My Kind of Town, Chicago...

Every so often, I get an email from a fellow reader about my blog, my What's Cookin Chicago culinary group and/or about non-touristy food stops I recommend to visitors. One of my readers, CC, informed me she was coming to Chicago to visit family who live in the suburbs and that it would be her first visit to Chicago. Our email exchanges led to phone calls and we soon developed a friendship. (Don't you love how random circumstances bring people together?!) When CC and her family finally came to Chicago, I invited her and her family over for a Chicago inspired dinner. As much as I wanted to make a dinner from scratch, I figured it would be best to showcase some local products and talk about them a bit. To highlight Chicago, I had...

Chicago's Goose Island "312" Beer
(pictured above)
I chose to highlght Goose Island beer because Goose Island is such a popular and very good beer, in and out of Chicago. Aside from that, the brewery itself is named after the only island on the Chicago River.

It is separated from the mainland by the North Branch of the Chicago River on the west and the North Branch Canal on the east. The canal was dug in 1853 by former Chicago mayor Willian B. Ogden for industrial purposes, thus forming the island. Because he formed the island, at times, it has been known as William B. Ogden Island. After Irish immigrants moved to the island, it took on the name Goose Island as well as Kilgubbin, which was the immigrants' original home in Ireland. The Goose Island Brewery makes Kilgubbin Red Ale, in honor of this name. - Wikipedia

Chicago's Vitner's Potato Chips
(pictured above)
C.J. Vitner's is a Chicago company that specializes in snack food and it is one of the only continuously family owned and operated snack food companies in the country. Their commitment to their employees and customers has continued to grow over the last eighty years.

Chicago's favorite popcorn combo: Cheesy "Carmel" Popcorn
(cheese popcorn that's also been coated with caramel)
Popcorn is a serious thing in Chicago and at Garrett's popcorn shops, the thing to do is to order "the mix" - a sweet and salty concoction of cheesy cheese and buttery sweet caramel popcorn. But ask folks in Chicago, it's called "carmel" even though we all know it's carAmel. I had to share this Chicago favorite with CC and her family. This popcorn mix was not from Garrett's however. I believe the name of the shop is called 'What's Poppin' and what makes this different from Garrett's is that it's cheesy cheese popcorn that's been coated with caramel... or vice versa. Either way, each giant fluffy piece of popcorn is covered in both cheese and caramel. Sinfully addicting, I tell you!

Chicago Style Hot Dogs
(Vienna Beef hot dogs topped with neon green relish, tomato slices,
diced onion, pickle spear and sprinkled with celery salt)
What would a Chicago inspired dinner be without a Chicago dog? I used Vienna Beef hot dogs (the only kind to use, in my opinion) which sat in a steamed hot dog bun (preferably a poppy seed bun - but I couldn't find any nearby). Topping this dog are some chopped white onions, the signature neon green relish, slices of fresh tomato, a pickle spear and a dash of celery salt. I omitted the sport peppers (not a big fan) and one more thing - ketchup is not allowed. Yellow mustard is a go, but no ketchup must touch this dog. Ever.

Chicago's Deep Dish Pizzas
(Lou Malnati's deep dish sausage & pepperoni)
Ah, the piece de resistance. Pizza! Chicago takes their pizza seriously. Everyone tends to have an opinion on where to go for the best kind. There are countless places to choose from but for me, my vote goes to Lou Malnati's. They tend to have a very good balance of buttery crust, hearty fillings and just the perfect amount of sauce. Now if you haven't had a Chicago pizza before, it may not be what you expect. First off, it's more like a savory pie, often eaten with utensils since it's so hearty and big. Secondly, it's baked in a pan similar to a deep cake pan and after the crust in formed, cheese is the next layer, topped with whatever toppings you've chosen... and the whole pie is topped with a tomato based pizza sauce. It takes quite a bit of time for this to bake but it's definitely worth it! My favorite way to enjoy it is to keep it refrigerated and eaten cold the next day. The breakfast of Chicago champions, I tell you!

Chicago's very own Eli's Cheesecake
(Sampler slices of strawberry swirl, plain, chocolate chip & chocolate cake)
Here in Chicago, we're spoiled with some great desserts. One of my personal favorites is cheesecake from Eli's. For my Chicago inspired dinner, I offered a small sampling of some popular flavors and threw in a slice of Eli's chocolate cake. Each is deliciously rich and rarely disappoints. You can read more about my love of Eli's and my meeting with Eli's Cheesecake president, Marc Schulman here!

Chicago's First Slice Dessert:
Coffee Toffee Pie
Another dessert I added to our menu comes from First Slice, a great community supported kitchen. First Slice helped the community fight hunger by offering and serving a hot, high-quality three-course meal to approximately 100 men, women, and children in need. The organization is run by Chef Mary Ellen Diaz and this dessert represents not only how Chicago loves it's food, but how Chicago communities help each other with food.

It was an enjoyable evening with CC, her husband and her daughter, who visited from California. I'm constantly surprised with how the internet brings people together and how friendships can be made... even with readers of my site. This is just a constant reminder of how much I value my readers and I always look forward to meeting readers in person. If you happen to be visiting in my neck of the woods, please let me know - I'd love to share my favorite city in the world with you!


  1. Note to self: If ever planning a trip to Chicago, strike up a friendship with Joelen first. ;)

    That is so AWESOME! What a great hostess you are and what fun food. I'm so intrigued by the cheesy caramel corn. That is so something I would love! (At least I think, haha)

  2. Wow, what a gracious hostess you are! Your love for your city really shines through.

    I also love the internet's power to connect us with people we never would have met otherwise. I'm a bit biased that way since I met my husband online, but I feel very strongly about it in general too :)

  3. That was so sweet of you to host a reader with these delicious Chicago delicacies! Lou Malnati's is definitely my favorite pizza in Chicago - their crust is perfect!

  4. wow - what a great food tour of chicago's best. i feel like i know the place now!

  5. hi joelen
    thanks to your 'chicago' commenton marvin's burnt lumpia blog, i'm so glad we "connected" (online first and then in person!). you were such a great resource for our trip!

    my husband, daughter and i really enjoyed our time with you and your husband and the chicago themed dinner you put together for us. my daughter also enjoyed playing the wii with your husband!!! :)

    i haven't even finished all of my chicago posts yet...i've only done day 1 in 3 parts! and i have 5 more days to do!!!!

    you and your husband are always welcome to visit us in san diego, CA!

  6. Everything looks GREAT!!!

    I've been wanting to make those Chicago dogs... but have no idea what a sport pepper is... and no idea where to find that green relish!