Let’s be frank: 37-year-old Stephanie Esposito knows Chicago-style hot dogs. She grew up on the city’s southwest side, savoring the poppy seed buns from Nicky’s, a hot dog joint that’s been a neighborhood fixture for half a century. She’s also intensely competitive, which is why she jumped at the chance to participate in the first annual Vienna Beef Hot Dog Stand Challenge, a business-boosting contest to see who could visit the most hot dog stands across Chicagoland in 60 days. Esposito didn’t just participate; she devoured the challenge, eating at 367 spots around the Chicago area (and beyond) in a little over five weeks.
We’ve been following Esposito’s quest for frankfurter sovereignty since September, when she took the lead thanks to a color-coded spreadsheet and a foot-long portion of sheer gumption. This week, she officially accepted her Top Dog trophy and ascended to Weiner Legend status. In honor of the occasion, we chatted with Esposito to learn more about her strategies for maximum hot dog enjoyment.
Prepare to do battle
Esposito wanted a seamless hot-dog-eating experience, so she took care of a few housekeeping items immediately before beginning her roughly five-week-long quest. “I put new tires on my car, got my oil changed,” she says, laughing. After all, it’s nearly impossible to change a flat tire with a hot dog in one hand and a wrench in the other.
Get out of your comfort zone
“If you grew up in Chicago, you probably don’t think the hot dog stands outside of your neighborhood will be as good since you grew up eating your local favorites,” Esposito says. “But I found a few of my new favorite spots outside of my neighborhood, like Sinai’s in southern Illinois and even a few in Indiana.”
Think beyond the frank
Esposito notes that she didn’t order a hot dog at every stand, often opting for milkshakes, Polish sausages, and specialty items like Philly-style cheesesteaks instead. “I even found some really good fish tacos at one stand,” she says.
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Don’t skimp on the sides
A true Chicagoan, Esposito recommends ordering a classic Chicago-style dog without mustard—but she says that your side order can make or break your experience. “You’ve gotta have the hot, fresh-cut fries,” she says.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
God himself rested after six days of intense labor—and so did Esposito after nearly six weeks of intensive hot dog consumption. “I binged during this whole race, but I wanted to make sure I could enjoy a hot dog at the baseball game,” she says, noting that she took a brief break from her beloved weenies after the competition concluded. “I didn’t have the meat sweats, per se, but I did do a bit of a meat detox,” she says. “I was like, ‘all right, time for some more salads and vegetables and not just cased meats every day.’”