Chicago’s Starting Line-Up
By Daniel P. Smith
Need to get away from the show for a bit? Why not check out what some of your limited-service peers are doing in the Windy City? These nine quick serves have helped define the rich tradition and culture that is the Chicago dining scene.
Gene & Jude’s Red Hot Stand // 2720 River Road in northwest suburban River Grove
Distance from McCormick Place: 16.9 miles
Gene & Jude’s has earned plenty of top honors, including being named best hot dog in the nation by foodie blog Serious Eats. The traditional Chicago hot dog stand features a Vienna Beef dog garnished with mustard, onions, relish, and sport peppers. In a twist, fresh-cut fries are placed on top of the dog before wrapping.
Just southeast of O’Hare Airport, Gene & Jude’s can easily be enjoyed before takeoff or after landing. Be warned, however: There are no tables and, in true Chicago hot dog spirit, no ketchup.
M Burger // 161 E. Huron St.
Distance from McCormick Place: 3.4 miles
In just two years, M Burger has created a rabid following in the Windy City for its simple menu highlighted by gourmet burgers and milkshakes.
Operating out of the kitchen of five-star restaurant Tru (both concepts are owned by Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, one of the Chicago area’s leading restaurant companies) the original M Burger serves its Midwestern beef burgers from a hole-in-the-wall location just off the famed Magnificent Mile. Three additional locations are scattered around the downtown area.
Al’s Beef // 1079 W. Taylor St.
Distance from McCormick Place: 3.0 miles
While a debate rages on for supremacy in the city’s heated Italian beef wars—many Chicagoans prefer the equally tasty sandwiches at Mr. Beef (666 N. Orleans St.)—Al’s Beef’s distinctive taste features ultra-thin, tender beef dipped in a secret-recipe gravy that delivers a late hint of cinnamon.
Al’s, however, wins extra points for its neighbors; across the street is another Chicago culinary institution, Mario’s Italian Lemonade, which shops savory cups of Italian ice.
Hot Doug’s // 3324 N. California Ave.
Distance from McCormick Place: 8.7 miles
Billed “The Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium,” Hot Doug’s embraces Chicago’s stockyard roots with an assortment of meaty favorites, including Polish sausage, Italian sausage, and bratwurst.
A rotating array of specials, meanwhile, bring diners inventive pairings, such as The Mountain Man, a combination of antelope, buffalo, elk, and venison; and The Teuben, a Swiss-cheese stuffed corned beef sausage topped with Russian dressing, sauerkraut, and Swiss.
A break from Chicago’s traditional hot dog stands, Hot Doug’s also serves up duck fat fries and even a vegetarian wiener.
Ricobene’s // 252 W. 26th St.
Distance from McCormick Place: 2.3 miles
While Ricobene’s serves an assortment of sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs, and pizza—including thin crust, pan, and Chicago’s famed deep dish—it’s the breaded steak sandwich that makes this South Side institution a Windy City favorite.
A signature menu item at Ricobene’s for nearly seven decades, the breaded steak sandwich is served on French bread and topped with red gravy. To spice it up further, many regulars add peppers, mozzarella cheese, or even hot giardiniera.
Jim’s Original // 1250 S. Union Ave.
Distance from McCormick Place: 2.6 miles
Overlooking the Dan Ryan expressway, Jim’s Original is far from glamorous. With no seating and its no-nonsense look, Jim’s appears unspectacular and unmemorable. But rest assured, this is the place for a savory Chicago-style Polish sausage, particularly late at night.
The 70-year-old eatery cooks its sausages on the flattop before blanketing the sausage with sweet grilled onions and slapping mustard across a standard hot dog bun. The $3.50 sandwich even comes with free fries, though fries are not the reason to visit.
Portillo’s // 100 W. Ontario St.
Distance from McCormick Place: 3.9 miles
A celebrated Chicago-area chain, Portillo’s claims more than 30 locations in the metro, including a flagship downtown store.
Portillo’s features a menu heavy with Chicago favorites, including hot dogs and Italian beef, as well as hamburgers and salads. Two must-haves: Portillo’s decadent chocolate cake and gravy bread, a sub-$1 item not listed on the menu. In the latter, Portillo’s dips its baked French bread in flavorful beef gravy and tops the bread with sweet or hot peppers.
Conte di Savoia // 1438 W. Taylor St.
Distance from McCormick Place: 3.5 miles
An authentic Italian deli and grocery store located in the Little Italy neighborhood, Conte di Savoia dazzles with its fresh-made sandwiches and salads.
On a 6-inch or 8-inch sub, guests can pair any of 20 meat selections alongside the deli’s standard sandwich staples: lettuce, tomato, provolone cheese, mayo, mustard, oil, and vinegar. Other house specialties include pasta salad, artichoke salad, an antipasto plate, and tasty tiramisu.
Tortas Frontera // O’Hare International Airport
Distance from McCormick Place: 21.8 miles
Renowned chef Rick Bayless gives diners authentic south-of-the-border tastes at Tortas Frontera, which has two units at O’Hare Airport: Terminal 1 near gate B11 and Terminal 3 near gate K4. With ingredients sourced from local farms, and with Bayless’ culinary inventiveness, the menu features hand-made tortas and molletes alongside a guacamole bar and Margaritas.
Of Bayless’ airport-based quick serve, the Chicago Tribune opined: “Finally, a reason to get delayed at O’Hare!”