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Foods of Chicago

Foods of Chicago

Foods of Chicago: A Delicious History

You are what you eat goes the old saying. So what can we learn about Chicagoans from the food on our plates? WTTW 11's Geoffrey Baer plays both taste-tester and tour guide, exploring the little-known stories behind Chicago's favorite foods.

Whet your appetite with Some Food Trivia:

How did the Chicago-style hot dog come to be?
It became popular during the Great Depression, when various ethnic groups added their favorite veggies to a German sausage with the hopes of getting a cheap, well-balanced meal.

Jay's Potato Chips?
A snack-food junkie named Al Capone developed a taste for the chips while betting on the ponies in New York, and asked his supplier to start making them for his speakeasies.

You probably know…
that Italian Beef and Deep Dish Pizza were invented in Chicago (and we'll learn the history of those foods) but did you know that flaming saganaki, the cafeteria, the brownie, and Chicken Vesuvio were also invented here? We'll meet the people who say they can prove it.

Other Highlights Include:

  • A tour of Chicago's New Maxwell Street Market. It's like a trip to Mexico.
  • A Native American prepares the type of meal her ancestors might have eaten. Geoffrey tastes the wild onions for which Chicago is likely named.
  • How corned beef is made.
  • How the diet of Italian immigrants made them the target of prejudice.
  • Two legendary German restaurants, the Berghoff and the Chicago Brauhaus remind us of the days when German food was king in Chicago.
  • Chef Steve Chiappetti shows us how a true Chicago steakhouse makes a steak. (He should know, his family owns Chicago's last slaughterhouse!)
  • The foods of Polish Noblemen and rural Polish Highlanders. We learn the peasant origins of many popular Polish foods (pierogis, for example), and how Polish-Americans have developed eating traditions all their own.
  • The 16th Century Muslim empire that had a huge impact on the foods you'll find at Chicago's Indian restaurants.
  • We get a "cheezborger" and chips ("no fries!") at the Billy Goat, where we learn about the birth of a classic Saturday Night Live routine and the Curse of the Billy Goat.
  • We discover how people from one tiny region of China, called Toisan, gave us almost all of our favorite Chinese dishes. That's because most of Chicago's Chinese emigrated from that region. We'll also see how the Toisanese altered their food to appeal to American tastes.

And our feast of Chicago food history continues with:

  • Sushi night at an Italian kosher restaurant.
  • The birth of the Chicago hot dog, McDonald's, Jay's Potato Chips, and the cafeteria in Chicago.
  • Soul Food at a West Side church. (We'll learn how African-American cooking still incorporates ingredients from Africa, as well as slave traditions.)
  • You'll learn the hallmarks of Chicago-style barbecue.
  • A visit to a pita bread factory to learn about the bread's place in Lebanese culture.
  • Chef Dudley Nieto gives us a Mexican food tour of Pilsen, where he goes to get ideas for his upscale restaurant.
  • A visit to an Azteca Foods tortilla factory.
  • We see the birthplace of the jibarito, a Puerto Rican sandwich made with plantains.
  • And don't forget dessert: learn how Chicago was once the candy capital of America, visit the Tootsie Roll factory, and see how Chicago's candy industry is changing with the times.


Our WTTW crew ate its way across Chicago and we're happy to report we didn't gain too much weight! Here are our favorite things we've tasted in the making of this show...

Host Geoffrey Baer

-Taco at the New Maxwell Street Market

-German Pretzel at the Chicago Brauhaus

-Grape leaves, shawarma and kabobs at Steve’s Shish Kabob

-Indian mangos at Patel Brothers grocery

-Tootsie Roll fresh off the factory line (warm and soft!)

-Fried Shrimp at Troha’s Shrimp and Fish House

-Cheezborger (at the Billy Goat, of course)

-Enchiladas at Teresa Fraga’s home in Pilsen

-Pho at Pho777

Producer Dan Protess

-Jibarito at Borinquen

-Hot Links at Honey 1 BBQ

-Maxwell Street Polish at Jim's Original

-Nopales taco at Los Comales in Pilsen

-Plum Butter Punczki at Delightful Pastries

-Peach Cobbler at the True Word Outreach Church in Austin

-Galaktobourikos at St. Andrew's Greek Orthodox Church

-Lamb ribs at Viand

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