America's 25 Best Pizza Chains (Slideshow)
Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom was founded in 1976 in Boulder, Colo., by a few friends who wanted to bring good pizza and beer to the people. Years later, they’re up to nearly 100 locations nationwide, and serve a wide variety of small plates, pastas, burgers, and sandwiches along with a host of pizzas, served on either a thick or thin crust, and a wide selection of beer.
With locations throughout West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, Giovanni’s serves five different sizes of pizza made to order, topped with your choice of toppings and a mixture of provolone and mozzarella cheese. They also sell sandwiches (including ones made with pizza bread), pastas, salads, and sides including garlic bread topped with bacon and cheese.
Founded in 1978 and based in Toledo, Ohio, Marco’s boasts more than 400 locations in 30 states, and their rapid expansion is due primarily to an emphasis on fresh ingredients: the sauce is made from vine-ripened tomatoes, the cheese is a three-cheese blend, dough is made from scratch every day, and toppings are fresh, thick-sliced, and abundant. Don’t leave without getting some CheezyBread and CinnaSquares.
The first Pizza Inn was opened in 1958 by two brothers, near Southern Methodist University’s Dallas campus. Today there are more than 300 locations, most of which are in the Southern U.S. The buffet-style approach allows guests to sample many different types of pizza, including their crackery trademark Original Thin Crust in varieties like Bacon Cheddar Ham and Chicken Fajita.
What do we all remember about those childhood visits to Chuck E. Cheese’s? The arcade games, the slides and climbing equipment, and borderline creepy animatronic characters, and, of course, the pizza. While for most the pizza is a way to refuel after redeeming your tickets, it’s actually pretty darn good. And at more than 500 locations, you can get it gluten-free as well.
Donatos was founded by Jim Grote in 1963 and today there are nearly 200 locations across seven states, most of them in Ohio. They're famous for their thin crust and "edge-to-edge" toppings (more than 100 pieces of pepperoni come on each pie), and specialty toppings include the Serious Meat with pepperoni, sausage, ham, ground beef, bacon, and aged provolone, and the Chicken Spinach Mozzarella, topped with fresh mozzarella, chicken breast, roasted garlic, Roma tomatoes, chopped spinach, and a Romano-Parmesan blend. Gluten-free, hand-tossed, and thicker-crust pizzas are also available, along with oven-baked sandwiches, salads, and wings.
Hungry Howie’s, founded in Taylor, Mich., in 1973, prides itself on being home to "the original flavored crust pizza," and this unique twist has helped it to expand to more than 545 locations in 21 states. Those crust flavors include Butter Cheese, Cajun, Garlic Herb, and Onion, and pizzas are made to order using dough made in-house daily and real mozzarella. Oven-baked subs, salads, and "Howie Breads" topped with cheese, Cajun seasoning, or cinnamon-sugar are also available.
With more than 300 locations in Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and several other states, this chain, started by brothers Eugene and John Jetts in 1978, has become famous for its signature square deep-dish pizza. Go for the Jet 10, topped with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, hamburger, Italian sausage, bacon, and black olives, or the 8 Corner Pizza, where every slice has a corner.
Round Table Pizza was founded in 1959 in Menlo Park, Calif., and today there are about 500 locations nationwide. Dough is made from scratch on-premises daily, and their three-cheese blend contains aged Cheddar, whole milk mozzarella, and provolone. They’re known for applying toppings all the way to the edge of the pie, as well as for their wide selection of innovative combinations, like the King Arthur’s Supreme, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, Italian dry salami, linguica, mushrooms, green peppers, yellow onions, black olives, three cheeses, and red sauce.
Established in Sacramento, Calif., in 1954, Shakey’s has locations worldwide but the highest concentration is in Southern California. There’s an emphasis on fun as well as pizza, and all locations have a game room for kids. The pizza is also quite good: go for the Shakey’s Special, with salami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, and black olives. And don’t forget to get some of their battered and fried Mojo Potatoes.
Shakey’s Pizza Parlor
With the majority of its locations in Illinois and Indiana, Monical’s has developed quite a cult following in the region. While there’s a wide variety of pizzas (including stuffed pizza and "oven-ready" frozen pizza), calzones, pepperoni rolls, salads, pastas, and sandwiches, it’s the "Family Pleaser" that’s been the menu mainstay for more than 40 years: a reasonably priced pizza or pasta, salad, and pitcher of soda.
This mob-themed chain is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, but it’s not resting on its laurels. The wide menu features four crust varieties: Original, Golden, Thin, and "Mozza-Loaded," and there’s a wide variety of toppings and specialty pies. Unlike many other chains, they offer both "lighter" slices containing less than 200 calories per slice and gluten-free options.
This Texas-based chain is renowned for its reasonably priced buffet, which boasts nearly 30 varieties of fresh-baked pizza as well as pastas, soups, salads, and desserts. The first location opened in Plano, Texas, in 1985, and today there are more than 500 locations in 34 states, with a rapid expansion plan in place.
The recipe for Giordano’s famous stuffed pizza dates back nearly 200 years, to a double-crusted Italian Easter pie served every year in Torino, Italy, but the recipe didn’t make its way stateside until 1974, when Italian immigrants Efren and Joseph Boglio opened the first location of this chain in Chicago. Today there are more than 40 locations in Chicago and its environs, as well as three in Florida, and their massive, deep-dish pies are a Chicago must-eat.
Every pizza made at Bertucci’s, which got its start in Somerville, Mass., in 1981, is cooked in a brick oven, which is on display at each one of their 90 locations, all of which are on the East Coast. You can craft your own pizza or try one of their unique topping combinations, like Balsamic BBQ Shrimp and Blue Cheese, Roasted Mushroom and Asiago, and the Ultimate Bertucci, where each quarter has a different topping: sweet Italian sausage, meatballs, rosemary ham, and chicken. Calzones, Roman-style long pizzas, and a whole slew of starters, salads, and pastas are also available.
Vancouver, Wash.-based Papa Murphy’s, which just announced its 1,400th location, takes a novel approach to pizza: "Take 'N' Bake." You choose your pizza, they prepare it using fresh-made dough and other fresh ingredients but don’t cook it, and then you take it home and pop it in your oven to cook it the rest of the way when you’re ready to eat it. There are meat-stuffed stuffed options as well as lighter ones, and there are also desserts you can bake at home, like dessert pizza and chocolate chip cookie dough.
Founded in Atlanta in 1974, Mellow Mushroom currently has more than 150 locations nationwide. There’s a big emphasis on the bar and craft beer, and there are some extremely creative pizzas on the menu, like the Bayou Bleu (spicy blue cheese base topped with all-natural grilled shrimp and Andouille sausage covered in mozzarella cheese and garnished with chives), the Magical Mystery Tour (pesto base with button and Portobello mushrooms, feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach, and jalapeños on a pesto-basted crust), and the House Special (mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, sausage, ground beef, ham, applewood-smoked bacon, mushrooms, black olives, Roma tomatoes, green peppers, and onions).
Little Caesars was founded in 1959 in the Detroit suburbs, and today is perhaps best known for its mascot’s catchphrase, "Pizza Pizza!," which was originally intended to advertise a deal where two pizzas were served for the price of one competitor's pie. Today there are locations all over the world, selling round and deep-dish "Hot-N-Ready" pizzas made with dough made in-house daily, as well as wings, Italian Cheese Bread, and Crazy Bread.
Sbarro got its start in 1956 Brooklyn, N.Y., when the Sbarro family opened an Italian market. Eleven years later the first modern-style Sbarro opened in the borough’s Kings Plaza Shopping center, selling self-serve Italian fare, with an emphasis on the pizza. Today there are close to 1,000 locations in 30 countries, and Sbarro is still serving New York-style pizzas on hand-stretched dough with a wide variety of toppings, as well as salads and classic Italian-American pastas and entrées.
"Papa" John Schnatter opened the first Papa John’s in the back of his father’s tavern in 1984, and today it’s the third-largest pizza chain in the U.S., behind Pizza Hut and Domino’s, with about 4,200 locations in all 50 states. The emphasis on fresh dough, fresh-cut vegetables, and high-quality never-frozen ingredients has attracted a rabid fan base (as have offerings like a Double Bacon 6-Cheese pizza), and the cheese sticks and dipping sauces alone are crave-worthy.
Formerly Pizzeria Uno, this chain’s origin story is probably the best known of the bunch. Ike Sewell opened Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943, and it’s there that he essentially invented the Chicago-style pie, with a buttery crust piled high with cheese, sauce, and toppings and baked for more than an hour, and it blew people away. Today there are more than 140 Uno locations in 24 states and around the world, spreading the deep-dish gospel. Along with pizza, they also serve appetizers, steaks, sandwiches, burgers, seafood, and even (gasp!) thin-crust pizza.
The first Pizza Hut was opened by brothers Dan and Frank Carney in Wichita, Kan. in 1958, at a time when pizza parlors in the region were still a rarity. It took off, and soon the trademark red roof, which has since been retired, was sprouting up all across the country, and today it’s the country’s largest pizza chain. Never afraid to experiment with new pizza-esque products like the P’Zone, the Cheesy Bites Pizza, and the much-missed, two-crusted Priazzo, they’ve occasionally hit gold, like with their now-ubiquitous Stuffed Crust Pizza. They’ve even recently added flatbread-style pizzas to their menu. If there’s one chain that’s not afraid to get a little silly sometimes, it’s Pizza Hut.
Ledo Pizza, with locations primarily in Virginia and Maryland, has nowhere near as many locations as its other rivals at the top of this list, but the chain, and its trademark square pizza, has a fiercely devoted following. The distinctive pizzas have a thin crust, thick-cut pepperoni, and a sweet sauce, and are available in several sizes as well as gluten-free varieties. Served by waitstaff instead of over a counter, the wide menu also includes appetizers, salads, subs, and entrées including fettuccini Bolognese (using an original family recipe) and shrimp fettuccini Parmesan. The reason for the square pies? Round baking sheets were very tough to come by when the company was founded in 1955.
Founded in 1960, Domino’s is today the second-largest pizza chain in the U.S., after Pizza Hut, and the largest worldwide. The three dots on their logo represent the three stores that were open in 1969, and a plan to add a new dot for every new store never materialized, for obvious reasons. They offer pizzas with a variety of toppings (as well as rectangular "Artisan" pizzas like Chicken & Bacon Carbonara), toasted sandwiches, stuffed cheesy bread, wings, and a build-your-own-pasta option. It’s greasy, tasty, and just about everything you’d want in a fast-food pizza chain.
By a stunning two-vote margin, California Pizza Kitchen can officially claim to be America’s favorite pizza chain. Founded in 1985 in Beverly Hills, Calif., by attorneys Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax, the casual dining chain is renowned for its innovative pizzas, including the barbecue chicken pizza, which is now ubiquitous but was basically invented there. They’re constantly expanding and also do a lot of community outreach and fundraising, and the menu is loaded with gourmet pizza offerings like Thai Chicken, Habanero Carnitas, and California Club, and seasonal offerings take advantage of what’s in season. Small plates, wine flights, and salads like caramelized peach with pecans, cranberries, and gorgonzola have a distinctly fine-dining feel, but the approach is always casual and fun. So congratulations, CPK, you’re America’s Best Pizza Chain!
California Pizza Kitchen