15 Unique Illinois Foods You Should Try At Least Once

Several things likely come to mind when you think of Illinois: professional sports teams, the iconic Chicago skyline, renowned museums, and wide open fields. For some, Illinois may blend into the landscape of the Midwest. But there's plenty that makes the state — and its food scene — unique.

Illinois cuisine offers a variety of flavors from the city to the countryside. Although several iconic Illinois foods hail from Chicago, the Windy City is far from the only place where its treats are available — and some bonafide culinary treasures can be found throughout the Prairie State. You'll find specialties further north in Rockford, while a handful of delightful foods can be found in central Illinois, as well.

Whether putting a crazy spin on sandwiches or serving pizza in numerous styles, the state is peppered with unique flavors and stories. From lesser-known gems in northern cities to heartwarming dishes served in central Illinois diners, here are 15 unique Illinois foods you should try at least once.

Chicago popcorn

You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to leave Chicago without at least one bag of the city's iconic popcorn. Whether picking some up from Garrett downtown or stopping at Nuts on Clark at the O'Hare Airport, one thing is clear: that popcorn is going home with you.

One taste and you'll discover why the combination of cheddar and caramel popcorn is so easy to love. You get a mix of sweet and salty goodness as well as some clashing textures. The caramel is candied, after all, while the cheddar popcorn is softer. Plus, the longer the two flavors hang together in a tin or bucket, the more cheddar rubs off onto the caramel pieces to create an amalgamation of the two.

Though it's hard to find great Chicago popcorn outside of the city proper, if you happen to be in the scope of someone running a fundraiser through Double Good? We've found that its Chi-Town Chow Down popcorn is an excellent alternative to the real deal variety.

Chicago-style deep dish pizza

Found at pizza shops both in and around the city, Chicago's famed deep dish pizza straddles the line between pie and pizza. For the uninitiated, what makes Chicago-style deep dish pizza so unique is its layered ingredients and depth. These deep dish pizzas have some genuine girth — so be ready to wait a little longer when you order one from Lou Malnati's or any other restaurant.

As the name suggests, pizzerias form these pies in deep dish pans, where layer after layer is piled on top of each other. The dough is first, followed by layers of cheese, meat, and veggies (if you so desire). Finally, a deep slathering of red sauce tops it all off. Additionally, be sure to try a deep dish pizza with a spicy Chicago-style giardiniera as a topping. Though it's a bit more under the radar, once you top your pizza with giardiniera? You'll never order a deep dish without it again.

Chicago hot dog

Of all the foods iconic to Illinois — and Chicago specifically — perhaps none gets as much love and attention as the Chicago-style hot dog. Like Chicago-style deep dish pizza, this iconic Illinois food is loaded with ingredients. But rather than donned with the trappings of the butcher's window, this one is "dragged through the garden," as the popular description goes. 

Most Chicago dogs begin with a Vienna Beef hot dog that's steamed to get warm (but not hot). It goes atop a poppy seed bun that's been slightly steamed for a fluffy texture. The Chicago-style toppings include yellow mustard, chopped onions, bright green relish, tomato wedges, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and a generous dusting of celery salt.

It's a whole mouthful to eat, so when you order one? You'll definitely want to grab some napkins to go along with it. Oh: and leave the ketchup off. Ketchup has no place on a Chicago dog.

Horseshoe sandwich

Springfield, Illinois is located roughly in the center of the state. It's home to the state's capital, Abraham Lincoln's childhood home, and, most deliciously, the horseshoe sandwich. Simply put, the iconic and crave-worthy horseshoe sandwich is an open-faced sandwich featuring a huge number of ingredients piled high. Not only will you probably need a fork to eat this unique Illinois sandwich, but its composition seems to fly in the face of what a sandwich actually is.

The horseshoe sandwich was created by Joe Schweska, who made an open-faced sandwich with horseshoe-shaped ham, potato wedges, and cheese. Of course, you'll find it across diners in Illinois as a massive mound of food with everything from ham and cheese to hashbrowns and eggs. If you're a fan of an all-in-one, perfect bite, the horseshoe sandwich may become your new favorite Illinois food. If central Illinois diners are any indicator, you'll probably be full the rest of the day after digging into one of these.

Italian beef sandwich

Although it's mighty difficult to avoid ordering a Chicago-style hot dog when visiting Portillo's, another fabulous option is an Italian beef sandwich. This iconic sandwich is quite simple. It features an Italian roll topped with thinly sliced Italian beef piled high (and giardiniera if you want it) — but the sandwich's magic begins once it's assembled. You can get au jus poured over the top of the sandwich or on the side for dipping, you can get it without any sauce at all, or have the entire sandwich dipped.

That last option (as you might guess) involves taking the whole Italian beef sandwich and dipping it right into au jus before serving. Of course, you'll probably want to eat your Italian beef sandwich at the restaurant rather than enjoy it as a takeaway if opting for a whole sandwich dip. Otherwise, you risk having a substantially soggy sandwich on your hands by the time you unwrap it.

In addition to Portillo's, you can find these sandwiches throughout the state at many other locations. Plus, there are plenty of other great spots for an Italian beef sandwich in Chicago, as well.

Chicago tavern-style pizza

On the opposite end of the pizza spectrum from Chicago's deep dish style is a thin-crust, tavern-style pizza common throughout the state. Frequently sold in breweries, pubs, bars, and taverns, what makes Chicago thin-crust pizza unique is its very thin and deeply crunchy crust, light toppings (of your choosing, of course), and being cut in squares rather than the traditional triangle slices.

While popular topping options include pepperoni or sausage, there are some more interesting ones available, too. This includes an Italian beef style or spinach artichoke — which ends up tasting somewhat like spinach artichoke dip slathered across a pizza crust. The best part about this pizza may be how shareable it is amongst friends. It's relatively easy to eat as a snack since it's almost exclusively served in square cuts rather than the typical pizza triangle. Plus, it isn't nearly as filling as deep-dish pizza is, either.


Typically, when we say that there's a particular food or drink that you absolutely must try, it's because it is unforgettably delicious. But sometimes, a product's notability isn't related to a particularly positive reason — and unfortunately for Malört? It's notoriety isn't because it's delectable. In fact, this Chicago liquor is famous for all the wrong reasons owing to a strong, bitter Wormwood presence.

Malört's history goes back to Prohibition when it was sold as a stomach tonic to escape prying eyes. In that era, people would try to stop Carl Jeppson from selling his alcohol on the street. However, once they'd try it, they'd determine it was so terrible that there was no way people would willingly drink it.

Frankly, Malört's offensive flavor is the very reason the liquor persisted through Prohibition and into the 21st century. All told, Chicago's Malört liquor isn't uniquely delightful — but it is an Illinois-originating product you need to taste to believe.

Pork tenderloin sandwich

Illinois has an interesting fascination with using the word "sandwich" in dishes where it doesn't necessarily belong. Another edition of this phenomenon comes from the central Illinois pork tenderloin. Looking at one of these sandwiches, you might imagine it to be something of a joke. After all, it features an enormous breaded and fried tenderloin between a bun.

These pork tenderloin sandwiches are massive and the pork tenderloin piece is often the size of the plate on which the sandwich is served. Depending on where you go, the additions to the sandwich (like pickles and onions) are often comically served, as well, spilling out from under the bun or even off to the side. In some ways, the oversized tenderloin seems like something of a plate for the toppings rather than a part of the sandwich.

Regardless of its size or composition, you'll want to grab a pork tenderloin sandwich on your next trip to Illinois. Be sure to grab a fork and knife, too, because this sandwich is one you won't be able to eat with just your hands.

Mrs. Fisher's Chips

In Rockford, Illinois, you'll find the Mrs. Fisher's potato chip facility. As a local entity, these potato chips are quite popular throughout the state. Of course, after one bite, you'll see why they're the perfect chip to enjoy at a summer cookout or as the side to a Chicago-style hot dog. They're not what anyone would describe as a healthy snack, though, as you get a whole lot of salty, fatty, greasy deliciousness.

Mrs. Fisher's potato chips date back to 1932, when founders Ethel and Eugene Fisher first cooked them in their own house. While the production methods for Mrs. Fisher's chips have clearly changed since the early days (when they were made by hand), the company has continued to produce potato chips at the same Rockford location since 1978. While you can pick up multiple flavors of Mrs. Fisher's chips, the classic version is well-loved for a reason. You can often purchase smaller, single-serve bags in bars around the state to enjoy with your brew, as well.

Beer Nuts

Mrs. Fisher's chips aren't the only snack food that calls Illinois home. Beer Nuts are another popular snack to enjoy with a drink that originated in Bloomington, Illinois. This central Illinois town isn't far from Illinois State University, so it's very much a college area — meaning it was the perfect place to develop a well-known bar snack.

Beer Nuts are both sweet and salty and are an ideal snack food to enjoy with company. They're innately poppable, which makes them super easy to set out when hosting. In addition to the original peanuts variety, you can find a slew of other flavors and mixes. Some varieties are a little sweeter while others are a bit spicier, so there's something to suit anyone's personal preference.

Beer Nuts were originally made by the Caramel Crisp Shop, which was owned by the snack food's founders Russell and Arlo Shirk. As the shop (and its products) became more popular, a restaurant was added. Eventually, the nuts became a mainstay at local watering holes, before blossoming into a snack available nationwide.

Rainbow cone

Choosing one flavor of ice cream can be very difficult. That's why many Illinois residents are obsessed with another state original: the rainbow cone (from The Original Rainbow Cone Ice Cream Shop). A stacked combo platter of flavors, this cone hits every kind of ice cream craving you might have. There's strawberry, pistachio, Palmer House, chocolate, and a light orange sorbet — all layered quite comically on a sugar cone. 

The intense layering of ice cream on the rainbow cone is credited to creator Joe Sapp (or "Grandpa Joe"), who could never be happy with just a single flavor of ice cream. Notably, rather than being scooped, the ice creams used in a rainbow cone are sliced and layered to simplify the construction process. Even still, you may want to ask for a bowl on the side in case your towering cone starts to topple over. While it's original to Chicago, there are Rainbow Cone trucks and locations found throughout Illinois, and a handful of locations are open in neighboring states as of 2024, as well.

Maxwell Street Polish sausage

Another popular street food in Chicago is the Maxwell Street Polish sausage from Vienna Beef. These sausages have similar toppings to those found on the Chicago-style hot dog but are pared down a bit. The yellow mustard, poppy seed roll, and sport peppers remain, but a Maxwell Street Polish sausage also has grilled onions on top. Since Polish sausages are thicker than a typical hot dog, the sausage has more of a dense bite rather than a hot dog snap when eating it.

To really make your caramelized onions come alive, Vienna Beef recommends adding white sugar while they cook to help them caramelize. Additionally, the company suggests scoring an X on each side of these Polish sausages before they cook to promote doneness. Either way, on your next Chicago trip, be sure to grab a Maxwell Street Polish sausage as well as a Chicago-style hot dog. Each one fulfills different cravings — and you can determine which of these two Illinois foods is your favorite.

Flaming saganaki

How do you make cheese better? Apparently, you set it on fire. In what's become a popular appetizer at many Chicago restaurants, a flaming saganaki consists of fried Kasseri cheese topped with brandy and lemon juice that's then lit ablaze.

Often served with crackers on the side, you'll typically find this food at Greek restaurants throughout the city. Then again, you may find a flaming saganaki on menus throughout the U.S. For example, it's on the menu at Wine Bar George in Disney Springs (at Walt Disney World) in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Additionally, although you might expect the flaming cheese to become somewhat of a mess in the skillet, due to its fried preparation process? Flaming saganaki actually holds its form quite well — making it easy to cut and slather on your crackers. Frankly, order this unique Illinois food once, and you'll do so every single time you visit a Greek restaurant that offers it.


Illinois can't escape unusual sandwiches, and this is another one with a hefty history. Like so many other foods included in this article, the origins of the Jibarito sandwich are uniquely Chicagoan – and a delicious example of cultural influence on the city's cuisine. As the history goes, when restaurant owner Juan "Pete" Figueroa first learned of plantain sandwiches in 1996, he decided to use them as the backbone for the first Jibarito sandwich served at Borinquen (his Humboldt Park restaurant).

Consequently, this particular sandwich doesn't use bread — it utilizes fried-and-smushed green plantains. Between these ad hoc bread slices, you'll often find exceptionally thin-sliced steak, garlic oil, grilled-up onions, and cheese. The combination may be unexpected, but the slightly crisp yet mostly soft plantains nicely complement the steak and garlic oil. A Jaborito sandwich is a delightful food item in both taste and texture, with a flavor profile that proudly celebrates Chicago's Puerto Rican culture.


You may be surprised that brownies — those chocolatey and delectable dessert tray mainstays — were originally created at Chicago's Palmer House Hotel. But the creation of the brownie does, in fact, trace back to an intriguing moment in 1893 when the hotel owner's wife, Bertha Palmer, sought a practical yet delicious treat suitable for travel. This led the Palmer House Hotel's then-pastry chef to craft the world's first brownie.

Now, Chicago isn't the only place to get brownies. But seeing how the first chocolate brownie recipe is still being made, it is the only place you can eat the original brownie. Just keep in mind: The original Palmer House brownie may be a bit different from the ones you whip up in your kitchen. After all, the original Palmer House brownie used a walnut topping and an apricot glaze over the top. It's a more grown-up version than the box mixes you'll find lining grocery aisles in the 21st century, but one worth trying if the opportunity arises.