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The History Of Chicago Barbecue

"Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders..." Carl Sandburg, 1916

By Meathead Goldwyn

Barbecue in Chicago and many other cities is booming. But the capital of the Midwest is no Porky Come Lately. It has a long deep history that should put it among the upper echelon of 'cue capitals. Why should anyone be surprised that a city forged from the flames of the Great Chicago Fire should be a barbecue capital?

Jim Shahin, the author of numerous barbecue articles in The Washington Post has written "Smoked meat aficionados generally acknowledge four barbecue capitals: Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, and North Carolina. Chicago is, at best, what you might call the fifth Beatle. Which is to say, a player that no one remembers." Let's correct this.

There are four distinct styles

1) Delta Barbecue. In what historians call the Second Great Migration of African Americans from 1940 through 1960, poor black farmers from the Mississippi Delta moved north to find higher paying factory jobs and brought barbecue and blues to the south side and west side of Chicago. Their method back home was the open pit which eventually, under strict fire and health regulations, moved into the unique Chicago version of the open pit, the wood burning aquarium smoker, described below. Their standard fare is rib tips, much cheaper than ribs, and sausage links, drenched in sweet tomato based sauce and spiked with tangy vinegar, are served on top of a bed of fries, and crowned with white bread. My favorite is Honey 1 BBQ.

2) Boilbecue. This is a style popularized by Eastern European immigrants who arrived in Chicago in the late 1800s to rebuild the city after the the Great Chicago Fire. Back home in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Lithuania, ribs were simmered in water with cabbage, onions, potatoes, and caraway, and served in a bowl as stew. The immigrants tasted Southern Barbecue and it's sweet sauce, loved it, so they boiled their ribs as always, and then slathered them in sauce, occasionally crisping the sauce on a grill. Soft and mushy, they were the original "fall off the bone" ribs, but boiling removed much of the meat flavor and all you can taste is candylike sauce. This style is still common all over the midwest. My favorite is the Gale Street Inn.

3) Modern Barbecue. All across the nation the barbecue craze has seen the opening of hundreds of modern barbecue joints. In Chicago they have sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Juicy tender meat is slowly roasted on huge motorized ferris wheels at precisely controlled temps in gas fired ovens with precisely measured amounts of wood smoke and rubs. These Southern Pride and Ole Hickory pits, in the hands of pitmasters like Barry Sorkin of Smoque BBQ, they turn out the Platonic ideal of American barbecue.

4) Fusion Barbecue. While modern barbecue tends to stick to the classic Southern barbecue canon of ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burnt ends, chicken, and the classic sides, contemporary chefs, often classically trained chefs, many with Asian influences, have discovered barbecue and are taking it to exotic new places. Smoked duck confit anyone? My favorite is Lillie’s Q.

The Great Migration: The first wave

American Barbecue is a happy marriage of the smoked meat traditions brought to the new world by European explorers, along with pork and cattle, the primitive cooking techniques of the Native Americans in the New World, and the discovery of tomatoes and hot peppers in Central and South America. It evolved under the watchful eyes of African American slaves and cooks, who took tough cuts of cheap meats and found a way to coax them to yield delicacies.

Jean Baptiste Point DuSable is believed to have been the first settler of European descent when he opened a trading post on the south bank of the Chicago River near where it met Lake Michigan. He was black, probably French Canadian, and married a Potawatomi woman. Grilling, roasting, and rotisserie is an integral part of both cultures.

With the underground railroad prior to the Civil War, African Americans brought their cooking culture and settled in with the North what eventually became soul food.

After the Civil War there was a steady trickle of migration to the cities in pursuit of jobs. It culminated in a wave called The Great Migration from 1910 to 1930 as an estimated two million blacks, many farm hands, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers, moved north to find work.

Chicago's African American population grew from about 4,000 in 1870 to about 15,000 in 1890, 40,000 in 1910, and 90,000 in 1920, mostly on the city's South Side. South Side culture grew with a local black newspapers, radio, night clubs, merchants, and restaurants. Chicago Jazz flourished in the 1920s with night clubs featuring the likes of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver.

The Pullman Corporation on the Southside of Chicago became a major employer. By the mid 1920s, while train traveling was peaking, more than 20,000 African American men worked as Pullman porters and other train jobs, the largest category of labor for blacks in the US. They carried luggage, shined shoes, made beds, and made good money and tips while they saw the country. Many of their wives became domestic help. They became the first black middle class in the nation.

The Great Depression which started in 1929 killed many of their jobs, and almost half the black community was unemployed. Migration from the South slowed.

There were not many barbecue restaurants in Chicago until after WWII.

Sweet sauce and boiled meat

Eastern European immigrants flocked to Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire burned the heart of the city to the ground on October 8 and 9, 1871. They brought with them their culinary traditions, including a love of sausages and smoked meats.

While many worked in the construction trades, and others in the stockyards, others opened butcher shops. No doubt they tasted Southern barbecue and sweet barbecue sauce and they loved it. African Americans cooked their meats low and slow with smoke. But in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Eastern European countries, ribs were often simmered in a pot for hours with often with cabbage, potatoes, onions, and caraway seeds making a hearty rich stew that was served in a bowl. So when they opened their Chicago restaurants, they boiled their ribs as they did back home, making them so soft and tender they fell off the bone. They then drenched them in sweet ketchup based sauce, saving hours and dollars. Alas, much of the meat's flavor went down the drain when they discarded the water.

To this day, boiled fall off the bone ribs drowning in sweet sauce is the popular standard for much of the population, but for many, that is changing.

The Second Great Migration: Delta barbecue and blues, the second wave

WWII, which the US entered after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, created millions of jobs in cities building everything from tanks to munitions and uniforms. Chicago was a major aircraft manufacturing center. Between 1940 and 1960, there was a Second Great Migration with Chicago's black population grew from 278,000 to 813,000 and the Southside became known as the "Capital of Negro America".

After WWII, a second great migration of poor black sharecroppers from Delta Country headed to the big city in search of factory jobs. The Delta is where the Yazoo River system drains into the Mississippi River in Northeastern Mississippi and Eastern Arkansas just south of Memphis and north of Vicksburg, and mechanization was displacing manual labor not to mention racism and Jim Crow "separate but equal" laws. They brought with them the blues and barbecue and settled on the South and West sides of Chicago.

A chronology of important dates in Chicago barbecue history

1865. In 1865, immediately after the Civil War, the Union Stockyards became a central distribution point for shipping live animals. In 1880 Gustavus Swift introduced a new rail car design that was cooled by ice. Chicago became the central final feedlot, slaughterhouse, butchery, and meat packer for the nation, processing more meat than any city in the world, peaking in the 1920s.

union stockyards

Slowly the meat industry decentralized, with Kansas City and others competing with Chicago, and business on the South Side declined. The Yards closed at midnight on Friday, July 30, 1971 and was eventually demolished. The Union Stock Yard Gate remains and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981.

russels barbecue

1930. Russell's, owned by white people in Elmwood Park since 1930, is still going strong.

1932. Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern, 1655 North Sedgwick Street Chicago, IL 60614 312-266-1616. It was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and a favorite of Sinatra when he was in town. Also still going strong.

1940. The Original Leon's Bar-B-Que became popular during Chicago Fest on Navy Pier. The event is now gone but Leon's lives on.

1948. Calumet Fisheries has been making amazing smoked fish at this same location, and it is strictly take out. Watch this video from local restaurant review show, Check Please, on PBS.

1950. Leonard Chess founded Chess Records on the Southside and started recording Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, and other Delta Blues icons. In 1951 Chess published "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats which topped Billboard's R&B chart and has been called the first rock & roll record.

Barbecue sauces in those days were thin and mostly oils, perhaps lard, with vinegar, and spices, perhaps a little ketchup and hot pepper. Charlie Robinson, owner of Robinson's Ribs, was quoted in an interview as saying "Sauce is a key item, there's no question about it. We use a tomato-based sauce in the Midwest, but down South they kinda use a vinegar-based sauce and that just don't fly here in the Midwest."

1951. George Stephen, Sr., frustrated by his inability to control the temperature in his backyard grill, had the welders at the Weber Brothers Metal Work,s where he worked, cut up a buoy that was to be used for Lake Michigan boating. The Weber Kettle was born. Among its innovations was a tight-fitting lid and much of the early marketing involved touting the merits of "covered barbecuing". Today it is by far the most popular backyard grill in the world with the basic unit selling for under $100. They also operate three restaurants in the area wher most of the food is cooked spectacularly on large Weber Kettle grills.

1954. Two brothers, Bruce and Myles Lemons from Indianola, MS, moved to the city in the 1940s and in 1954 they opened Lem's Bar-B-Q House. It is still a pilgrimage destination at 311 E. 75th St., Chicago, IL 60619.

hickory pit 1955

1955 Glass Dome Hickory Pit opened in 1955, I think, and closed in the 1990s. Anthony E. Beninato, Sr., owner died in 2011. Originally located at 2724 S. Union (shown above) it moved to two blocks west to a larger more ornate facility at 2801 S. Halsted St., a few blocks from Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox and it was a favorite of fans. It was also a popular hangout for men with klout in the lilly white neighborhood where Mayor Richard J. Daley, other machine pols, and many top mobsters lived. The Pit made the news on 12/8/1955 when Alex "Louie" Greenberg, 64, owner of the nearby Canadian Ace Brewing Co., was shot by two men as he and his wife entered their car after dinner. Tavern owners said that Greenberg's men had been employing tactics reminiscent of the Prohibition era beer wars, when Greenberg was schooled as a member of the Capone mob. Mrs. Greenberg said the attack was a stickup, but police doubt that robbery was the motive.

1957. Argia B. Collins, Sr, introduces his Mumbo Sauce, a conventional tomato based sauce. It is still being made. In Washington DC, a number of sweet-sour Asian influenced sauces generically named Mumbo Sauce are served in many Asian restaurants and chicken shacks. This student of history suspects the name came from a fan of Collins' original. Click here to read the history of Mumbo Sauce in Chicago and DC, and get a recipe for the DC icon.

19??. Kraft BBQ Sauce introduced.

1963. Gale Street Inn opens and becomes famous for its boilbecue ribs.

1960s? According to internet reports, The Homestead opened in Blue Island around 119th and Vincenes. It was a small bar and ribs were smoked in a pit out back by the owners Joe and Josephine. "The smoke filled the air outside and the hickory fragrance could be smelled for blocks" said one fan. They expanded several times driven by demand, and eventually they sold the recipes to the House of Hughes on Cicero in Crestwood. HoH closed in 2011 or 2012.

19??. Smoky Joe's on South State Street in the 1960s or 1970s.

1974. In November, Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, in an episode of the Korean War television sitcom called MASH, got so fed up with the food in Korea that he decided to order from a restaurant named Adam's Ribs, supposedly located beside the Dearborn Street Station in Chicago. "I've eaten a river of liver and an ocean of fish! I've eaten so much fish, I'm ready to grow gills! I've eaten so much liver, I can only make love if I'm smothered in bacon and onions!" he ranted, and dialed Dearborn 5-7500. According to unverified internet sources, at the time the story was set in the early 1950s, but not at the time it was filmed, there really was an Adam's Ribs in Chicago, and the phone was Dearborn 5-2750.

1977. Carson's Ribs opened the first of many upscale locations and became very popular in the white community. The original downtown location is still popular and there are two others remaining in Deerfield and Milwaukee.

19??. Jimmy Cole, Cole's Family B.B.Q., Robbins, IL. Miss Blanche cooked on a block and steel charcoal pit built into the wall. It is still open.

1973. Michael Robertson, owner of the Hickory Pit restaurant in downstate Decatur, IL, designed a pit that was more automated and eventually began manuafacturing them. The company built 20,000 Southern Prides in Chicago before it moved to Alamo, TN.

1982. Royko Ribfest (see sidebar) Robinson's wins first.

1985. Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce was created by Larry Raymond for his entry in the Royko Ribfest. They placed second out of 700 teams. Larry's brother Dave and a friend decided to market it, and today it is the most popular BBQ sauce in the nation, by far.

Chicago barbecue guide

Below is an incomplete list of barbecue restaurants and my attempt to categorize them. The local foodie message board, LTH Forum, is a very lively and active board and members know where all the best restaurants are, especially the little neighborhood joints. They also discuss other cities as well as cooking.

Delta style

These Delta style joints still use the aquarium pit and carry on the old tradition of hardwood smoked, spare ribs. A number are carryout only, SLC, spares, and tips, white bread. Tomato sauce that's sweet and peppery, links, and tips. Piled on soggy fries (not very appetizing and not good cold). Strong wood flavor, often overcooked, often membrane on. This is very traditional old fashioned open pit style cooking. Peppery. Lem's, Uncle John's, Barbara Ann's all within blocks of each other, all similar enough to be franchises.

Barbara Ann’s, 7617 South Cottage Grove Ave., Chicago 773-0651-5300. When I stopped at noon, several things were not ready yet, so they are probably cooking mostly fresh. Tips are tender juicy, with a nice ruddy yellow orange color. Flavored only with salt. Nice sweet sour sauce with black pepper. *
• Bro-N-Laws, 3334 W Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60651. 773-265-8344
Cole's Family B.B.Q., 13500 S. Claire Blvd. Robbins, IL 60472, 708-489-2733. Not an aquarium, but an old fashioned home made brick pit built into a wall
• Coleman's Hickory House, 555 N. Cicero Ave., Chicago, IL. Austin neighborhood. Not sure if they use the aquarium. 773-626-9299
Exsenator's Bar-B-Que, 3349 West 159th St., Markham, 708-333-1211
Honey 1 BBQ, 2241 N. Western Ave., Chicago, 773-227-5130, Robert Adams Sr., wife Patricia, son Robert Jr. Opened in 2003 on Division St. A cut above the rest of the Aquarium pit joints. Shade tree-BBQ in a no frills joint under fluorescent lights. Outstanding old style ribs with a fine bark. Seasoned minimally and sauce on the side, it is all about the meat. Don't miss the hot links. ***
• I-57 Rib House, 6514 S. Western Ave., Chicago, IL 60636. 773-436-9000
Lem's Bar-B-Q House, 311 E 75th St, 773-994-2428. **
The Original Leon's Bar-B-Que, 4550 S. Archer Ave., Chicago, IL 773-247-4171. Founded in 1940, this is a new location.
Mary's Bar-B-Q, 606 S. Pulaski (between Harrison St. & Ohio St.) Chicago, IL 60624. Mary & McKinley Jones from MS. arrived in 60s. She was a pastry chef. Chris Jones is current pitmaster.
Ribs 'N Bibs, 5300 S. Dorchester Ave., (between 53rd St. & 54th St.), Chicago, IL 60615. Neighborhood: Hyde Park. 773-493-0400. *

Modern barbecue

Barn & Company, 950 W Wrightwood Ave Chicago, IL 60614 (773) 832-4000. Pitmaster Gary Wiviott and Chef de Cuisine Ryan Jordan. Fun and creative modern barbecue treats like smoked pulled pork nachos, brisket chili with smoked tomatoes, smoked then fried wings, tater tots !, white sauce pulled chicken sandwich, and of course the classics. One of the few to use a pellet smoker. ***

bellyQ, Chef Bill Kim's dishes up Asian-inspired BBQ
Carsons River North, 612 N. Wells, Chicago IL 60654, 312-280-9200. Carson's Deerfield, 200 N. Waukegan, Deerfield IL 60015, 847-374-8500. Chris Carson is the owner.
Chicago q, Chicago, Lee Ann Whippen owner, 1160 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL, 312-642-1160. The most elegant of the city's barbecue restaurants with white table cloths, rich decor, more typical of an upscale steakhouse, beautiful bars, all in a refurbished old brick house in the popular Rush Street area. Chef LeeAnn Whippen is familiar to anyone who watches barbecue competitions on TV. She's the pretty blonde with the fly-away whisps of hair. She claims to use her competition recipes, but they are not exactly the same. The menu is creative with alligator, grilled oysters, house bacon and cheddar hush puppies (you must order these), smoked salmon, "kobe" beef brisket and ribs (actually wagyu, not kobe), and "Competition" Ribs which are the most expensive in town. The pickles are also stars. ****
Cigars & Stripes, 6715 Ogden Ave., Berwyn, IL 60402. 708-484-1043. Ronnie Lottz is a former professional wrestler from Memphis with a big steel offset pit out back. His signature dishes are wings ant rib tips.
County Barbeque, 1352 W. Taylor St., Chicago, IL. 312-929-2528. Chef Michael Korncik is well known for his other upscale restaurants.
Dickey's, a Dallas franchise founded in 1941 has three suburban Chicago locations.
Fat Willy’s, 2416 West Schubert Avenue, Chicago, 773-782-1800.
Green Street Smoked Meats, 112 N. Green Street, Chicago, Illinois 60607. 312-754-0431
Hecky's, 1902 Green Bay Road Evanston, IL, 60201, 847-492-1182. Motto is "It's the sauce".
Hickory River Smokehouse, 2130 Bloomingdale Rd., Glendale Heights, IL 60139. 630-529-1227. A small chain (franchise?) with a dozen or so locations around the nation.
Honky Tonk Barbeque, 1213 W. 18th St., Chicago, 312-226-7427. Willie Wagner, owner, and an all round cool guy Good food, funky vibe with fun garage sale paintings on the walls, lots of tats on the staff, great music, too. **
Lillie’s Q, 1856 North Avenue, Chicago, 773-772-5500. Chef Charlie McKenna. Modern upscale BBQ cooked on charcoal pits. This is a menu that blends creative ideas with classic styles. Several very good sauces. Smoked tri-tip is a highlight. Oysters with NC sauce. Killer Brunswick stew. Great ribs, the best in town. ****
Old Crow Smokehouse, 3506 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60657, 773-537-4452.
The Piggery, 1625 West Irving Park Road Chicago, IL 60613, 773-281-7447.
Milt's BBQ for The Perplexed makes kosher BBQ, so don't ask for pork. 3411 North Broadway Street, Chicago, IL 60657. Lakeview neighborhood. 773-661-6384
Pork Shoppe, 2755 W. Belmont Chicago, IL. 773-961-7654. Tiny storefront with good barbecue. Especially liked the Pork Belly Pastrami and the Bourbons. Avondale neighborhood. **
Q BBQ, Three locations: Downtown LaGrange, 70. S. LaGrange Road, La Grange, IL 60525, 708-482-8700. Downtown Naperville, 103 S. Main St., Naperville, IL 60540, 630-637-6400. Lakeview (near Wrigley Field) 714 W Diversey Pkwy., Chicago, IL 60614, 773-281-7800. Ribs and sides really impressed me. ***
Robinson's Ribs, 940 Madison St., Oak Park, IL , 708-383-8452. *
Rub BBQ Company, 2407 West Lunt Ave., Chicago, IL 60645. Rogers Park neighborhood
Russell's Barbecue, 1621 N. Thatcher Ave., Elmwood Park, IL 60707. 708-453-7065. *
Shaevitz Uptown BBQ, 710 Central Ave., Highland Park, IL 60035 847- 432-7310 Fax: 847-432-8352. Also a butcher shop.
Smoked On Rose, 3531 Rose St. Franklin Park, IL 60131 847-260-5236.
Smoke Daddy, 1804 W. Division Street Chicago, IL 60622, 773-772-6656.More of a bar vibe than a restaurant feel, with a long bar and live music almost every night. Good standard food. **
Smokey’s BBQ, 5481 N. Northwest Highway Chicago, IL 60630, 773-763-2328.
Smokin' Woody's, 4160 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL 60618 (Near the corner of Lincoln & Berteau) 773-880-1100
Smoque, 3800 North Pulaski Rd., Chicago, 773-545-7427, Barry Sorkin owner. Absolutely brilliant brisket, the best outside of Texas and better than most in Texas. Pork and ribs are excellent, and the sides are way above average. The dining room is small and there are often lines to get in. ****
SMQ, at Standard Market, 333 East Ogden Avenue Westmont, IL 60559, 630-366-7030. This is an ultramodern, supremely high quality grocery store/bakery/deli/meat market/wine bar/cheese shop, with a fine cafe on premises, and an upscale restaurant across the street. The electric smoker makes OK barbecue. It's a puzzlement.
Sweet Baby Ray's, Two locations: Wood Dale, 249 E. Irving Park Road, Wood Dale, IL 60191, 630-238-8261 ext. 200. Home of the nation's most popular barbecuse sauce. Menu of All-American barbecue standards and sides all executed very well. Elk Grove, 800 E. Higgins Rd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007, 847-437-9555. ***

Others

Gale Street Inn, 4914 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60630. 773-725-1300. My favorite boilbecue
Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th Street Chicago, IL 60617 773-933-9855. Founded in 1948. 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards America's Classics. Remember when the Blues Brothers jumped the draw bridge? Right in front of the restaurant. Smoked catfish, chubs, eel, heads & collar, salmon, sturgeon, trout, whitefish, herring. Also fried shrimp, calamari, more. Carryout only. Amazing old fashioned outdoor smokehouse. Carryout only.
The Original Just Turkey Restaurant, 1746 W 127th St, Calumet Park, IL (I-57 & 127th)
Weber Grill Restaurants, Downtown Chicago, 539 N. State Street Chicago IL 60654 312-467-9696. Lombard, 2331 Fountain Square, Lombard IL 60148 630-953-8880. Schaumburg, 1010 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg IL 60173, 847-413-0800. Also a location in Indianapolis.

There are also many Chinese BBQ restaurants in Chicatown and scattered around the city as well as famous steakhouses.

This page was revised 12/10/2013


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