A Helping of Famous Chicago Food History

The James Beard Awards are in Chicago for the second year in a row. Considered the “Oscars of Food,” these awards will go to the best American restaurants, chefs, and bakers. Since I don’t regularly dine at Alinea, a very high-class Chicago institution, it seemed more appropriate to write up some of the working class dishes that make up so much of famous Chicago food history.

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famous Chicago food history Maxwell Street Polish
Jim’s Original is the stand that created the Maxwell Street Polish.

Maxwell Street Polish

The Maxwell Street Polish is a beef and pork Polish sausage topped with grilled onions and yellow mustard. This bit of famous Chicago food history is grilled or fried, setting it apart from the traditional Chicago Hot Dog. It originated at Jim’s Original, a food stand located at Halsted and Maxwell (duh), in the heart of the old Maxwell Street Market. We often cruise through there on our custom neighborhood tours.

Curiously, the original Jim who invented the Maxwell Street Polish was Macedonian. Perhaps that explains why Pawel, our resident Polish staffer, has never loved the Maxwell Street Polish. He says it’s good eating, but not authentically Polish. I guess I’ll have to take his word on that, since I am Scottish, Irish, Dutch, and German.

famous Chicago food history deep-dish pizza
Deep-dish pizza is likely the single most famous Chicago food.

Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza

I’d bet anyone a Coke that deep-dish pizza is the single most famous Chicago food. Beloved by many, hated by fools, the Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is a deliciously monstrous creation. The size and scope of these pizzas are what set them apart from standard fare. Deep-dish pizza crusts rise 2 to 3 inches above the plate. A bevy of toppings along with a small mountain of cheese and tomato sauce fill the crust.

Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian, could find no consensus about who actually invented the deep-dish pizza. It was almost certainly first created at what’s now Pizzeria Uno. The thick crust likely originates from Sicilian-style pizza. The actual genius who first made this particular pie? A bevy of contenders claim the title. But Samuelson says none can conclusively prove their case.

The Chicago Hot Dog in Famous Chicago Food History

The Chicago hot dog is such a huge part of famous Chicago food history that we could write a whole article about it. Oh, wait, we have done exactly that.

Breaded Steak Sandwich

Never heard of this one? Its fame is just starting to spread outside of Chicago’s South Side. As you can guess, the key component here is a juicy and tender breaded and fried steak. Sweet tomato sauce, gooey melted mozzarella, and a heap of spicy giardiniera top it off. Supposedly a hero bun keep this whole thing together, but I have my doubts.

Last year, USA Today named the breaded steak sandwich at Ricobene’s in Bridgeport the single best sandwich in the world. Some locals disagree, but the hype is enough that Anthony Bourdain visited Ricobene’s to taste it for an upcoming episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown. That press hype will surely rocket it into every diner and independent fast food joint in Chicagoland. We’ve yet to visit Ribocene’s on a tour, but we love swinging through Bridgeport on our private tours of Chicago neighborhoods.

famous Chicago food history Mother-in-law sandwich
The Mother-in-law sandwich is a South Side speciality and an increasingly famous Chicago food. (Image credit: Southern Foodways Alliance)

Mother-In-Law Sandwich

The mother-in-law sandwich, much like the breaded steak, is a meal that hovers right on the edge of famous Chicago food history. Imagine a chili dog with a ground beef tamale subbing in for the sausage. I got to eat one on a custom private tour, which is normally just offered for private groups. My mother-in-law sandwich from Johnny O’s was also topped with the tomato, pickle, and onions one would expect from a Chicago dog. As you can imagine, that’s a heavy-duty sandwich. In fact, it made me feel about ten pounds heavier, in a most enjoyable way.  The name comes from that sinking feeling in your gut often associated with a visit by your mother-in-law.

The mother-in-law sandwich is a South Side speciality that’s been crawling into the limelight. A Smithsonian article writes about its rarity and Bourdain, again, sought it out for his TV show. He called it “the evil stepbrother of the hot dog,” and “disturbing in design, yet strangely compelling.” Sounds like an endorsement to me!

It’s unlikely that any of these dishes will be up for James Beard Awards anytime soon, but they exemplify what makes Chicago such a famous foodie hotspot.

– Amanda Scotese, Executive Director and Alex Bean, Office Manager and Tour Guide


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
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