a staple of Cubs games and late-night hot dog stands alike. While we can’t claim to tell you where to go for the best Chicago-style dog in the city, we can tell you the fascinating history behind how these particular ingredients came together to create an iconic Chicago dish.

What makes Harold’s Chicken Shack a legendary Chicago spot?

When it comes to fried chicken, Harold’s Chicken Shack is one of Chicago’s most popular spots. The fried chicken dinner with cornbread, coleslaw and Harold’s beloved mild sauce is a rite of passage. But how did Harold’s come to be a Chicago institution? What’s the relationship between different Harold’s Chicken Shacks across the city? And just what is mild sauce, anyway? Our friends at South Side Stories have the answers.

Love Garrett Popcorn? Here’s the science behind the sweet and salty food combination

Have you ever wondered why cheese and caramel popcorn pair so well together? We talked to a food scientist about why the combo is so hard to resist. Chicago-based Garrett Popcorn makes nine different flavors, but the Garrett Mix — that combination of caramel and cheese — is the company’s best seller. It’s popular enough that locals refer to it as “Chicago Mix.” And its popularity is no accident.

Chicago Malort
Adobe Stock. Collage by Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

The unlikely rise of Malört as Chicago’s drink

Throwing back a shot of Malört is practically a rite of passage for residents and visitors to the city, and if you spend long enough at any Chicago dive bar you’re likely to see patrons ordering a Chicago Handshake: the iconic pairing of a Malört shot with an Old Style beer. But how did Malört become a Chicago thing? Its ascendancy happened more recently than you might think.

We went in search of the best pizza-by-the-slice in Chicago

Historically, “Chi-Town” has been a pie town, with pizzerias that sell only whole pies far outnumbering those that offer it by the slice. But that’s changing. We teamed up with WBEZ’s daily news show Reset to find out why it’s harder to find pizza-by-the-slice in Chicago than New York and how the pandemic helped change that. 

Korean chicken wings: spicy, saucy and totally Chicago

Gam pong gi wings are a Chicago-invented dish forged in Albany Park kitchens that have gone on to become a national hit. The chicken lollipops, as they’re sometimes called, are smothered in a signature sweet chili sauce. The story of how gam pong gi wings came to be can be traced to two immigrant families that settled in Chicago and put their own creative tweaks on a traditional dish.

Chicago giardiniera
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

What’s the history of Chicago-style giardiniera?

Giardiniera (pronounced jar-din-air) is a mix of pickled vegetables that’s great on everything from Italian beef sandwiches to pizza. Chicago-style giardiniera — a specific blend of peppers, carrots and other veggies mixed together in a spicy, salty, oily concoction — is its own art form, distinct from the Italian blends on which it’s based. According to industry estimates, we eat about 15 million pounds of the stuff in the Midwest each year. In this episode, we learn all about how it got to be so big here and the controversy surrounding how it’s pronounced.

Nicky’s and the Big Baby: Unveiling the history of a Chicago fast-food favorite

Nicky’s Grill on Chicago’s Southwest Side serves up all the Chicago fast food classics, like pizza puffs and hot dogs. But they’re perhaps best known for their signature double cheeseburger, known as the Big Baby. We learned that the dish’s popularity has to do with Chicago’s Greek community and a particular way of stacking ingredients.

Beyond deep dish: Exploring Chicago’s native foods

Chicago is known for deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, but lots of other dishes were invented here in the city — gyros, brownies and pizza puffs were all created in Chicago, to name a few. In this episode, we dive into the origin stories behind lesser-known Chicago-invented foods including Italian beef, jibaritos and the jerk taco. Plus, we tell you where to try them.

La Michoacana ice cream shop in Pilsen, Chicago.
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

From Mexico to Chicago, the story behind “La Michoacana” ice cream shops

Spend time walking around Pilsen or Belmont Cragin and you’re bound to notice a number of ice cream shops that all have “La Michoacana” in their names. While their names may be similar, the shops have different owners, different offerings and even different prices. We learned about original paleta makers in Michoacán, the state in Mexico that lent its name to ice cream shops across North America — and the ongoing litigation over the copycat names.

Steak and lemonade: What are the origins of this Chicago food combo?

The beef sandwich and slushy drink are sold together all across Chicago’s South and West sides. To find out how the two came to be paired together, we visited half a dozen steak and lemonade joints, asking owners where steak and lemonade originated. Eventually, we tracked down the man behind the combo — and it turns out steak and lemonade restaurants have their roots a lot closer to home than we expected.

Yes, Chicago has good bagels. Here’s where to find them.

New Yorkers may be reluctant to admit it, but we’ve got some pretty darn good bagels here in Chicago. In this episode, we recount the 100-year history of Chicago bagel bakeries, which saw a surge in the early part of the 20th century followed by a dip by the ’80s and a glorious bagel renaissance today. We also did the ultimate taste test of Chicago-area bagels, looking for that perfect combo of crisp exterior and dense, chewy center.

Want more answers to your Chicago food questions? Check out our full playlist of Curious City food stories.