I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in downtown Chicago for a few years. Having just returned home for a couple of weeks to visit family and friends, and with Chicagoland fresh on the brain, I figured it would be a good time to highlight some of my favorite Chicagoland gems. These are things that I would want my own guests to experience, and are the things that I myself fill-up on when I find myself back home.
Growing up in the suburb of Glen Ellyn, I have also lived in Schaumburg, and have family in Carol Stream. So a lot of my suburban loves are focused on the western Chicagoland areas and on food!
1. Best burger in the ‘burbs: This is Alfie’s all the way. Now on their second location in Glen Ellyn, and always along Roosevelt Road, Alfie’s Inn is a staple in the western ‘burbs, and often my first meal when getting home and last before leaving. Dark wood interior, medieval weaponry, and suits of armor are the decor. The food is hearty, great, and reasonably priced. The ribs are fall off the bone fantastic, but it is their cheeseburger that I always crave when far from home. They offer a few different variations, but for the most part, they are traditional beef burgers with some sort of magic that makes them addictive. You pay at the register, where a basket of Dum-Dums and a sphere-shaped candy bowl dispenses pastel colored mints.
2. Fish out of water BBQ success: Illinois is known for a few things, but stellar BBQ isn’t one of our claims to fame. Sure there are some great spots to find BBQ, but when they do emerge, they make headlines because it is a rarity. However, there was one spot that had flown under our radar and was literally sitting under our noses for a number of years. At the corner of a small strip mall on the edge of the town of Wheaton, sits a gem in the wall BBQ spot called Steamboat BBQ. They have their own smoker in-house and serve up everything from ribs, rib tips, brisket, pulled pork, sausage links, wings, fried catfish, and fried shrimp (and some burgers and sandwiches). Everything we have had there has been fantastic, and the stand-outs for Cay and I were the ribs, rib tips, and their fried mac-n-cheese bites: triangular shaped breaded pockets of cheesy heaven. They have around 5 different sauces, ranging from a couple sweet BBQ options, a hot sauce, a mustard BBQ sauce, and a vinegar based sauce. My favorite is their Butler Tribute BBQ sauce (one of the sweet ones), but the meat honestly doesn’t need any sauce, as it is stand-alone amazing. Picky about what you drink? On a budget? Cool- just bring your own, as Steamboat allows BYOB. The hardest part about this place is deciding what to order and finding a seat!
3. Freezer treasure– Homerun Inn frozen pizza! This isn’t exactly one specific spot in the suburbs, though they do have a few restaurant locations in and around Chicago. This is more an ode to the best frozen pizza in the world. Home Run Inn can be a difficult pizza to find outside of Illinois, but I have found it in the of Sprouts Farmer’s Market grocery chain throughout the west and south. Their frozen pizza comes in regular pan style, thin crust, and Chicago-style deep dish. My personal favorite is the classic pan style with sausage- their homemade sausage is unreal! Their secret? I think it is a combination of the buttery crust, signature sauce, and the fact that it comes partially pre-baked.
4. Old time concept, new era cineart: The Chicago ‘burbs have a lot of character and lots of little gems, but one of my favorite suburban activities is to catch a double-feature at the Cascade Drive-In movie theater in the town of West Chicago. This has been a staple in the western suburbs and is a very welcome relic of the past. Unlike some revival drive-in movie theaters, this is a single screen with a playground area and situated in an open field with window hanging in-car speakers for your audio pleasure. It is not several small screens scattered thought-out the asphalt jungle of a parking lot. Cascade plays first-run films and each admission ticket gets you a double feature. To add to the nostalgia, between films, Cascade plays the classic cartoon drive-in intermission video featuring concession treats parading around in a circus, unaware that they are advertising their own consumption and featuring the comically classic scene where a hot dog jumps into an open bun, with its not-so-subtle sexual undertones.
5. Midwestern charm: Along the Fox River in the far west suburbs, lies a string of quaint towns, such as Geneva, St. Charles, and Batavia. These areas are scenic to explore for the afternoon with walks along the Fox Riverfront and each offering historic downtown corridors with the “Main St. USA” curb appeal and lots of mom & pop type establishments to enjoy. St. Charles, Geneva, and Batavia are still relatively smaller and more under the radar than the more trafficked Naperville Riverwalk area, and I prefer to bring guests to these more relaxed locations for a little bit of down-home Midwestern flair.
Having spent my college years living in downtown Chicago, which was admittedly some time ago, some of my favorite spots have disappeared, but many staples of the city hold strong. Here are a few activities and locations that I like to bring my friends to when playing tourist in the Windy City.
1. Ditch the car: One of Chicago’s strengths is its public transit system. From the Metra train lines that run like spokes from surrounding suburbs feeding into downtown Chicago, to the elevated ‘L’ (CTA) rapid transit trains that circulate the city itself, Chicago is one of the few major U.S. cities with such a comprehensive transit system. When I am in the city, and especially with guests, we always ditch the car and use the “L”. It is cheap, efficient, comprehensive, and best of all is a stress-free way to ride around and take in the city views. I recommend taking the Brown line down to and around the “Loop” section of downtown to get some up-close views of Chicago (don’t confuse this with the Red line, which goes underground in the Loop and loses the aerial views for the sake of speed).
2. Rise from the Ashes: I say this with much pride, the architecture in Chicago is unmatched! The city that rebuilt itself after the Great Chicago Fire was one that employed some of the best architects of that time and continues to wow with new projects. Also, Chicago architects reversed the flow in the Chicago River, which is a tribute in itself to architectural ingenuity. From the riverfront neighborhoods to downtown to the lakefront, the architecture in Chicago is commanding and worth exploring. One of my favorite “tourist” activities in Chicago is to take an architectural boat tour along the Chicago River to gain new perspectives and learn the history behind the surrounding skyscrapers.
3. Bird’s Eye View: To continue from point 2 above, after you have viewed the buildings from below and finished checking out the views from atop the Hancock Building or the Sears Tower (it will always be the Sears Tower!), I am a big fan of Chicago’s rooftop bars. One of the freshest bars on the scene and one that has some of the best views around is the rooftop at the LondonHouse hotel. From its vantage point along the Chicago River, it has unobstructed views of the surrounding skyline. My own visit to LondonHouse was the first time that I was able to see that particular perspective of iconic Chicago buildings, like the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. Occupying one of Chicago’shistoric buildings that emerged during the “City Beautiful Movement,” LondonHouse preserved the original rooftop dome with Corinthian columns. A great spot to cozy-up, sit back, and enjoy the view!
4. Cultural Connection: Like many major cities, Chicago is a melting pot of multiple cultures and cultural neighborhoods. Boasting large Polish, Irish, Greek, Russian, Indian, Chinese, Filipino populations and much much more, these influences have blended into the city, where several ethnic neighborhoods have taken root. In college, when I was too broke to travel, I enjoyed exploring the different neighborhoods and traveling via the cuisine. My first introduction to Ethiopian food, and still one of my favorite restaurants, is located in the far north side of the city- the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant, which in the last few years has also opened a market. I recommend trying as much as possible as the flavors are all so different. I like to order both a mixed vegetarian platter and a mixed meat platter and request to have them served on separate platters (more injera soaked in yummy spices that way!), with Ethiopian honey wine.
5. Laugh it Up: Between Broadway and Hollywood, Chicago carves out a space for itself in the performing arts with a vibrant theater scene. Home to major players like the Chicago Theater and indie houses, like the Victory Gardens Theater, there are also numerous comedic performing centers in the mix. With a plethora of stand-up, skit, and improv offerings throughout the city, one of my favorites has a recognizable name and is known as a breeding ground for future SNL cast members– The Second City. The Second City features several shows throughout the week. The shows that I have attended have been largely skit comedy peppered with improv segments based on audience suggestions. While we were in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, Cay and I caught the “Best of” show on the main stage, which was a hilarious compilation show featuring a female-dominated cast.
6. Summer & the city: Because winters are so brutal, there is such a sense of camaraderie when the warm weather hits, and the city’s parks and beachfront come alive. Having a good time in Chicago doesn’t have to come at a cost. With a fantastic park system and a dedication to assessable events for all, Chicago features numerous free events, museum days, and festivals. Two of my favorite summertime (& on the cheap) features are the Millennium Park free concert series and the free outdoor movie nights both in Millennium Park and in other neighborhood parks throughout the city. Grab your blanket, pack a picnic, and enjoy a night under the stars with Chicago’s skyline in the background.
7. It’s a pizza pie!: One of my favorite foods of all-time and a Chicago institution- Pizza! Chicago serves-up all kinds of pizza: pan style, thin crust, stuffed, and Chicago’s signature deep-dish. Both stuffed and deep dish style are baked in a deeper dish with buttery crust at the bottom, followed by cheese, then ingredients, and then topped with tomato sauce. Most stuffed pizzas differ by adding a second layer of crust/dough just below the tomato sauce. My non- Chicago friends like to bemoan how filling these hearty variations are, especially when they are used to the fold-over thin New York-style, but you would be missing out if you didn’t give this amazing style of pizza a try- just pace yourself! Pizzas come in all shapes, sizes, and variation of ingredients, and I love it for that. My favorite Chicago spot for deep-dish pizza is Lou Malnati’s, which now has several locations throughout the city.
8. Brew & View: Chicago has a lot of great music venues and one of my favorites also happens to double as a movie theater on non-concert nights. The Vic is a Chicago staple in the music scene and my favorite indoor theater in the city. Tickets are cheap, there is a mix of new films and older classics, and a bar in addition to the concession stand. Brew & View nights at the Vic is a pretentious-free, chill place to grab a flick & a beer in one of the more intimate music venues in the city.