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When I visit a city that’s known for its food, a culinary tour is a must. So while I was on a recent trip to Chicago with my sister, we chose the Taste Chicago Food Tour from Tastebud Tours to hit the city’s most appetizing highlights.
The itinerary, which took us through Chicago’s downtown loop and underneath the city’s trademark elevated train tracks, allowed us to sample local specialties such as deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches. It was also the most family-friendly food tour I’ve experienced, because the foods were all kid-pleasers.
“The concept of Tastebud Tours is that it’s a three-hour adventure that introduces people to Chicago through its food — so we treat people to the quintessential foods of Chicago from the places they originated,” said Lynn F. Jaynes, founder and CEO of Tastebud Tours.
The excursion starts at Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta for Chicago deep-dish pizza because — as our guide, Annalynn Keller, explained — “You gotta have deep-dish when you come to Chicago; it’s a tradition, so it’s a great way to start the tour.”
The owner of Pizzeria Uno and his chef, Rudy Malnati, invented deep-dish pizza in Chicago in 1943. They put crust on the bottom and sides, with sauce on top — so the crust gets crisp, but the sauce keeps the cheese from burning in the 600-degree oven. Malnati’s two sons, Lou and Rudy Jr., eventually opened their own pizza restaurants: Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria and Pizano’s. The crust recipe developed by Rudy Jr. is more like piecrust than traditional pizza crust, and the homemade sausage and sauce were so delicious that we immediately began planning when to return for another pie before we left town.
Our second stop on the tour was Goddess and The Baker, a local cafe and bakery with a focus on dessert. Here, Keller told us, we were having brownies to celebrate the invention of the treat in 1893 at the city’s Palmer House hotel. According to the origin story, Bertha Palmer asked the hotel chef to prepare a picnic, so he baked a dense chocolate cake and cut it into squares. Keller says the original recipe is still served at Palmer House but, in my opinion, Goddess and The Baker’s fudgy brownie was the perfect way to celebrate the brilliant creation.
Next, we visited Al’s #1 Italian Beef for Italian beef sandwiches. Keller explained that Italian immigrants created the sandwiches — which are unique to Chicago’s food scene — in the late 1800s. Al’s was the first shop in Chicago to serve these sandwiches to the public in 1938; before that, they were staples at Italian “beef and peanut weddings,” where hosts served the sandwiches with peanuts on the side.
“These people really had shoestring budgets to work with,” Keller said. “So they would buy as much beef as they could afford, cook it low and slow in beef stock, slice it really thin and serve it on Italian bread with peppers.”
Today, Al’s serves the tender sliced beef on fresh soft rolls with a choice of roasted sweet bell peppers or spicy house-made giardiniera (a mix of hot peppers and vegetables in oil).
After our sandwiches, it was time to walk off some calories, so we headed to the Chicago Cultural Center to see the largest Louis Comfort Tiffany glass-domed ceiling ever constructed. Originally built as Chicago’s main public library in 1897, the beautiful mosaic-filled building is now used for events, exhibits and concerts. The dome, which is worth about $37 million, was created with some 30,000 pieces of handmade glass.
“What makes the dome so unique is that it was put together before modern soldering technology was invented, so it’s not only an artistic feat, but it’s an architectural one as well,” Keller said.
From the Chicago Cultural Center, we walked to Fannie May, a chocolate store dating back to 1920. Keller told us that many Chicago natives associate certain Fannie May chocolates with certain holidays or relatives, so it’s very nostalgic for locals. We sampled the popular Pixies (pecans, caramel and milk chocolate) and the Mint Meltaways, chocolate mint centers coated in milk chocolate or light-green pastel shells. And as if that wasn’t enough sweetness, we were given two additional pieces for later (or maybe not so much later).
The tour’s last stop was The Berghoff, one of the oldest restaurants in Chicago. This German-style eatery was opened by the Berghoff brothers in 1898 and is still owned by the family’s fourth generation. According to Keller, the brothers originally owned a brewery and tavern, but when prohibition hit, they started brewing root beer — which the restaurant still serves, along with three types of beer — including the brothers’ original lager. We tried the lager with our flavorful mini-bratwursts, which were served with house-made sauerkraut and crispy spaetzle, which is made from egg noodles.
The tour is offered six days per week; it starts at 11 a.m. and runs about three to 3.5 hours. The price is $55 per person and includes all food.
By the end of the tour, we had learned a lot about Chicago and had tried foods with both cultural and historical significance — and we were thankful we had no dinner plans.
Looking for more food history? Follow this writer on her hunt for the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia.