The Chicago Dog. Why This Tasty Hotdog is a Windy City Icon

Introduction

The Chicago-style hot dog dates back to the early 1900s when street cart vendors first began selling hot dogs topped with mustard, onions, relish, pickles, tomatoes, peppers and more. While the exact origins are debated, these loaded hot dogs quickly became iconic culinary symbols of Chicago. What sets the Chicago-style hot dog apart is the traditional combination of toppings piled onto an all-beef frankfurter in a steamed poppy seed bun. Customarily, the frank is topped with yellow mustard, chopped onions, neon green sweet pickle relish, pickled sport peppers, two tomato wedges, a kosher dill pickle spear and a dash of celery salt. This traditional Chicago dog is a flavorful messy masterpiece that has achieved worldwide fame.

loaded chicago style hot dog platter

Origins

The Chicago-style hot dog was invented by Jewish immigrants Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichel in 1893 ahead of the Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair in Chicago that year. They opened a small stand in the Jewish section of Chicago where they sold the newly invented sausages made by Vienna Beef and placed them in a roll designed by baking company Fluky’s. The original Chicago-style hot dog consisted of an all-beef frank topped with mustard, fresh tomatoes, onions, bright green relish, sport peppers, a pickle spear, celery salt, and was served on a poppy seed bun.

Sources:

The Chicago Dog: A History of the Windy City Favorite

Ingredients

ingredients for chicago style hot dog

The Chicago-style hot dog has a very specific and iconic list of ingredients that set it apart. According to the official guidelines, the ingredients are:

  • Poppyseed bun – The soft, sweet bun provides a perfect complement to the other ingredients.
  • All-beef frankfurter – Only all-beef hot dogs are acceptable on a true Chicago dog.
  • Yellow mustard – Bright yellow mustard adds a tangy kick.
  • Chopped white onion – The crunchy, mild onion provides texture and flavor.
  • Dill pickle slices – Crisp, tart pickle chips cut lengthwise.
  • Sport peppers – Spicy, pickled peppers add heat.
  • Tomato wedges (optional) – Cool, juicy tomato balances the other flavors.
  • Celery salt – This specialty seasoning adds an extra dash of flavor.

Each component builds on the last to create a symphony of flavors, textures, temperatures, and colors that come together in perfect harmony. No substitutions or omissions are permitted for an authentic Chicago-style hot dog experience.

Preparation

diagram of preparation steps

The signature snap of the Chicago-style hot dog comes from the specific preparation method. The frankfurter must be steamed or simmered, never grilled or boiled, according to hot dog historians. The most traditional preparation involves the following steps:

  • Steaming the hot dog to gently cook through without splitting the casing.
  • Butterflying the hot dog along its length, but leaving it attached at both ends.
  • Removing the outer skin casing from the hot dog.
  • Nesting the split hot dog on a poppy seed bun to cradle it.

As explained on The Paupered Chef, this preparation allows the hot dog to absorb more of the toppings layered onto the bun while retaining its signature “snap.” Steaming provides gentler heat than boiling to cook the hot dogs just right without overdoing it. The slit down the middle allows it to lay flat and nestle into the bun.

Unique Taste

The unique taste of the Chicago-style hot dog sets it apart from other hot dogs. The all-beef frankfurter provides a rich, meaty flavor. The poppyseed bun offers a slightly sweet backdrop. The tomatoes, pickle, sport peppers, and celery salt add salty, tangy, and spicy notes. The sweet neon green relish and yellow mustard balance out the other strong flavors.

According to Bon Appétit, “The combination of flavors and textures is what makes the Chicago hot dog taste so distinctively good.” The layers of flavors and textures from the traditional toppings create an explosion of tastes in each bite.

As described by Refinery29, “The pickle and tomato add tartness. The relish and onions offer a sweet counterpart. Peppers bring the spice. Mustard ties it all together.” The sport peppers in particular give the Chicago dog a unique spicy kick.

Unlike many hot dogs that are simply topped with ketchup and mustard, the careful balance of flavors on the Chicago dog sets it in a class of its own. The rich all-beef hot dog serves as the perfect canvas for the symphony of textures and flavors from the toppings that define this iconic Chicago staple.

Popular Vendors

exterior of portillo's chicago hot dog restaurant

Chicago is home to several iconic hot dog stands and restaurants that have become synonymous with the Chicago-style hot dog. Three of the most popular vendors include:

Portillo’s was founded in 1963 by Dick Portillo and originally started as a small hot dog stand. It has since grown into a massive chain with restaurants across America, but it remains an iconic Chicago brand. Portillo’s hot dogs are prepared “Chicago-style”, topped with mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickle, and sport peppers. The restaurant differs from traditional hot dog stands with its Italian beef sandwiches and chocolate cake, but its hot dogs remain quintessentially Chicago.

The Wieners Circle is a Lincoln Park late-night institution that opened in 1983. Known for its “Chicagostyle” hot dogs and signature char-dogs, The Wieners Circle is also famous for its rambunctious ambiance and staff who trade insults with customers. It embraces a specific type of punk rock ethos that epitomizes the gritty underbelly of Chicago street food.

Gene & Jude’s opened in 1950 and operates as a traditional Chicago-style hot dog stand with a walk-up counter to order. Located in River Grove, Illinois, Gene & Jude’s minimalist approach focuses entirely on hot dogs, fries, and tamales. Its natural-casing Vienna Beef dogs are considered by many to be the gold standard of Chicago hot dogs.

(Source: https://www.tripster.com/travelguide/famous-chicago-restaurants/)

Cultural Significance

The Chicago-style hot dog is deeply ingrained in the city’s culture and identity. Hot dog stands are iconic fixtures in Chicago, with many operating for decades as beloved neighborhood spots. Places like Wiener’s Circle and Superdawg drive-in are landmarks known for serving the classic Chicago-style hot dog.

Hot dogs are also an integral part of the experience at summer festivals and sporting events in Chicago. No trip to see the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field is complete without getting a hot dog from one of the stadium’s vendors. Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza, and other major summer festivals in Grant Park also see thousands flocking to satisfy their hot dog cravings. The act of getting a loaded Chicago dog at these events is a time-honored tradition.

As described in the article “My Adventures with the Chicago-style hot dog” (https://www.eatthistown.ca/chicago-style-hot-dogs/), the Chicago hot dog has become “famous not only for how it tastes, but for the role it played in the culture and cuisine of the Windy City.” From street carts to baseball games, it remains a staple of summertime in the city.

Popularity Today

Chicago-style hot dogs have been popular staples for decades, cementing their iconic status. It’s estimated over 20 million Chicago hot dogs are consumed each year at stands, restaurants, sports stadiums, patios, parks, and street vendors across the city. The hot dog style has gained national and global fame, recognized for its unique ingredients and preparation.

Baseball fans chow down on Chicago dogs at Wrigley Field by the thousands. Locals and tourists alike line up daily for them at popular stands like Portillo’s. Their signature taste makes them a go-to summer BBQ food. Overall, their lofty status and reputation for quality keeps demand high year after year among Chicagoans and visitors.

Variations

While the classic Chicago-style hot dog is always a popular choice, some variations have become favorites as well. One creative spin is the Chicago-style hot dog pizza, which incorporates all the classic hot dog toppings onto a pizza.[1] The hot dog toppings work surprisingly well in pizza form! Another variation is hot dog sandwiches, with the hot dog and toppings sandwiched between slices of bread.[2] Finally, some diners love to load up their hot dogs with extra toppings like sauerkraut, chili, cheese, and more.

Conclusion

In summary, the Chicago-style hot dog has become an iconic part of the city’s culinary tradition and culture. With its all-beef frankfurter, poppyseed bun, mustard, onions, relish, tomatoes, peppers, pickle spear, and celery salt, this hot dog variety has a unique taste profile not found anywhere else.

Since its origins in the early 1900s at the old Maxwell Street market, the Chicago-style hot dog has had a tremendous impact, becoming one of the most recognizable local dishes. It is often one of the first things visitors want to try. The hot dog also represents a sense of civic pride, with Chicagoans considering it far superior to versions from other cities like New York.

To get an authentic Chicago hot dog experience, head to popular stands like Portillo’s, Superdawg, or The Wieners Circle. Local hot dog lovers should also make a pilgrimage to the original locations like Byron’s Hot Dogs and Jimmy’s Red Hots which have been serving these special hot dogs for decades.

Scroll to Top