Chicago, Chicago, that toddlin’ town
Chicago, Chicago, I’ll show you around (you’ll stay around)
Bet your bottom dollar you lose the blues in
Chicago, Chicago, the folks who visit
All want to settle down (all want to settle down in my hometown)
In a way, this verse from the classic performed by ol’ blue eyes Sinatra describes what I hope to bring you with Chowhound’s new “Cities” content. Whether you’re a local who’s true-blue Chicago, a transplant who migrated after college or a job transfer, or an occasional visitor, I hope to “show you around,” help you “lose the blues,” and allow you to “settle down” in the city of broad shoulders. From my point of view, this means treating you to the inside scoop regarding the area’s food scene. You see, for me, food creates a feeling of comfort, of home. Its nourishing aspects bring contentment and satisfaction that lead you to unwind, relax, and feel at ease. Call me biased, but Chicago is an unparalleled food location: plentiful options, without the absurd crowds (for the most part); diverse cultural representation; world-class culinary adventures; and local traditions. Chicago truly is a toddlin’ town because it has it all. It’s also, for these reasons, why the sentiments of the song ring so true. So, sit back, relax, and take a taste of Chicago.
When you think of Chicago food, what comes to mind? If you’re like me, you probably gravitate to the staples, like pizza, hot dogs, and, maybe, steak. If I pushed further, you might think of Italian beef, Indian food on Devon (northside), Greek food or Mexican food on Halsted, or Italian food on Taylor (near westside), or Chinese food off Cermak (near southside), and Argyle (northside). You might throw in Chicago-style fried chicken joints like Harold’s (southside), Uncle Remus (westside), or sleeper pick, The Chicken Shack (Evanston). Then again, you could go in the completely opposite direction and talk about our James Beard or Michelin-starred restaurants. Mention any of these things and you wouldn’t be wrong. Chicago is a rich food landscape, full of tastes and history to match the city itself.
Today, I’m going to leave the aforementioned alone and focus on something else: a condiment. Huh? That’s right, a condiment. Now, you might be wondering if I’ve lost my mind. I haven’t. Part of what makes Chicago such a great food destination is that it takes the details seriously. Chances are, you put stuff on your hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches, like mustard, mayo, or ketchup (no ketchup on a Chicago hot dog, please!). Maybe you’ve never thought about it, but condiments help create the taste you crave, and the taste that delivers wonderful satisfaction. They’re details, but the details matter in taking something from good to spectacular. So, today, we focus on a real-deal Chicago condiment: giardiniera.
If you’re from the Chicagoland area, you’ve encountered this wonderful concoction of spicy, pickled veggies, covered in oil, on your Italian beef, sub sandwich, Italian sausage, or even pizza. You know this to be a Chicago-staple, underappreciated as it might be. If you’re not from Chicago, you may have never heard of it. Either way, I thought I’d delve deeper into what it is, where you can find it, and how it took hold in Chicago. Chicagoans will likely be interested to know a bit more about this genuine and unique Chicago foodstuff. Out-of-towners might be interested to get introduced to a condiment that’s been delighting Chicagoans for decades. Heck, next time you’re in town you might even order your beef sandwich with hot peppers (how locals order giardiniera on a beef sandwich) instead of plain, or even buy a jar online for your cupboard. After all, if the people of Chicago think it’s good, maybe it’s worth a try!
To get the goods on giardiniera, I touched base with Liz Lombardo Stark. She, along with her siblings and father, own and operate the Gibsons Restaurant Group. This is the same group known for Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, LUXBAR, Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, and the new Gibsons Italia. Disclaimer: Liz is my wife’s cousin. Given this, before I proceed, I’d like to clarify a few things. First, I’ve had a soft spot for Gibsons for longer than I’ve known my wife, or the Lombardos. In fact, in early correspondence with the then-almost-stranger who later became my wife, I remember emailing about our favorite steakhouses (I know, I know, I’m such a catch), and including Gibsons as one of my go-to spots. Second, Gibsons Restaurant Group operates Chicago institutions. The original restaurant is consistently the top-grossing independent restaurant in the city and top 10 in the country. Third, they use giardiniera at multiple locations, from their high-end Italian steakhouse (Gibsons Italia), to their authentic, Italian small plates concept (Quartino), to their original old-school steakhouse (Gibsons). I say all this to specify that even if I were Joe Schmo, with no connection whatsoever, I would have been smart to talk to the folks at Gibsons. They know Chicago, they know their food, and they know giardiniera!
Alright, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get on with it. After contacting Liz, I was referred to Daniel Huebschmann, Corporate Executive Chef at Gibsons Restaurant Group. The following back-and-forth represents what I learned about giardiniera from Dan:
What is giardiniera, and what are its origins?
[It got its start in Italy as] a combination of garden vegetables canned or jarred with vinegar. Early 20th century giardiniera got a foothold in Chicago and morphed into what we know it to be, a spicy blend of pickled vegetables packaged or preserved in oil, not vinegar. [It] literally translates to “mixed pickles.”
How is it typically used?
In Chicago, we use it to complement, most notably, Italian beef, Italian sausage, and hot dogs. Many Chicagoans enjoy it on their pizzas, as well. Giardiniera, in its original form (pickled vegetables high in acidity), is a great complement to cured meat, or any meat for that matter. It brings a balance of crunch and acidity to ingredients that are rich and have a fair amount of salt.
How did giardiniera become such a Chicago-style condiment?
It is attributed to the Italian immigrants who came to the United States and settled in Chicago in the mid-19th century. Italian food is a large part of Chicago’s heritage, and this is a common condiment, with widely varying preparations, so it been a staple of Chicagoans’ diet for over 100 years.
How big is giardiniera outside of Chicago?
[It’s] a staple in Italy. While you can find it in other parts of the United States, you have to seek it out. In Chicago, it’s usually just a stone’s throw away.
What sets the giardiniera at GRG apart?
We prepare our giardiniera by hand in small batches. We use the freshest ingredients and hand cut the vegetables. It is always made fresh and served fresh. The pickling process and preservation in oil give giardiniera a long shelf life, though we go through it quickly at Gibsons.
If I wanted to make my own, how difficult would it be?
It is relatively easy. Select your favorite garden vegetables, a high quality vinegar, and depending on your preference of style, a high quality olive oil.
Which GRG restaurants serve it?
It is available at Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, Quartino, Gibsons Italia, Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House, and LUXBAR. Basically, it’s available at all of our restaurants.
After hearing from Dan, I did a little more digging. Here are a few more interesting tidbits about Chicago’s condiment. Italians tend to enjoy giardiniera as more of an appetizer than as a condiment. As Dan mentioned, the vinegar-based version works great with cured meats—think a salumi plate. Additionally, as Dan pointed out, there are many variations in preparations to giardiniera. The key distinguishers are the amounts and types of vinegar, oil, and vegetables. Common vegetables include cauliflower, carrots, celery, bell peppers (mild), sport peppers (hot), and cucumbers/pickles. In Italy, not only will you see more varieties prepared in vinegar, you’re more likely to see the use of bell peppers for milder and sweeter variety. In Chicago, on the other hand, you’ll encounter a greater use of oil and sport peppers.
Now that we know what giardiniera is, let’s dive in to where you can get it. Generally, it’s all over The Second City, from big-time restaurants to hole-in-the-wall joints. That said, when I have a hankering for fresh giardiniera, I stick with Gibsons or Quartino. For lunch, the original location offers a prime rib French dip that’s phenomenal. Accompanied with a traditional au jus and their fresh, house-made giardiniera, this sandwich is out of this world. For an added kick, here’s a little trick I’ve picked up along the way: Order a side of creamy horseradish, then, triple dip your sandwich in au jus, giardiniera oil, and horseradish cream. The best. Don’t sleep on Quartino, either. The meatball sliders with a side of giardiniera make for a great lunch, or a wonderful accompaniment to your dinner.
For a meal that’s a bit more on-the-go, I have two spots with knockout giardiniera that I think are worth your time: Portillo’s and Potbelly. Each came from independent, humble beginnings—the former, a modest hot dog stand, and the latter, a Lincoln Park (northside) sandwich shop—and erupted into remarkably successful chains. Because of their massive respective success, you might liken visiting each for their giardiniera to visiting McDonald’s for their secret sauce. This would be a mistake. You might not get the made-to-order freshness in the giardiniera found at Gibsons, but that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, the extra oil and salt (likely necessary for preservation) add a great element to a sandwich. The Portillo’s variety is made by another Chicago institution—Marconi Foods—and the Potbelly variety is a house brand simply labeled as “hot peppers.”
Finally, if you’re an out-of-towner, or even an in-towner, who now finds yourself craving a little giardiniera at home, you’re in luck! You can buy it in-store, or get it online via Amazon. Try the Marconi stuff here, or the Potbelly stuff here. Of course, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can also make it yourself. For recipe ideas, peruse different varieties here, and go crazy! Then, try it on pizza, hot dogs, Italian sausage, Italian beef, French dip sandwiches, subs, hoagies, pizza, eggs, or burgers. Basically, try it on anything you think could benefit from some heat!
Chicago is a wonderful city with a voluminous food tradition. And yes, part of that tradition lies in a condiment—albeit, no ordinary condiment. So, the next time you’re enjoying an Italian beef-and-sausage combo with hot peppers, or French dip at Gibsons, remember you’re indulging in a true Chicago staple. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed being “shown around.” Maybe we can do it again sometime.
Header image courtesy of Portillo's.