15 Foods Invented in Chicago Besides Deep Dish Pizza


Tourists may flock to Chicago to try authentic, Bisquick-esque Chicago deep dish pizza, which Pizzeria Uno owner Ike Sewell invented in 1943, but there are a score of other foods that originated in Chicago that have either spread nationwide or are still only available in the Windy City. Here are Chicago’s illustrious and more obscure specialties.


Just as ubiquitous as deep dish pizza and hot dogs, the Italian Beef sandwich has made its way around the world. Italian immigrants created the delicacy in the 1920s or 1930s, during the Depression. Al Ferreri and family members opened Al’s Beef in 1938, but it’s unclear if he was the inventor of the sandwich. It evolved from the means of making unflavorful meat taste better and last longer, so people roasted it, used the sandwich’s bread to soak up the juices, and then added giardiniera on top to add some heat.

Chicago’s Al’s Italian Beef has an option to serve the sandwich wet, which means more gravy is added. Almost all 50 states have at least one Italian Beef shop, and Chicagoland has over 300 of them. Al’s recently opened a store in Dallas that proved to be so well-liked, it had to temporarily close to restock. And if you ever want to make Italian Beef at home, Portillo’s sells a handy DIY kit.



James Dewar, who was a baker for Continental Baking Company in Chicago suburb Schiller Park, invented the spongy yellow cake snack in 1930. He came across a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes, and the name stuck. Dewar first made the Twinkies stuffed with banana crème but then switched to the traditional vanilla crème style. By 1980, Twinkies sold at the rate of about 1 billion a year, but in 2012 Twinkies almost vanished from the face of the earth when Hostess Brands filed for bankruptcy. Two private equity firms joined forces and purchased Hostess and saved the food (and deep fried Twinkies) from eminent extinction. Twinkies made a comeback in July 2013, this time being manufactured out of only four plants in the U.S. Unfortunately, the Schiller Park plant closed last year, so it’s best to ration those treats just in case.



Gum has been around for thousands of years, but the mass-produced, multi-flavored varieties we know today can be traced to William Wrigley Jr. A native of Philadelphia, Wrigley moved to Chicago in the 1890s and established the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company in 1891, but back then he was a soap and baking powder salesman. He threw in a couple of free packs of chewing gum with each baking powder sale, and it was so popular that he decided to focus on gum.

In 1893 he invented Wrigley’s Spearmint and Juicy Fruit gums, added Doublemint in 1914, and the company introduced Extra sugar-free gum in 1984. Wrigley’s also known for his advertising acumen, when in 1915 he sent free sticks of gum to everyone in the phone book. Wrigley’s indelible mark can be seen all over Chicago: The Wrigley Building on Michigan Avenue’s named after him, and so is Wrigley Field, home to the Cubs.



Next to the deep dish pizza, Chicago’s best known for the omnipresent Chicago-style hot dog (all-beef hot dog in a steamed poppy-seed bun and “dragged through the garden”: chopped onions, neon green relish, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, celery salt, mustard, and no ketchup) and subsets such as the char dog and Polish dog. For a while, it was the only game in town, but soon other all-beef suppliers—most notably Red Hots—started encroaching on their turf. While different joints around the city have slight variations for their hot dogs, there remains a constant: These types of frankfurters.

During the World’s Fair, Emil Reichel and Sam Ladany emigrated from Vienna, Austria, to Chicago and sold their beef hot dogs at the fair. A year later, in 1894, they opened their first storefront. The Great Depression helped the Vienna Beef encased meats become a staple throughout hot dog stands in Chicago, and in 1964 the dogs infiltrated markets in California. Vienna Beef hot dogs can be found everywhere from Johnny Rockets to mom-and-pop hot dog stands.


Mike Mozart, Flickr

One of the foods introduced during the 1893 World’s Fair eventually became the ballpark snack Cracker Jack. German immigrant Frederick William Rueckheim and his brother debuted their candied popcorn mixed with peanuts at the exposition, and three years later the first batches of molasses-covered popcorn were sold to the public. In 1908, musicians Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer furthered the food’s popularity when they wrote about buying Cracker Jack in their heralded ballpark anthem “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In 1912, the company started selling the product with small prizes inside the boxes. Today, Frito Lay owns the brand and concocts flavors like butter toffee, kettle corn, and caramel coated popcorn—which are all still sold with prizes inside.



You have Chicago to thank for brownies, more specifically, Bertha Palmer. Her millionaire husband, Potter Palmer, owned the Palmer House hotel (it’s still open today), and she wanted to bake something for the World’s Fair that wasn’t a cake but had the texture of one and was also small enough to place inside a boxed lunch. Palmer’s recipe consisted of semi-sweet chocolate, crushed walnuts, and it was topped with an apricot glaze made from preserves. The first instance of the word “brownie” appeared in a 1898 Sears Roebuck catalog, and eventually the rest of the world fell in love with the dessert.


Frozen pound cakes were the invention of Downers Grove, Illinois' Charles Lubin, who founded Sara Lee in the 1950s and named it after his daughter. Lubin started out as owner of a chain of bakeries called Community Bake Shops, but he wanted to figure out a way to distribute the baked goods outside of Chicago without the food spoiling. He came up with the concept of freezing the product in a foil baking pan. He then was able to distribute the goods within a 300-mile radius of Chicago and eventually into 48 states. In 1976, Sara Lee had the honor of baking the nation’s bicentennial birthday cake , which was so huge (four stories), it filled up Freedom Hall.


rosidae, Flickr

The jibarito is a modern entry on this list, as it was invented in the 1990s. It’s unclear if the sandwich was in fact invented in Puerto Rico or Chicago, but Chicagoan Juan C. “Pete” Figueroa definitely made it his own in the city. Figueroa read about the “sandwich de platano” in a Puerto Rican newspaper and decided to cook his own version. The jibarito (hee-bah-ree-to) uses crispy green plantains as bread, and meats (pork, steak, or chicken), garlic mayo, cheese, lettuce, and tomato go between the plantains. Figueroa’s Humboldt Park eatery Borinquen Restaurant was the first to serve the sandwich in the city, but soon other Puerto Rican restaurants and Cuban restaurants started serving it.


It sounds so effortless: bell peppers and scrambled eggs on a sandwich, but it’s more complex than that. The peppernegg sandwich manifested during Lent. Strips of green and/or red peppers sautéed with or without onions, whipped eggs, and sometimes cheese go between two slices of bread. Establishments in Chicago sell iterations of the sandwich, but you can easily make it at home.


What’s a pizza puff? Well, it’s a smaller, folded version of a pizza wrapped in a soft flour tortilla that’s deep fried—similar to a Hot Pocket. They’re indigenous to Chicago’s fast food restaurants, especially hot dog stands and pizza joints. Chicago-based Iltaco Foods exclusively manufactures them and distributes them to retail outlets and restaurants. They sell varieties like beef sausage and mozzarella cheese, a gyro puff made with gyro meat, cheese, peppers, and yogurt sauce, and a breakfast puff made with ham and cheddar cheese.


Tee Poole, Flickr

The Greeks were onto something when they came up with fried cheese, but it was Chris Liakouras of Chicago’s Greektown’s The Parthenon who perfected it. High melting point cheeses like halloumi, kasseri, and kefalotyri are fried in a two-handled frying pan that’s called a “saganaki.” In 1968, Liakouras got the idea to fry the cheese tableside, pour brandy over it to flambée it, yell “Opa!”, and then finish it with a squirt of lemon juice. The cheese gets crispy on the outside but stays firm and only melts slightly on the inside. Throughout Greektown’s restaurants, types of saganaki vary: The Parthenon uses kasseri cheese, and Roditys has the option to add shrimp.


Jesse Lisa, Flickr

This dish is rarely seen outside Chicago restaurants, but recipes for it can be found all over the Internet. According to “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” an Italian cook who was inspired by the Mt. Vesuvius volcano (or Vesuvio in Italian) created the dish in Chicago after WWII. But Nick Giannotti claims his father, Vic, invented it in the 1960s. Chicken Vesuvio entails sautéing chicken-on-the-bone in a skillet with herbs, garlic, and white wine. It’s served with potatoes and peas to add some color. Critics named Italian steakhouse Harry Carey’s restaurant in Chicago as having the best Vesuvio in the city. Theirs is made with a half chicken or boneless breast, quartered potatoes, and sweet peas.


Chris Waits, Flickr

If you eat gyros, you are most likely eating one made from Glendale Heights, Illinois, company Kronos Gyro. (Look for the pretty girl poster.) Chris Tomaras founded the Greek company in 1975 where he developed what’s called a GyroKone: sliced beef, lamb, or chicken meat wrapped around a cone and ready to cook. This led to his gyro sandwich, which is meat roasted on a vertical spit and placed inside a warm pita bread topped with veggies and tzatziki sauce. Gyros were invented in Greece, but Tomaras claims he introduced gyros to Chicagoans, although others take credit for the innovation. Today, Kronos is the world’s largest manufacturer of gyros.


At the 1893 World's Fair, two breakfast staples arrived on Lake Michigan's shores, where they were introduced to the masses: Cream of Wheat and Shredded Wheat. The former was developed in Grand Forks, North Dakota as "breakfast porridge" when a group of flour millers repurposed the "first break rolls" from their mill. Shredded Wheat was invented in Denver and manufactured in upstate New York before premiering to a national audience at the fair. Both Shredded Wheat and Cream of Wheat became so popular in Chicago that they helped spark the ubiquity of packaged breakfasts.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


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