Whether you refer to it as the “Land of Lincoln” or as “the Prairie State,” you have to admit — Illinois cannot be beat. Whether you’re looking for waving expanses of corn, suburban grottos, or a bustling city, Illinois has it all. It’s the home of Abraham Lincoln, Cindy Crawford, John and Joan Cusack, Chance the Rapper, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Bill Murray. It houses some of the best chefs, pizza, hot dogs, and restaurants in the entire country. Once you browse our first annual guide to the best food and drink in every state, you’ll know that no other state can compare.
While restaurant powerhouse Chicago hosts such crown jewels as Grant Achatz’s The Aviary and Alinea, Brendan Sodikoff’s Au Cheval, and Maurie Berman’s legacy Superdawg, southern and central Illinois are home to the country’s best chili, ribs, and spaghetti and meatballs.
After comprehensive and wide-ranging lists and rankings, compiled through extensive research and with input from a wide network of site contributors, bloggers, journalists, and chefs, we’ve been able to make definitive slideshows celebrating the best food and drink in every state.
At Hoozier Mama Pie Company, they are not opposed to stealing Grandma’s recipes! All the produce comes from local farmers, and their amazing crust (which took an entire summer to perfect) is 100 percent butter. Everything is made by hand, and you won’t find any of their pies for sale in supermarkets — since they’re all about being local, their pies are not available for shipping. (“We suggest you might be able to find a great local baker, professional or not, that can make you a great pie,” they helpfully offer.) Their classic apple pie is a two-crust pie that’s “not too sweet, with more fruit than goo in a delicious buttery crust.”
Courtesy of the Aviary
Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' cocktail venture in Chicago, The Aviary, is an experience: From the setting and the cocktails to the service and the food, no detail is overlooked at this “redefined” cocktail bar. Even the ice that is used to craft the cocktails is elevated to high art; the ambitious ice program churns out more than 25 types of ice, from miniscule ice balls to flavored spheres to enormous blocks for hand-chipped ice. Tickets are sold on the bar’s website and come in three varieties: as a deposit that goes toward your bill, a three-course package that includes three cocktails, and a five-course package of five cocktails, each paired with food ranging from one bite to a small course. You can also try your luck at the door. Even more exclusive is the basement speakeasy, The Office, which is available by invitation only or can be rented out for intimate private parties.
The beauty of the burger served at Au Cheval lies in its simplicity: two patties (or three, if you order a “double”) of no-frills ground beef topped with Cheddar, Dijonnaise, and a few thin slices of pickles and served on a soft toasted bun from Chicago’s Z Baking. The patties are wonderfully crusty, the fries are fried in lard, and just about everything about this burger is perfect. The line to get into this place stretches literally around the block every day, so owner Brendan Sodikoff (who’s rumored to be opening a second location in New York City) is clearly doing something right. Find more details on Au Cheval here.
This gastropub might be a hipster haven, but its chicken and waffle game is still very strong. The leg and thigh from Slagel Family Farms are fried in a batter that generously soaks up maple syrup, and a crispy, crunchy waffle serves as a sturdy base. And don’t forget about the sweet potato and pork belly hash that’s served with it; it’s far tastier than it has any right to be.
Founded in 1945 as Joe Rogers Chili (the name was recently changed after new ownership came in), The Chili Parlor originally only had 11 seats, but that wasn’t destined to last. The secret to this place’s success is probably the fact that chili is made to order, to each customer’s specifications. Meat and beans are kept separate, and only combined once the customer chooses from five heat levels (from mild to firebrand) and specifies whether they’d like extra meat or beans.
Facebook/Katy’s Dumpling House
Forgo the namesake dumplings. You have to hand it to her handmade noodles are just about the best on offer in the Windy City. Tangled with ground pork in fiery dan dan noodles or sunken into deeply flavored beef broth, their springiness makes slurping a pleasure. However, one of Katy’s finest contributions is a dish that melds the restaurant’s signature item with Chicago’s European roots in a bowl of beef noodles with homemade sauerkraut.
Flickr/ Jamie McCaffrey
Goose Island was founded in 1988 and has grown exponentially since then. One of the main reasons to visit Goose Island Beer Company? Though they were purchased by megaconglomerate InBev in 2011, they've maintained some of their hard-earned cred. They pioneered the use of bourbon barrels in the beer-aging process. If you’ve never had the pleasure of trying bourbon-aged beer, you are in for a treat. By championing sustainability in their breweries and investing in Chicago’s communities, Goose Island continues to lead in the craft brewing industry.
Molly’s Cupcakes in Chicago has sweets that really pack a flavorful punch. To customize your own, simply pick a cake flavor, choose a frosting, and then make it yourself with an array of tasty toppings. They’ll bake it right in front of your eyes and are happy to accommodate even the wildest of cravings. Try one of the center-filled cupcakes like crème brûlée, peanut butter Nutella, or Cookie Monster for a truly tasty experience. Plus the restaurant has a counter with swings instead of seats!
Free live music may just be the best thing about Chicago bar The Mutiny Corp. For a Logan Square dive bar, the sound is actually quite spectacular. But that isn’t the only reason to hit this joint up. The huge steins of beer for dirt cheap prices will keep you happy even if you don’t love punk rock. As one Yelp user wrote, “Beer is so goddamn cheap and you can get it in a little mini pitcher if you want.”
This doughnut stand really takes things back to basics: But don’t let its simple appearance in front of a barbecue shop put you off. The doughnuts really are some of the best we’ve ever tried. The eponymous “Big Dat” is a huge creation, but it’s more than a novelty tourist attraction. The pillowy fluffiness is truly satisfying, and the plain glaze will make you wonder if there really is anything better than a ginormous, classic, glazed doughnut. For more information on Dat Donut, click here.
Courtesy of Green City Market
The farmers of the Green City Market go through a rigorous application process, ensuring that they yield humanely raised meat and pesticide-free produce. The year-round market offers sustainable, local groceries and free resources for maintaining a sustainable future. In addition to all this, they sponsor a multitude of community programs like a compost and recycling program, an “Heirloom and Heritage” preservation program, and a double value program that benefits consumers and farmers alike. Plus, not only will you leave with a full basket of fresh produce, you’ll leave with a full belly — several local restaurants serve their most popular dishes from tents.
Husband and wife Sam Barron and Sarah Weitz are a foodie match made in heaven that fell in love over their shared passion for “all things delicious.” After making food for parties, pop-up dinner, and catering events around the world, the duo opened up The Fat Shallot in their hometown in 2013 serving up delicious sandwiches and sides. Order their grilled cheese, which is made with Muenster cheese, sautéed spinach, and caramelized onions on sourdough, or the Buffalo chicken sandwich served on an egg bun with blue cheese sauce and a celery salad. For a side, don’t forget the truffle fries or the spicy sesame fries, which are topped with black sesame seeds and a spicy sesame aïoli.
Kuma’s Corner has already brought culinary prestige to the Windy City, as its namesake burger topped our list of the 101 Best in America in 2014. Now, since it has placed in the top 12 on our list of the country’s best fries, the restaurant has won even more of our respect. They’re salty, crispy, and make for one heck of a winning combo.
Big and Little's
This BYOB, cash-only hotspot may have risen to fame after an appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but don’t hold that against it: Just about everything on its expansive and creative menu, including po’boys, seafood tacos, burgers, fries (topped with foie gras, naturally), and soft-shell crabs when in season, is insanely good. Their fish and chips comes with one of the biggest pieces of fried cod we’ve ever seen, lightly battered and fried to a deep golden brown and served atop a pile of fries that doesn’t have a soggy one in the bunch (seriously, the fries here are awesome).
Known as President Obama’s favorite fried chicken place, Harold’s has become a small local chain, and it continues to grow in popularity. But despite having numerous locations across the city, Harold’s never sacrifices the quality it’s known for. The chicken comes simply with white bread and hot sauce, and there are no frills about it — but with a product that tastes this outstanding on its own, there are no embellishments needed.
Facebook/Nature's Best Farmers Market
A Westmont reviewer said of Nature’s Best Fresh Market: “My favorite place for excellent produce, fresh meat, international and specialty. Perfect size store, not too big, terrific service, clean, well-stocked, [and]well-run. Always busy, diverse customers, pleasant atmosphere, never too long a checkout wait.”
Topped by what has to be some of America’s best signage — a flexing hot dog showing off his muscles to a winking wiener girl — Superdawg has been an institution on Milwaukee Avenue across from Caldwell Woods since Maurie Berman opened it in 1948. The recently returned G.I. designed the building, devised his own secret recipe, and set up a drive-in at what was then the end of the streetcar line. He planned to sell 32-cent Superdawg sandwiches to "swimming families and cruisin’ teens" for a few months during the summer to help put him through school at Northwestern. In 1950, Maurie passed the CPA exam, but he and wife Flaurie decided to keep operating Superdawg and to open year-round. The family-owned, working drive-in still serves superior pure beef dogs, "the loveliest, juiciest creation of pure beef hot dog (no pork, no veal, no cereal, no filler) formally dressed with all the trimmings: golden mustard, tangy piccalilli, kosher dill pickle, chopped Spanish onions, and a memorable hot pepper." Sadly, Maurie passed away in May 2015 at age 89, but the family-run operation is still going strong: Maurie’s 8-year-old great-granddaughter recently worked her first shift there. Find more details on Superdawg here
The Grafton NYC
Among the newer pubs on this list, The Grafton in Chicago blends time-honored tradition with a contemporary gastropub feel. The food is terrific, and the Guinness takes a good two minutes to pour — as it should. The Grafton has really embraced the idea of a public house, offering a comfy place to read or get some work done during the afternoon and on weekend days, and a relaxed atmosphere in which to unwind at night.
Decades before the likes of Mario Batali and Michael White reimagined fine Italian dining, Tony Mantuano taught Chicagoans how to enjoy refined Italian fare at Spiaggia (“beach” in Italian). Mantuano has won countless accolades, including the 2005 James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest, and Spiaggia was named Best Italian Restaurant in Chicago by The Daily Meal. Reopening after a redesign in 2014 (its first since 1999), the restaurant added 50 percent more seats with views, a new lounge, and a floor-to-ceiling, glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled wine room showcasing 1,700 of Spiaggia’s nearly 5,000 bottles. The new restaurant menu follows the traditional Italian courses of antipasto, pasta, secondi, and dessert, but with almost entirely new dishes. One thing that hasn’t changed is Spiaggia’s ability to delight diners. Much of that can be credited to Mantuano and chef de cuisine Joe Flamm, who serves mouthwatering fare like duck tortellini with cherry, pistachio, and Parmigiano-Reggiano; dry-aged bistecca alla fiorentina with truffle hollandaise, turnip, and onion jam; and their famed gnocchi with black truffle, ricotta, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A five- or six-course tasting menu is also available, for $105 and $165, respectively.
Every sandwich packs in nearly a pound of meat at Manny’s, which has been going strong for more than 70 years. Crowds pack into the cafeteria-style restaurant on a daily basis for said sandwiches (Barack Obama is a fan of the corned beef), Reubens, brisket, short ribs, meatloaf, and other hearty and comforting fare. No visit is complete without a slice of homemade pie.
When the chef spent his summers in Maine and made it his mission to replicate that experience as accurately as possible, you know you’re in for a treat. The lobster roll that chef Ryan McCaskey serves at the bar at his restaurant, Acadia, starts with split-top buns from the Maine-based Hannaford supermarket chain, topped with big chunks of fresh lobster that’s been tossed with chive mayo, then topped with paprika and a lemon squeeze. It’s nothing short of Chicago’s best lobster roll. Find more details on Acadia here.
Topolobampo is named for a port city on the Gulf of California in northwestern Sinaloa. At this slightly fancier and more ambitious next-door cousin of his popular Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless serves irresistible Mexican fare of a kind not found outside some of the better restaurants of Mexico itself, if even there. It’s hard to believe that this Chicago institution is now more than 25 years old, especially since a redesign a couple years ago gave the restaurant a brand new feel, one that has critics falling in love with it all over again. Dishes are organized under five categories (Vibrant, Unexpected, Soulful, Complex, and Luxurious), which patrons choose from to create their own five- or seven-course tasting menus, at $90 and $120, respectively). What can you expect? Sashimi-grade hiramasa yellowtail with coconut crema, crispy sea moss, and lime (Vibrant); red chile-braised Gullo octopus with garbanzo “pillows” and pan juices (Unexpected); and 28-day-dry-aged prime Creekstone rib-eye with pasilla borracha sauce, beefy potato purée, Brussels sprouts, and crispy maitakes (Complex) are just a few of the enticing dishes recently on the menu. Bayless is also currently serving a seven-course pre-Colombian-themed menu, which highlights indigenous Mexican ingredients, for $120.
At Grant Achatz’s newly-renovated three-Michelin-star flagship, a handful of different prix fixe menus are available, and they’re all exorbitantly expensive. On the lower end is the Salon menu, which consists of 10 to 14 courses for $165 to $225 per person. The Gallery menu includes 16 to 18 courses and costs $285 to $345. And at the top of the heap is the Alinea Kitchen Table, a private experience for groups of six that costs $385 per person. Tip is included, but beverage pairings cost extra.
There are 12 grilled cheeses on the menu at this Chicago favorite. The most outrageous offerings include The Mac (American and Cheddar cheese, homemade macaroni and cheese); The Tenderizer (Cheddar, mozzarella, hot sauce, bacon, fried chicken tenders, barbecue sauce); and The Edgar (pulled pork, barbecue sauce, coleslaw, fried onion strings, provolone, and white Cheddar). Plus the Lakeview location is located next to super-fun club Berlin (which hosts tons of theme nights and dancing) and it’s open late every night, so after you’ve sweat through your club-clothing you can walk on over to Cheesie’s and grab a grilled cheese and a basket of waffle fries to split with your friends.
Chef Tony Mantuano’s refined and modern Spiaggia is the gold standard for Italian fine dining in Chicago (and let’s face it, across America), and it’s constantly breaking new ground and reinventing itself, most notably with a 2014 renovation and menu revamp. There’s one dish, however, that can never be removed from the menu or it might incite riots (or at least polite disapproval): the gnocchi. Super-tender hand-rolled gnocchi are blanched and tossed in a sauce made with heavy cream, milk, ricotta, and a handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a drizzle of truffle oil (the real stuff, infused with preserved Italian truffles). It’s plated after the sauce reduces slightly, and is topped with a spoonful of rich jus and a couple of those preserved sliced truffles. It’s a masterpiece, and a must-order, even with a $60 price tag. Find more details on Spiaggia here.
Although pizza is easily the most hotly debated food item in Chicago, Pequod’s delivers what we have decided is the best pie not only in the Windy City, but in the state. Pequod’s originator (the late Burt Katz) moved on from this endeavor after few years to take a break before opening a new pizza stalwart in 1989: Burt’s Place (which just reopened under new ownership) in Morton Grove, just north of Chicago. But the years have been kind to his legacy. Pequod’s deep-dish, known for its “caramelized crust,” earns points for its chewy, crusty, quasi-burnt cheese crust that forms the outer edge of this cheesy casserole, adding a welcome degree of texture that probably wouldn’t be necessary if it weren’t nearly an inch thick. But it is necessary. And beautiful. And it does add that texture. Not into deep-dish? Any true Chicagoan knows that their thin crust is just as delish.
The menu at Alinea can sometimes sound deceptively simple ("scallop with citrus aroma," "woolly pig, fenel, orange, squid," and suchlike), but what shows up on the plate is absolutely original and almost always dazzlingly good. Having successfully reinvented the way people look at reservations at Next, with its innovative nonrefundable online ticket system, and reinterpreted cocktails, bar food, and the whole bar experience with The Aviary, Grant Achatz and his partner, Nick Kokonas, have also intensified the attention they pay to Alinea. Achatz consistently turns out some of the most imaginative and delicious contemporary (or modernist, if you will) cuisine in the country, and it's better than ever after closing down last year for an extensive five-month renovation. The restaurant now offers three distinct experiences: The Kitchen Table, a six-person kitchenside private dining room ($385); The Gallery, a 16- to 18-course meal with two nightly seatings of 16 ($285 to $345); and The Salon, a “more approachable” 10- to 12-course menu served in the three second-floor salons ($175 to $225). At Alinea, you never quite know what you’re going to be served, but a paradigm-shifting experience is all but guaranteed.
This father-daughter team of pitmaster and restaurateur is slowly growing a barbecue chain. There are now two locations of their barbecue in Southern Illinois. Mike Mills is a partner at New York City’s Blue Smoke restaurant and has been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. (He’s also received top-secret clearance to Air Force One, which sets his barbecue miles apart.)
Al's #1 Italian Beef
Way back in 1939, Al’s #1 Italian Beef started as a small food stand, later morphing into an iconic Chicago franchise with 11 locations in Chicago and shops in Las Vegas, California, and Texas. During the Depression, owner Al Ferrari and his family began slicing roast beef very thin and placing it on small fresh loaves of Italian bread, unintentionally creating a legendary sandwich.
To make this beauty, sirloin is rubbed with a secret spice blend, dry-roasted, thinly sliced, made into a sandwich, and then dunked in Al's signature “gravy” (more similar to au jus). Customers can choose how much or little they want, but Al’s encourages customers to get their sandwiches “wet.” When topped with the signature giardiniera, a tart and spicy pickled vegetable blend, this sandwich is a masterpiece.
One of the best seafood shacks in America is in the Midwest? You better believe it — the James Beard Foundation and Anthony Bourdain do. Calumet Fisheries in Chicago is famous for smoking any seafood that comes to mind — including salmon, herring, eel, sturgeon, sable, rainbow trout, and shrimp. It is currently only one of two smokehouses still allowed to burn wood and to smoke its fish in the city. The French fries are also legendary.
Dinkel’s, which has been in business since 1922, may be renowned primarily for its legendary doughnuts, but their soft pretzels are also arguably the best in Chicago. Slightly crisp on the outside and soft and flavorful on the inside, they’re made using unbromated and unbleached flour. They are doughy and insanely craveable.
Another one of Rick Bayless’s restaurant concepts tops the list with the best soup in Illinois. Countless reviewers on Yelp and Google recommend the Shortrib Red Chile Caldo, for the tender the short rib and spicy, lime-y broth. Xoco’s soup is the kind of warm, spicy comfort Chicagoans need for facing frigid winters.
Bartolini’s might be most famous for its Annual Meatball Eating Championship and a 10-pound meatball sandwich challenge (with 40 meatballs), but gimmickry aside, these are also some stellar meatballs. Pork and beef are mixed with garlic, Parmesan, eggs, and milk-soaked bread, formed into 2-ounce balls, and baked. If you can’t wait until your next trip to Chicago to try these, they can be shipped to you.
Facebook/Gibson’s Bar and Steakhouse
If you were to close your eyes and try to imagine what a 24-year-old steakhouse in downtown Chicago called Gibson’s would be like, you’d probably hit the nail right on the head: red leather booths, wood paneling, martinis, high-roller customers, flawless service, giant steaks, and lobster tails. The USDA Prime steak served here is second to none, and the old-fashioned menu of steakhouse classics includes spicy lobster cocktail in a steamed artichoke, wedge salad, and classic cuts of beef including bone-in filet mignon, London broil bordelaise with roasted bone marrow, and the 22-ounce W.R’s Chicago Cut, a mammoth bone-in rib-eye. If you’re looking to dine here, make sure you call well in advance; reservations are hard to come by. And while the website states that jeans are OK, we’d advise wearing something a little more suited to the upscale surroundings. Find more details on Gibson’s Bar & Steakhouse here.
A high-end sushi experience if ever there was one, Juno is a temple to all things sushi. The à la carte menu is one of the finest you’ll encounter at any sushi restaurant: Appetizers include fluke, lardo, and scallion; an uni shooter with orange zest and cucumber; and mushroom ramen with homemade noodles. Signature nigiri include spicy king crab and tuna, smoked hamachi with shiitake and sweet corn, and a trio of eel; and the selection of more than 20 raw fish also lists their sources (red snapper from Korea, fatty tuna from Australia, sweet red prawn from Argentina, uni from Santa Barbara, yellowtail from Japan). These all come together to create what’s easily the best omakase in Chicago, for an eye-opening (but worth it) $150 per guest.
At Chicago’s family-run Birrieria Zaragoza, goat is the name of the game. Namely, the birria tatemada, a roasted goat taco based on a recipe that’s more than 100 years old. The goat is steamed for around five hours, then rubbed with an ancho chile-based red mole sauce before being roasted and served on house-made corn tortillas with fresh condiments, including onion, cilantro, red salsa, and roasted chiles. You can request any part of the goat you like, but we suggest you go with the pistola, or shank. It’s juicy, tender, and full of flavor — a bite worth seeking out if you’re even a passing fan of falling-off-the-bone meat. And who isn’t? For more states, check out our ultimate guide to the best food and drink in every state for 2018.