Opinion: The iconic Chicago foods worth trying - and the ones that don't live up to the hype

OPINION: Travel is very much back as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and New Zealanders have several direct flight options to the United States, including Chicago.

But with non-stop flights available to places like New York and Los Angeles, it may be easy for Kiwi travelers to overlook Chicago - but they shouldn't.

Chicago is known as the Windy City partly because of its weather and partly because of its entrepreneurial history. But I don't think that name does it justice. It's motto meanwhile is 'Urbs in Horto' which translates from Latin to 'City in a Garden' in reference to its endless parks, and while it is a beautiful and surprisingly green city, I don't think this does it justice either.

It's a bustling city full of culture, history, nature and incredible food - and it was the food that truly won me over. But I didn't love all of it.

I recently visited Chicago for a week and tried many of its most iconic eats. Here's what's worth the hype and what's not.

Deep dish pizza

Chicago is home to several iconic foods but none are quite as famous as deep dish pizza, which was invented in the city.

It has a contentious history with disagreement over who exactly invented it. Ike Sewell is widely credited with inventing the dish at his restaurant Pizzeria Uno in 1943. A plague on the building, still open to this day, proclaims Pizzeria Uno the "birthplace of the original deep dish pizza".

However, a 1956 article from Chicago Daily News claims the dish was actually invented by Uno's original pizza chef Rudy Malnati. Then there's an article in the Chicago Tribune claiming deep dish pizza was on the menu at Rosati's Authentic Chicago Pizza since it opened in 1926.

Regardless of who exactly invented it, it's renowned around America and indeed the entire world. I was hesitant about trying deep dish and didn't expect to like it, worrying it would be overwhelming with too much cheese and dough. The locals also didn't exactly sell it with many at pains to tell me they didn't eat it every day and only had it on occasion.

Deep dish pizza is an icon of Chicago's food scene.
Deep dish pizza is an icon of Chicago's food scene. Photo credit: Newshub.

But when the opportunity to try a slice at Lou Malnati's came up, I took it and boy am I glad that I did. It was incredible. The cheese was cooked under a thick layer of tomato sauce and spinach

which meant it felt surprisingly fresh for pizza. But the real star was the crust which was far from the stodgy, doughy mess I was expecting. Instead it was think, flakey and buttery and reminded

me more of pastry than dough. It was the best pizza base I've ever had and even thinking about it is enough to make my mouth water. I am now on a mission to find or recreate the crust back home in Auckland.

Deep dish was the food I was least excited to try on my trip but it turned out to be the meal I enjoyed the most. I never got to try a slice from Pizzeria Uno but if it's half as good as Lou Malnati's I would in a heartbeat.

Chicago-style hot dogs

These are another major food icon of the city, especially at sports games. The legendary Wrigley Stadium is surrounded by hot dog stores and locals take these things seriously. While locals were hesitant to talk up deep dish pizza, they were very happy to sell the merits of Chicago dogs.

The Chicago-style hot dog - often called "dragged through the garden", in reference to the toppings - features an all-beef hot dog on a poppy seed bun, topped with yellow mustard, relish, diced onions, tomato wedges, a pickle spear, sport peppers, a dash of celery salt.

Ketchup is deliberately left off and asking for it might cause a stir with some vendors. Several locals reluctantly admitted to me they actually like tomato sauce - but would never have the guts to ask for it.

I have never been a huge fan of hot dogs and while I enjoyed the Chicago-style dog, I didn't love it quite as much as the city seems to.

For me it felt a bit lacking. The bun and sausage were fine, but nothing really stood out. And while I liked the addition of the veggies, a bit of tomato sauce wouldn't have gone astray.

Chicago-style hot dogs are served with a selection of veggies and no tomato sauce.
Chicago-style hot dogs are served with a selection of veggies and no tomato sauce. Photo credit: Newshub.

Molly's cupcakes

This is an iconic Chicago eatery that locals seem to adore. Molly's can also be found in several other locations across the US, but that doesn't mean it's not worth a visit in Chicago.

Molly's was the winner of the season finale of Cupcake Wars and has an adorable interior.

The bakery is owned by a man called John Nicolaides who named it after his third-grade teacher Miss Molly who would bake cupcakes for her students' birthdays.

This is reflected in the stores which are set up to mimic a classroom with swings, lockers, pencil sharpers and wall art all reminiscent of a school.

Visiting the bakery truly felt like being back in a classroom and was a lovely trip down memory lane. There's a level of whimsy that comes from sitting on a swing and eating a cupcake that I just think is entirely appropriate.

The décor struck a nice balance between big ticket items like swings and lockers and more subtle hints such as children's art on the walls.

And, perhaps, most importantly, the cupcake was also delicious. I got the blueberry cheesecake flavour and, while I'm not a huge sweet person, it managed to win me over.

Goose Island Beer

Chicago boasts a vibrant craft beer scene largely thanks to its huge Eastern European and German presence. However, most of the breweries are fairly new, with prohibition completely wiping the industry out in the city for a long while. Now Chicago is a mecca for craft beers from big hitters like Lagunitas and Goose Island, right through to much smaller operations.

I was lucky enough to visit Goose Island's Clybourn brewhouse which is nestled amongst industrial budlings and suburban homes.

The brewhouse feels homey and is clearly aimed at families wanting a few drinks on lazy weekend days. The walls are covered in modern art and a variety of plants give it a light, bright and inviting feel.

Goose Island is a big hitter in Chicago's brewing industry.
Goose Island is a big hitter in Chicago's brewing industry. Photo credit: supplied

Goose Island, named after the famous island in the middle of Chicago River, is a big name in beer in the city. It's the oldest currently-operating brewing company in Illinois and began as a brewpub in 1988 in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood. Now it’s a thriving brewery that produces a range of seasonal and year-round beers.

During my trip to the Clybourn brewhouse I tried a Goose Island sour beer which lived up to its name and was exceptionally sour - a bit too sour for me. I also tried an IPA which was much more up my alley.

The experience overall was a real pleasure though and I'd happily recommend a visit to Goose Island if you're in Chicago - just make sure you prioritise the deep dish pizza above all else!

Newshub travelled to Chicago courtesy of Air New Zealand and was hosted by Air New Zealand and Choose Chicago.

Ireland is Newshub's features editor.