The Hot Pepper That Chicago Swears By

If you walk around Chicago's Museum Campus park, you might notice large yellow and red Vienna Beef umbrellas dotting the sidewalks. For many Chicago residents, these umbrellas are a colorful call to action to get an order of one of the city's best-known foods: the Chicago-style hot dog. Of course, you can always order a hot dog however you'd like — though you might get some odd looks for ordering ketchup with your hot dog from true Chicago natives, according to CNBC. But bets are if you asked one of the city's many hot dog imbibing locals, they'd tell you there's something special about a true Chicago-style hot dog with all the toppings — or even that a fully loaded Chicago-style hot dog is a work of art. 

Generally speaking, the Chicago-style hot dog features a variety of flavors, courtesy of its toppings, that meld together into a deliciously perfect bite every time. This fully-loaded hot dog is piled high with various flavorful toppings, including but not limited to green relish, diced onions, tomato slices, a pickle spear — and, of course, sport peppers. But wait — what's a sport pepper? And why are they so hard to find outside of Chicago? These can be pretty important questions to ask if, on the off-chance, you want to recreate a Chicago-style hot dog for yourself at home, and especially if you can't find a jar of sport peppers on the shelves of your local grocery store.

What's a sport pepper, anyway?

According to sport pepper expert Tom McGlade, who spoke to The Takeout in 2022, sport peppers are a type of hot pepper native to Mississippi that is rarely, if ever, sold fresh. Indeed, as The Takeout noted, part of what makes sport peppers enhance the taste of a Chicago-style hot dog has to do with the fermentation process it goes through. Pickling hot peppers can remove heat, making them a palatable topping for hot dogs and grilled brats. Pickling also allows them to have an extended shelf life. Pickling and jarring peppers can give them a shelf life of up to a year (via the Chicago Botanic Garden).

Per the official website for Vienna Beef, the main manufacturer of sport peppers, their product is pickled in a gluten-free seasoned brine. As the company explains it, Vienna Beef adds seasoning to their brine, giving their sport peppers flavor, turning them a pale green, and making them extra crunchy. Pickling hot peppers can remove heat, making them a palatable topping for hot dogs and grilled brats

Why are sport peppers hard to find?

Whether pickled or fresh, sport peppers are surprisingly difficult to find outside of Chicago. You may find yourself searching online in order to purchase them if you're looking for that authentic Chicago hot dog experience outside of the city. According to Tom McGlade, who oversees e-commerce at Vienna Beef, there's a reason for the lack of sport peppers on your local grocery store shelves: They simply don't have many producers manufacturing the product (via The Takeout).

The reason why you might have trouble finding sport peppers on your local supermarket shelves boils down to demand. While they can be used in a variety of dishes, sport peppers are mostly associated with Chicago-style hot dogs — meaning there's not nearly as much demand for them outside of the greater metro area. According to McGlade, the bulk of Vienna Beef's sales come from people who used to live in Chicago and have relocated to other parts of the country. (Fun fact: McGlade told The Takeout the state with the highest number of online orders for sport pepper sales is Arizona; in turn, Curbed Chicago asserts Arizona is one of the most popular places for ex-Chicagoans to relocate.)

So the next time you want to get a taste of the full Chicago-style hot dog experience, be sure to plan ahead. Find a vendor online or grab a jar to bring home the next time you're in the Windy City. And most importantly, enjoy!