No matter how you draw a map of our “heartland”, Illinois lands pretty much in the center. Rich in history, everyone knows it as the “Land of Lincoln”, which is emblazoned on the state license plate, even though Honest Abe was 21 years old before ever setting foot in the state. The city of Chicago played a major role in the growth of the country, but nearly 80% of the state consists of farmland. The ever-popular and nutritionally-scary Twinkie may have been invented in the Chicago suburb of Schiller Park, but most people don’t get all that excited about the food you find in Illinois. That is, unless you actually live there and know where to eat.
There are places that people would visit just for the food. Even if Maine wasn’t spectacularly beautiful, it would be worth going for the lobster, especially those sweet, soft-shelled ones that are so plentiful in the summer. Louisiana has Mardi Gras, the French Quarter and perhaps the best and most unique music in the country, but lots of folks go for the gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish, po’boys and those world-famous beignets at Café du Monde! Maryland has its Old Bay-seasoned crab cakes, and other states are known for their particular specialties. Illinois, though, is not likely to cause a true foodie’s heart to skip a beat, which is not only unfortunate but unenlightened.
Natives of the Prairie State happily visit and enjoy the different types of foods all over the country and world, but they most enjoy the food they find close to home. Ask them about pizza and you will hear a lively debate about the merits of the famous deep dish pizza, invented at Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, in 1943, and the Chicago-style thin, crispy-crusted pizza, which is cut into squares rather than the more familiar triangular wedges. The Windy City is also home to some of the more creative ways to serve a hot dog, like the Chicago Dog, also known as a Red Hot. To make one of these, it is said that you have to “drag it through the garden” by starting with a poppy seed bun and a frankfurter (all beef, of course) and topping it with yellow mustard, sweet pickle relish, tomato, peppers, chopped white onion, a dill pickle spear and celery salt.
There’s a lot more to Illinois than Chicago, but we simply cannot move out of Cook County without mentioning the Italian Beef sandwich. It may not be as well-known outside the state, but natives are fanatical about these soggy delights. It is believed that the Italian Beef sandwich got its origin as an effort to stretch a limited supply of meat. This was done by shaving it wafer thin and dipping the meat and bun in the juices left in the pan to give it more bulk and substance. What was actually created was an end product that was delicious in a whole new way! Today’s version is topped with peppers or Chicago-style giardiniera, a relish made of pickled vegetables in a vinegar base.
Springfield, the state capital, may not have been the birthplace of Lincoln, but it is where the horseshoe originated. The base of the horseshoe is a thick slice of toasted bread, like Texas toast, and on top of that is a hamburger, French fries and what is referred to as a “secret” cheese sauce, usually consisting of some combination of eggs, butter, cheese, Worcestershire sauce, beer, mustard, salt and pepper. While tasty, there is nothing healthy about this sandwich, although, it can be ordered as a “pony” which means you only get a half portion.
Beef is big in Illinois. Some of the best hamburgers on the planet are found in little roadside diners and cafes. Dressed with simple slices of lettuce, onion, and tomato and maybe a slice of cheese, these standards are entirely too good just the way they are to need all of the extras you see in expensive restaurants or at the fast food chains. Pork is also popular. If you’re looking for award-winning baby back ribs, you have come to the right place.
All of that farmland may not be for corn these days, but there is an abundant supply, and it is often on the menu, whether we are talking restaurant or home. Boiled and loaded with sweet butter and salt or slow roasted on the grill, corn is an Illinois favorite.
Illinois may not top the list when it comes to states known for food. That said, whether you are hooked on popcorn that is a mix of caramel corn and cheese-flavored, love spending Friday nights searching out the best fish-fries at small town churches and VFWs or can’t start your day without a plate of biscuits and gravy, Illinoisans really do know what they like to eat.