We Chicagoans are a proud people. We love our hot dogs, Italian beef, and Polishes like none other. Portillo’s is a popular chain around here that sells all three of those Chicago specialties and more, like burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, chocolate cake, and even plant-based hot dogs. The chain went national last year, with new locations planned for Ohio, Texas, Arizona, and Florida—and soon, the rest of the country might also get a chance to taste Chicago from afar.
When one region’s cuisine is transplanted to another, sometimes the defining traits of a given dish get lost in transit. Whether a homesick expat tries and fails to recreate it, or a new city doesn’t have the same ingredients available to prepare the dish the “right” way, it’s never a guarantee that you’re getting the true taste of a city’s food outside of the city itself. (And of course, regional dishes are always subject to the creativity of those who adopt them. For example, Philly natives don’t put bell peppers on their cheesesteaks, yet you’ll frequently see them served that way elsewhere.)
Considering how hard it is to take regional food national, folks in Florida, Arizona, and Texas might be wondering: Sure, Portillo’s claims to be “Chicago-styled” food, but how much does this chain really nail the Chicago experience?
Skeptics are right to question a chain’s ability to represent a regional cuisine. Yet when it comes to Portillo’s, those blessed with a location will indeed get a taste of “real” Chicago food. If I’m looking for an Italian beef, a Maxwell Street Polish, or a fully topped hot dog, Portillo’s is in fact the place I want to go. Unlike deep dish pizza, Portillo’s is something Chicagoans eat even when we’re not shuttling tourists around.
The Portillo’s Italian beef is soft, tender, and (depending on how you order) dunked in gravy, just like we do it. Those hot dogs are the same natural-casing ones we love so much. And the Maxwell Street Polish has the same simple and faithful toppings (yellow mustard and a shitload of grilled onions) that it’s had throughout history. The chain even features specialty ingredients particular to the area, like sport peppers and giardinera, both of which are notoriously hard to find in much of the United States.
It’s not often that a regional chain transports the food from its birthplace with such accuracy and fidelity. I’m sure you’ve traveled somewhere, delighted in the fact that your favorite hometown dish was on a restaurant menu, then looked in horror at its description (apologies again to Philly natives who come across peppers in their cheesesteaks). Or maybe you’ve wondered if your local diner’s gumbo is faithful to its Louisiana roots (it probably isn’t). But if you’re looking to try Chicago’s greasy classics, I can assure you Portillo’s serves what we eat here, and how we love to eat it. However, it’s possible that the new Portillo’s that pops up in your neighborhood will be devoid of sticky tables and nasal-forward accents, in which case you’ll have to come pay us a visit. Those are an integral part of the experience.