Chicago-style pizza is one of the most iconic styles in the world. Chicago is one of the largest and most legendary cities in the country and has a cuisine of its own to back it up. In Chicago, however, it’s not all fun and deep-dish pizzas every day. In fact, as NPR reports, an average Chicago pizzeria will serve less than 10% of its pizzas deep-dish style. The world, however, recognizes Chicago as a pizza powerhouse, rivaling the likes of New York and even the Old Country.
What Is Chicago-Style Pizza?
Deep-dish pizza from Chicago distinguishes itself by being, well, deep. The depth of a Chicago-style pie is significant compared to a flatbread-height one from most other styles. The entire pie has an extra girth and thickness of toppings, which is afforded by being cooked in a cake pan, rather than a flat sheet.
By having a rim, the Chicago pizzerias stack layer after layer of cheese and toppings inside the bowl of dough. With such a massive load of food, the chefs have to get creative to prevent the cheese from getting burnt from a long bake time. They avoid this conundrum by working backward, (from a New Yorker’s perspective) sacrilegiously placing the cheese first, then toppings, and followed lastly by the red sauce.
Some Chicagoans take it a step even further, with a stuffed deep-dish pie. These are even deeper, with more toppings and cheese, and covered like a pie with a dome of dough.
Pan pizza also takes on a special new form in some parts of Chicago. At Pequod’s Pizzeria, for example, the pie is removed halfway through baking. It is then frozen, covered with more toppings and sauce, and rebaked. This produces a pizza that is truly unique in appearance, with burnt cheese stacking upwards and a taste not found anywhere else.
Despite what some New Yorkers want you to believe, there is a broader range of pizza that Chicagoans call their own. With only about 10% of Chicago pizza orders placed as deep-dish, what else are people ordering?
Another popular favorite in the city is thin crust pizzas. Though it is certainly more similar to New York-style than deep-dish, a Chicago thin crust stands out by being both extra crispy and cut into squares, rather than wedges.
The History of Chicago-Style Pizza
The origins of pizza in Chicago can be traced well over a century back. Chicago had been the recipient of countless Italian immigrants. Along with those people came a rich cuisine that has forever changed the landscape of Chicago-style anything.
One of the first pizzerias in Chicago was Pompei Restaurant, which, in 1909, began selling thin crust pies. Granato’s opened its legendary doors in the 1930s and has been an icon for Chicago-style pizza ever since.
While a fiercely debated subject, a number of pizza-historians suggest Pizzeria Uno was the first to bring the deep-dish pizza to market. Pizzeria Uno is still one of the most renowned spots for pizza in Chicago (and now 100 locations around 20 states) and they are always ready to boast about this piece of trivia.
In 1953, the Chicago Tribune published an article detailing the explosive growth in popularity from the pizza culture. More than a hundred pizzerias were listed in the phone book and demand was still booming for more.
More than a decade later, in 1965, the restaurant Vito and Nick’s, which is still open, began spreading the still-beloved tavern-style, thin crust pizza. Pizza continued to increasingly dominate the city’s culture year after year.
In the 1980s, even McDonald’s experimented with pizza on their menu. Even then-President Bill Clinton, in 1998, refused to allow Air Force One’s departure from Chicago’s airport until he was able to revel in a Pizano’s pie.
From is humble roots as a traditional food of immigrants, to becoming the pizza of choice of one Homer Simpson, Chicago-style pizza is as delicious as it is iconic.
What Makes Chicago Style Different To Other Types of Pizza
The first way you can tell you are eating a Chicago-style pizza is found in the toppings. Rather than pepperoni as a primary topping like New York or bacon like St. Louis, Chicago, instead, opts for sausage. Chicago-style sausage is a delicacy in its own right, but added to pizza? It is a match made in heaven. Though pepperoni and other toppings are widely available, sausage is considered the default option.
When it comes to comparing a deep-dish pie to that of New York, you first notice the depth. Chicago-style pizza has the depth of an apple pie, rather than a flatbread. In Chicago, the deep-dish pizzas are not cooked on a flat pan, but instead a rimmed type more similar to cake pans.
That extra space means that, from base to rim, the whole pie pan has dough coverage. Comedian John Stewart described this phenomenon as “a bread bowl.” All that vacant space in the middle leaves room for a heap of toppings, cheese, and sauce, which are all placed “upside down.” Because this pie is so dense, it needs to be cooked for a longer time, which the cheese can easily get burnt.
To protect this precious cargo, the cheese is instead placed at the bottom of the pie, right against the dough. Stacked above it is the mountain of toppings and, finally, the sauce.
The broad umbrella of Chicago-style pizza also encompasses the opposite of deep-dish, known as tavern-style.
This type of pizza is made on a thin, cracker-like dough. The dough is saltier and, because it is so crispy, able to support a good chunk of toppings. This style is different from New York in that it is sliced for a party, rather than into eight wedges. The small square slices ensure that every slice gets adequate topping coverage and options.
What Are Some of The Most Well Known Chicago-Style Pizza Restaurants
Because of its legendary status in the world of pizza, Chicago is home to countless iconic pizzerias. When visiting Chicago for the first time, it is easy to feel inundated with recommendations and “must-taste” locations. From the historic locations, like Vito and Nick’s Pizzeria to newer and trendier ones like the vegan Chicago House of ‘Za, there is no shortage of places to try.
Here are some of our favorites:
1. Pizzeria Uno.
The legendary Pizzeria Uno opened its doors in 1943. Ike Sewell asserts it was he who first engineered the deep-dish recipe that permeated across the city. While others may contest his claim, it is clear that he, at the very least, is responsible for its popularization across the city.
Pizza was an already well recognized and loved dish when Ike first started his restaurant, but it was his creative way of preparing it that made the Chicago pizza scene explode.
Today, Pizzeria Uno is found in 20 states around the country, with 100 locations both here in the United States and around the world. The company also sells frozen versions of their pizzas around the country by mail for those that don’t live nearby.
2. Tano’s Pizzeria.
Tano’s is a locally loved, family-owned restaurant that has been open in Chicago for more than 25 years. While the neighborhood shop offers amazing pasta and salads, the real star of their show is the stuffed pizza. Stuffed pizza is the style more akin to “pizza pot pie” than what is served up in New York.
The shop also offers up a range of other pizza styles, including tavern, Sicilian, and pan. A local secret worth knowing is that, for no corkage fee, you can bring your own alcohol to Tano’s and save some money.
3. Pizano’s Pizza.
Pizano’s is owned and operated by the son of Rudy Malnati, the original founder of Pizzeria Uno’s. His son opened Pizano’s in 1991 and has been serving, what some argue, the most traditional version of deep-dish pizza available. Family traditions run strong at Pizano’s and it shows in the quality of their food. The pizzeria proudly boasts that none other than Oprah Winfrey selected it has her favorite slice though, for her, it was their thin crust that stole the show.
4. Nino’s Pizza.
Nino’s is among the oldest, continuously running pizzerias in the Chicago area. By being open for so long, Nino’s puts a ton of effort into maintaining the legendary reputation attributed to them. They do this by forgoing the frills and honing in on one key factor: having amazing pizza. The owners of Nino’s even acknowledged this by posting on their website the following subtly scathing, but simultaneously wholesome, review:
“Ninos offers authentic, perfectly crafted deep dish pizza. We had to serve ourselves and watch Maury but the pie was spot on.”
While you may not be treated like a King upon entering Nino’s, you are guaranteed the pizza of a lifetime. For Nino’s, that means a perpetually loyal customer base that comes back hungry, year after year.
5. Bartoli’s Pizzeria.
Bartoli’s Pizzeria wants you to know that they have both, yes both, types of major Chicago-style pizza. While they, like Chicago in general, are known for their deep-dish, Bartoli makes a killer party-cut, thin crust pizza that is among the best in town. Bartoli’s has a more rustic vibe, while still keeping their menu modern with gluten-free and green options. The owner, Brian Tondryk, is the grandson of Gino’s East’s founder, Fred Bartoli. Bartoli’s is a great spot to hit if you are looking for a modernized spin on an uncompromised, original recipe.
6. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria.
Another legacy of the golden age of deep-dish, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria operates a classic, clean, and outstanding slice of pizza. Much like humans and apes, Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s share Pizzeria Uno’s as a common ancestor. Lou Malnati’s is a huge name in the Chicago area, a pizzeria that everyone knows.
The company is so synonymous with Chicago cuisine that they decided to literally export it to the world. That’s right, Lou Malnati’s has a shipping company that will send you not only pizza by mail, but also a wide range of Chicago-style everything. The company is now a sprawling franchise, with several locations emerging as far out as Arizona.
In addition to amazing work, it is necessary to mention the sincere philanthropic work that this pizzeria has provided. Since 1971, pizzeria took its tradition from the Malnati family itself to have an annual drive to help others.
The company contributes money from a wide range of charities, such as cancer research, scholarship drives, and trade schools. While other restaurants listed here are benefactors in their own right, Lou Malnati’s puts an extra emphasis on this aspect of their business.
Giordano’s may not be the oldest restaurant on this list, but it certainly has one of the richest histories. Giordano’s is the chief instigator when it comes to challenging Nancy’s Stuffed Pizza as the original “inventor” of the delicacy.
Both companies claim to have taken inspiration from the Old Country and both presented them to the world on their menus in the same year. Giordano’s had some trials and tribulations after seeing consistent expansion for more than 30 consecutive years.
Despite their parent company filing for Chapter 11 and a few stores being shut down, Giordano’s is back to having its engines fully revved. Their accolades alone should compel anyone to stop into one of their stores. Among them are: “‘Chicago’s Best Pizza’ by NBC, CBS Chicago, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Magazine.”
8. Gino’s East
Gino’s East is a landmark in Chicago. Gino’s is known for not only having one the premier deep-dish pizza, with an exorbitant amount of cheese and toppings baked into each pie, but also for their overall atmosphere.
Gino’s has been open for more than half a century now, but it puts a huge effort into staying culturally relevant with an enormous craft beer menu, live entertainment, and by hosting community events. If you are looking for dinner and a show, look no further than Gino’s East.
Gino’s offers some of the top name craft beers from around Chicago and the country. In 2015, their choice in beer selection made headlines around the country by purchasing one of the most politically inflammatory beers of the year. The live entertainment offered at Gino’s is not some lousy local middle school jazz bands, but rather a booming stand-up comedy lineup some big-name bands.
9. Nancy’s Stuffed Pizza
Nancy’s Stuffed Pizza is, as the name suggests, the top contender for the title of “original stuffed pizza,” barely edging out Giordano’s. Nancy’s was originally known as Guy’s Pizza back in 1971 when Nancy and Rocco first opened the restaurant.
The pizzeria was originally renowned for its thin crust, tavern-style pizza, but when the business began to slow, Nancy and Rocco decided to innovate. In 1974, the first Nancy’s opened with the new stuffed pizza as the central focus of their menu. Nancy’s Stuffed Pizza is now a sprawling franchise, with locations opening around the midwest.
Nancy’s also distinguishes itself by using a proprietary recipe in their dough, sauce, and cheese. Instead of ordering these things ready to go, Nancy’s makes all of these items in-house, daily. The options you have for toppings here are also incredible, with 26 great options on the menu now.
Why People Love Chicago-Style Pizza
Chicago-style pizza is a cuisine known around the country and world. While traditionally associated with deep-dish pizzas, the Chicago-style is so much more than that. Everyone can find a pizzeria and a style in Chicago that suits their taste, whether traditional, innovative or just plain weird. There are a ton of reasons to love Chicago-style pizza, but these are what does it for me:
1. Crispy, doughy, or somewhere in between crust.
The dough in Chicago-style pizza is how you want it. Most everywhere in the country is limited to pan or thin crust pizzas. In Chicago, however, you have so many options. From deep-dish and stuffed, to pan and thin crust, you can find an amazing choice that is just right for you.
2. Chunky and flavorful sauce.
Chicago differentiates its pizza sauce by using only the freshest and most ripe tomatoes. The sauce, unlike that of most other cities, is left chunky. These chunks add a special texture and contribute to the depth of flavor. Comedian Jon Stewart, a critic of Chicago-style pizza, went so far as to describe the sauce as more akin to tomato soup, rather than a red sauce.
3. Heaping Mounds of Cheese and Toppings.
When ordering a deep-dish pizza, it is never necessary to ask for “extra cheese” because there simply isn’t enough room. With so much to cook, deep-dish pizza chefs place the cheese at the bottom, closest to the crust.
Constructing the pizza in this way means that cheese and toppings can be added, layer after layer, higher and higher. While you certainly can order pepperoni on a Chicago-style pie, it is worth paying tribute to their topping of choice, sausage, while in town. Chicago is rivaled by few when it comes to making the best sausages, and ordering it on any of the Chicago-style pizzas is definitely worthwhile.
The next time you hear an argument about New York versus Chicago-style pizzas, make sure everyone knows that it is not a duel between deep-dish and pan. Unlike New York and other styles, Chicago puts its own spin on deep-dish, thin crust, and pan pizzas alike.
You can order any of those and it will still wear the “Chicago-style” badge of honor. What makes Chicago-style so special is the deeply rooted traditions that are baked into each pie. Chicago’s rich heritage combined with its melting pot of cultures yielded one of the most important pizza destinations worldwide.
Photo by Sarah Boyum