The Windy City is famous for many things, including breathtaking architecture, sports life, festivals, 1920s gangsters, and Fortune 500 companies, but it’s the Chicago food scene that really puts it on the map. It’s one of the best cities for culinary experiences, offering a variety of unmistakably Chicagoan dishes as well as global eats and a wide breadth of dreamy restaurants.
So, loosen your belt and keep reading for the best dishes and must-try restaurants Chicagoland has to offer.
What makes Chicago Food great?
Chicago food culture is in its own culinary league. The city boasts not one, two, or three but many signature dishes that have gained both national and international recognition. No foodie can say no to a hot slice of the gooey, cheesy, and heavenly-tasting deep-dish pizza. How about an Italian beef sandwich, Chicago-style popcorn, hot dog, or a mile-high ice cream cone?
The beauty of Chicago’s culinary marvel lies not only in the iconic dishes but also in the eateries and people that make the magic happen. The City by the Lake is home to some of the world’s top chefs, groundbreaking rooftop lounges, best taquerias, and to-die-for doughnut shops. And when it comes to street food, Chicago knocks the likes of New York and San Francisco out of the park.
But the street food is only a small segment of Chicago’s culinary scene that wows you with mouthwatering dishes only you can find in your grandma’s kitchen. Sure, the meatpacking capital of America has line-inducing bistros, food trucks, pizzerias, hot dog stands, burger shops, and steakhouses. But it also has more Michelin-starred restaurants than you can imagine, so Chicago’s fine dining scene is definitely something to write home about.
There’s also an emerging Chicago food scene that blurs the line between entertainment and dining. For this reason, Chicago is easily the foodie mecca of America. So, whether you’re a seasoned food lover or a culinary rookie, there’s something to delight your taste buds in the Windy City.
What are some of Chicago’s famous dishes?
The Windy City has been lauded as a foodie haven, and many reputable culinary publications like Bon Appétit, Conde Nast Traveler, and Food & Wine have all acclaimed Chicago’s food scene. And that’s no accident. You can find a variety of heart-warming and sensational dishes in over 8,000 restaurants spread across the city.
But if you crave some of the city’s iconic dishes, you can’t go wrong with the following five classics:
1) Deep-dish pizza
Also fondly known as Chicago-style pizza, deep-dish pizza is a slice of foodie heaven and one dish that holds a special place in the hearts of Chicagoans. In fact, it has become synonymous with the city’s culinary scene over the years.
If you’re looking for a hearty comfort food that’s perfect for every season, look no further than this famous Chicago dish. It’s a super-thick crust pizza baked in a deep-dish pan, often topped with loads of cheese and a generous layer of tomato sauce. The result is quite a sight: a sizzling hot, cheesy heap of pizza bliss that’ll knock your socks right off.
Although there are several takes on the deep-dish pizza, none can come close to the original Chicago-style pizza. It was invented and perfected here — and, of course, best enjoyed while taking in Chicago’s low-key awesome vibe. It’s the most popular item on the menu at hundreds of Chicago restaurants, from River North’s Uno Pizzeria to Lincolnwood’s Lou Malnati. We recommend that you try as many spots as possible because each restaurant uses a signature spice blend for their sauce.
2) Chicago-style hot dogs
There’s much debate over who has the best version of Chicago-style hot dogs, but one thing is for sure: this is a hot dog dish that you should eat at least once in your lifetime. Whether you prefer au jus or dry, sweet or hot peppers, you can count on Chicago-style hot dogs to blow away your taste buds.
There are also many takes on the Chicago dog. However, the original recipe sports a poppy seed bun and a Vienna Beef hotdog from the Vienna Beef company–headquartered in Chicago for over a hundred years and founders of the great Chicago dog–with a variety of toppings, including celery, sport peppers, pickle spear, tomato wedges, diced onions, a boatload of relish, and yellow mustard. Did we mention that there’s strictly no ketchup?
Vienna Beef birthed this iconic dish as fast, wallet-friendly bite during the Columbia World’s Fair of 1893. Although nickel-a-dog days are long gone, this is one Chicago street food staple that you must try for yourself. There are many hot dog stands, food trucks, and restaurants that serve this quintessential Chicago food.
3) Italian beef
Although deep-dish pizza hogs a lot of attention, Italian beef is another Chicago classic dish that puts Chicago on the map because, well, nothing can satisfy your hunger pangs quite like the good-old Italian beef sandwich.
In the Windy City, you can order it your own way. The hot spicy Italian beef sandwich with giardiniera peppers is perhaps the most popular version. However, you can get it sweet with any kind of sweet peppers, dipped (the entire sandwich is bathed in a flavorful sauce that you won’t forget anytime soon), or wet, meaning it is topped with extra gravy. If gravy is not your thing, you can also get a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich dry.
Regardless of your ordering style, you will enjoy one of the city’s tastiest and beloved dishes, the Italian beef sandwich. Try some of the restaurants in Little Italy, River North, or the West Loop, and you’ll find some of the juiciest Italian beef sandwiches. It is usually best served thinly sliced, piled high, and topped with sauce and peppers of your choice.
Chicago may not be Texas, the Carolinas, Memphis, or Kansas City, but Chicago-style steak is nothing to scoff at, reminding people that Chicago remains the meatpacking capital of America. There are a ton of steakhouses, with some located in residential neighborhoods while others near tourist hotspots like Navy Pier. They are so popular that you can now take a steakhouse tour around the city.
If you have never had Polish pierogi, then you are missing out on one of the most delicious dishes you can have in the Chicago food scene. It’s a pocket of rich dough stuffed with meat, cheese, sauerkraut, sometimes even strawberries. The choice is yours!
A mecca for immigrants from Eastern European countries, Chicago especially celebrates its Polish heritage—after all, more Poles live in Chicago than in any city other than Warsaw, Poland.
Just like Italian bistros, there’s a decent number of Polish restaurants in Chicago, particularly in the vibrant neighborhood of Portage Park. Aside from the classic Polish pierogi, you can have a taste of some Eastern European dumplings meshed with modern cuisines.
How many Chicago restaurants are there?
For a city with around 100 neighborhoods, Chicago has a variety of restaurants to match every taste, occasion, and budget. According to the state website, there are currently over 7,300 restaurants in the Windy City – not counting non-traditional eateries like food stands, trucks, and take-away spots that make the Chicago food scene so colorful and celebrated.
These restaurants come in every taste, shape, and size. Whether you’re looking for some fine dining, a good place to savor some enchiladas, or sample vegetarian dishes, there’s something for everyone. What’s more exciting, the Michelin Guide has been focusing on Chicago’s high-end restaurants since 2011.
Twenty-six (and counting) Michelin-starred restaurants dot neighborhoods throughout the City, more than you can fit in a day of food tours. And you must make reservations months ahead. If you can’t score a reservation in these world-class establishments, you can always settle for a four-, three-, or two-star restaurant like Smyth, Oriole, Acadia–the list is endless.
For those who are looking to experience the Chicago food scene with their four-legged friends, you’ll be glad to know that there are 144 dog-friendly restaurants in the Windy City. You can always talk to the host, too, to see if they’ll allow pets.
The Michelin Guide isn’t the only legendary culinary institution that has recognized the best restaurants in Chicago. As of this writing, 54 Chicago restaurants have won the coveted Bib Gourmand award for good quality and good value cooking. As if that isn’t impressive enough, there are 40 James Beard Award-winning restaurants and Chicago has hosted the annual James Beard Awards.
Moreover, around seven restaurants in the Second City have attained the AAA Diamond rating, which is quite impressive. This special rating is reserved for restaurants that offer excellent service, food, and vibe — three dining elements often referred to as the “holy trinity” in the culinary world.
What are some of the most popular desserts in Chicago?
Yes, the Chicago food scene does offer some of the most delectable desserts you’ll ever have. If you have a sweet tooth (or not), you must try these iconic Chicago desserts at least once in your life.
– Butter Toffee
If you’re a gourmand with a thing for sweet and buttery desserts, you’ll never go wrong with Chicago-style butter toffee. It comes in a selection of flavors and toppings, from crunchy nuts to buttery sweet caramel and vanilla.
Check out The Fudge Pot, the go-to spot that has been around for more than five decades. The shop also boasts a range of other desserts that are sure to delight any chocoholic. You can sink your teeth into these sweets right there or have them gift-boxed for the perfect present.
– Original Rainbow Cone
Given the long, harsh winters, Chicago residents don’t take their summer (and ice creams) lightly. One of the most recognizable Chicago ice cream places is the Original Rainbow Cone, which sells its eponymous cone. The cake cone of this classic treat is piled mile-high with scoops of ice cream consisting of walnuts, cherries, vanilla, strawberries, orange sherbet, pistachio, and of course, chocolate. This delicious summertime staple is something of beauty and delivers Instagram-ready dessert photos.
– Buttermilk Old-Fashioned Chicago Doughnut
Coated in vanilla bead glaze, the old-fashioned Chicago-style buttermilk doughnut is a breakfast staple that can double up as a wonderful dessert. It’s super-pillowy inside and crunchy on the outside, making it a perfect dessert to go with your cup of joe.
Other Chicago classic treats include Chicago-style popcorn, chocolate cake shake, pineapple upside-down cake, and lots of cake donuts.
What are some great neighborhoods for foodies?
Chicago is mostly a city of neighborhoods, and each brings something unique to the overall culinary scene. If you don’t have the time (and money) to try every restaurant in the city, however, you can narrow down your options to these foodie-favorite neighborhoods in Chicago.
– West Loop
You can’t talk about Chicago food culture without mentioning the beloved Fulton Market, a restaurant-centric neighborhood along the Chicago River, just west of the Loop. Here, you will find rows of restaurants converted from former warehouses, factories, and meatpacking plants.
Aside from Fulton Market, the West Loop offers a range of restaurants and other eateries on West Randolph Street, including Duck Duck Goat, Little Goat, Girl and the Goat by Stephanie Izard. Boke’s Momotaro, Au Cheval, Monteverde, and Avec will also tickle your tastebuds. Almost every storefront in this urban-suburban neighborhood is either a trendy bar or a hot restaurant.
– River North
If you think every restaurant in downtown Chicago is a McDonald’s, BK, or a chain eatery, you are wrong. River North, located immediately north of the Loop, is a foodie gem with rows of trendy restaurants and many sights to see. XOCO, Topolobampo, Frontera Grill by Rick Bayless, and Bavelette French steakhouse are some of the most exciting dining spots in the neighborhood.
In this neighborhood, you will taste some of the most flavorful and tasty Italian beef sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs, seafood, Asian dishes, and milkshakes. If you’re looking to add nightlife to the mix, this is also the place to be, with nightclubs like Clark Street Ale House, Gilt Bar, and Celeste rocking on past the happy hour.
– Logan Square
Logan Square is yet another foodie neighborhood that gives the West Loop a run for its money. It’s an increasingly gentrified neighborhood graced by top chefs and creative restaurants, especially on the Northwest Side. You’ll also come across many farm-to-table enclaves like Fat Rice, Lula Café, Scofflaw, Lost Lake, and Bill Sunday. Logan Square also boasts new trendy restaurants, diverse bars, Mexican joints, and modern coffee houses.
Pilsen is another Chicago food neighborhood that rivals the West Loop. Though quickly gentrifying, Pilsen continues to be true to its culinary heritage. You’ll find a host of Mexican restaurants like Tortilleria El Milagro, Don Pedro Carnitas, and Carnitas Uruapan, as well as Michelin-starred establishments such as Dusek in Thalia Hall. You don’t want to miss out on live music venues, piano bars, and bars in this neighborhood, too.
Other notable restaurants in the area serve barbecue, fantastic burgers, meat pies, and Vietnamese dishes. The neighborhood is also home to some of the most creative chefs and culinary talents in the US.
– Wicker Park
Dubbed one of the coolest neighborhoods in Chicago, Wicker Park is also a foodie mecca. Get your palate ready for some delicious Polish cuisine, Mexican dishes, and more in restaurants around North, Damen, and Milwaukee Avenues. Although the area is now completely gentrified, it is still spotted with old-school pizzerias, burger joints, and award-winning craft breweries to boot.
For unforgettable nightlife, the area also boasts must-try bars, sports pubs, and bars, including Emporium Arcade Bar. For a live music and food experience, be sure to check out Chop Shop. Ramen spots are also available, including Urban Belly, Oiistar Kizuki, and Furious Spoon.
We can’t talk about food without mentioning Chicago’s Chinatown, a neighborhood that hosts a big chunk of Chinese immigrants in the city. Unsurprisingly, this area holds a large percentage of Chinese restaurants in the Windy City. For some mouthwatering fried rice, spicy Szechuan dishes, hot pots, and dim sums, this is one neighborhood you don’t want to skip on your next trip to Chicagoland.
Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood offers a raft of fine dining spots you don’t want to miss out on, and it’s called Little Viet Nam for a reason. If pho and other Vietnamese dishes are on your radar, Uptown is the neighborhood to check out.
Other noteworthy Chicago culinary-forward neighborhoods include Devon Avenue, Hollywood Park, Bucktown, Humboldt Park, Ravenswood, Wrigleyville, Avondale, and Andersonville.
Are there inexpensive options for Chicago Food?
Yes, there are many places you can get good Chicago food on a budget. Of course, you may have to ditch Michelin-starred restaurants and most spots downtown for wallet-friendly neighborhoods like Avondale, Ravenswood, North Park, and Logan Square, just to mention a few.
Are there fun events to explore Chicago Food?
Yes, there’s a full calendar of events to explore Chicago’s marvelous culinary scene. However, you might want to plan your visit around events that happen during the warm months, often between July and September.
Headline events include Chicago Gourmet, a 5-star foodie event; Taste of Chicago, one of the country’s largest culinary festivals, and Windy City Smokeout, the hottest BBQ and meat event in town. For international food festivals, don’t miss Mole de Mayo, Lincoln Park Greek Fest, Taste of Little Village: Flavors of Mexico, Ginza Holiday Festival, Little Italy Fiesta, Sam Adams Lakeview Taco Fest, Tacos y Tamales Festival, Taste of Greektown, Oktoberfest, and Taste of Polonia.
If you’re a meat fanatic, we recommend attending the Wingout Chicago, Windy City Ribfest, Ribfest Chicago, Roscoe Village Burger Fest, Chicago Hot Dog Fest, Chicago Bourbon and Barbecue Fest, Great American Lobster Fest, and Oktoberfest Chicago. There are also several food truck events held around the year, including Chicago Food Truck Fest, Pilsen Food Truck Social, and Food Truck Social at Lincoln Park Zoo.
Are there cool tours I can take to discover Chicago food?
The answer is a resounding yes. The most popular food tours in Chicago include:
- Second City Classic Food Tour: This three-hour culinary tour takes you around Old Town and Gold Coast neighborhoods exploring mom and pop restaurants and food shops.
- 3-1-Chew: This is also a 3-hour food tour around Wicker Park and Bucktown.
- Gateway to The West Loop Food Tour: Discover the most sought-after culinary neighborhood in Chicago in this fine-dining tour
- Best in Chow Food Tour: In this three-hour food tour, you will chow down on four iconic Chicago-style dishes, from deep-dish pizza to Chicago-style hot dogs.
- Navy Pier Signature Food Tour: This two-hour tour helps you explore what Navy Pier has to offer.
- Wrigley Brunch Crawl at Gallagher Way: Add beer and wine to the mix in this two-and-half-hour brunch crawl in Wrigleyville.