Jumpballs, Gym Shoes, Mother-in-Laws, and the Maxwell Street Polish: Four Stick-to-Your-Ribs Classic Chicago Sandwiches

Amy Bizzarri
A "gym shoe" or "jim shoe" sandwich on a plate.
The "jim shoe" or "gym shoe" sandwich has three different kinds of meats and is filled to the brim with condiments.

Chicago is a city of big shoulders and big appetites, so even its beloved sandwiches reflect the city's early status as the "hog butcher of the world" and "stacker of wheat." Scraps of meat transform into sublime sandwiches while also reflecting the city’s immigrant history through its favorite fillings. The sandwiches that have fueled the "city that works" are often hearty, portable, inexpensive, and belly-warming enough to sustain us through those frigid winter days.

So it's no surprise that Chicago invented four gut-busting, stick-to-your-ribs takes on classic sandwiches: the mother-in-law, the jumpball, the jim shoe, and the Maxwell Street polish. Overloaded and inventive, these mouthwatering sandwiches glorify the culinary cool that makes Chicago a place for filling bellies and lifting spirits.

1. The Mother-in-Law

Three "mother-in-law" sandwiches on a wooden serving boardThe Mother-in-Law sandwich features a hot tamale, topped with chili and other condiments, served on a hot dog bun.

Though its exact origins are unclear, Fat Johnnie's Famous Red Hots, a beloved Chicago hot dog institution located at 7242 South Western Avenue, lays claim to inventing the Mother-in-Law, an overloaded sandwich that can wipe out hangovers and get people going for either a long afternoon on the job or a long afternoon nap.

The hot dog stand’s vintage sign beckons diners from across the city with the claim that its foodstuffs are "Fit for a King." In a 2008 oral interview with the Southern Foodways Alliance, Johnnie's owner John Pawlikowski recalled buying a tamale stuffed in a hot dog bun for a nickel as a little boy, from a Lithuanian-American push-cart vendor named Pete. The vendor referred to the mouthwatering sandwich as a mother-in-law. The savory sandwich made such an impression on Pawlikowski that he added it to the menu of Fat Johnnie's when he opened it in 1972.

Indeed Fat Johnnie's mother-in-law sandwich is undoubtedly the stuff of royalty: a Chicago-style hot tamale topped with chili rests comfortably in a steamed hot dog bun. While most places leave the mother-in-law alone, Fat Johnnie's loads her up with the usual Chicago-style hot dog condiments. Some say she was inspired by the torta de tamal, a bolillo, Mexico's signature baguette, filled with a Mexican-style tamale.

2. The Jumpball

At 16 South Western Avenue, Moon's Sandwich is the home of yet another over-the-top Chicago sandwich: The Jumpball. Step up to the old-school diner countertop and watch as three eggs are scrambled on the grill with onions, potatoes, and savory Italian sausage. American cheese is added to meld the ingredients before they're cradled between two slices of toast. It's the quintessential breakfast sandwich, though it can be eaten at any time of day. Moon's has been serving its jumpball since it opened in 1933. Rumor has it that the eatery also served a side of moonshine during prohibition, hence the name Moon's.

3. The Jim Shoe (or Gym Shoe)

The Jim Shoe (also called the Gym Shoe) sandwich is a mega hoagie roll packed with three types of meat—Greek-American-style shave gyros, roast beef, and corned beef—plus lettuce, tomato, tzatziki, mayo, mustard, cheese, onions, sweet peppers, and Chicago-style giardiniera. Wrapped up in aluminum foil, it's as big as a basketball player's gym shoe, though no one knows where it got its name or its exact origin. It was likely born somewhere on the South Side: you'll find the jim shoe at most South Side sub sandwich shops, including Petey's (250 West 47th Street) and Southtown Sub (112 East 71st Street).

4. The Maxwell Street Polish

A Maxwell Street Polish Sandwich Maxwell Street Polishes are topped with grilled onions and mustard, although the pictured also features sport peppers. Image: mswine / Flickr

This sandwich calls for a Polish sausage—a Chicago-made Kielbasa variety that combines pork and beef—nestled in a bun and topped with grilled onions and a stripe of yellow mustard. Though you can find the Maxwell Street Polish citywide, Jim's Original (1250 South Union Ave), claims to have invented the Chicago delight. The hot dog stand opened in 1939 when Jimmy Stefanovic, an immigrant from Macedonia, took over his aunt and uncle's hot dog stand and named it after none other than himself. Though Jim's Original claims to be the point of origin for the classic Chicago sandwich, it was more likely the first brick-and-mortar stand to sell the sandwich, which was probably push-cart peddled years before on the streets of Chicago's Maxwell Street Market.