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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

The capital of the Midwest is no Porky Come Lately. It has a long history that puts it among the upper echelon of 'cue capitals. 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.

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, the primitive cooking techniques of the Native Americans, 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 meat 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 northern 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 from the Mississippi Delta, moved north to find work.

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. Many were displaced by mechanization, many by racism, and many by Jim Crow "separate but equal" laws. They brought with them barbecue as well as the blues and settled on the South and West sides of Chicago.

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. Southside culture grew with a local black newspapers, radio, night clubs, merchants, and restaurants. Chicago Jazz flourished in the 1920s with night clubs featuring Southerners like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong (Struttin With Some Barbecue).

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 that I could find until after WWII.

Sweet sauce and boiled meat

Eastern European immigrants flocked to the city 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. Their enclaves often butted up against the African American neighborhoods. 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 building everything from tanks to munitions and uniforms. Chicago was a major aircraft and war goods 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".

Rib city

Chicago's reputation for barbecue is built on ribs as surely as the city was built on the wreckage of the Great Chicago Fire. Yes, there is plenty of chicken and beef barbecue in town, but there was a reason Carl Sandburg called the city "hog butcher for the world."

Chicago's notoriety for ribs was given a boost in 1974 when, in an episode of the Korean War sitcom, M.A.S.H., Dr. Hawkeye Pierce got so fed up with Army food that he called a restaurant named Adam's Ribs in Chicago and placed an order to be delivered to his mobile hospital in South Korea labeled as medical supplies. "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. In real life there was no Adam's Ribs, although years later a restaurant renamed itself to take advantage of the fame of the story.

Then, in 1982, the Chicago Sun-TimesPulitzer Prize winning columnist, Mike Royko, bragged that he made the best ribs anywhere and launched the annual Royko Ribfest in Grant Park. One of the nation's first large barbecue competitions. For more on this historic event, see the details in the sidebar.

There are five distinct styles

Today there are five distinct styles of Chicago ribs. I call them Delta style, boilbecue, smokeless roast, digital, and fusion barbecue.

1) Delta style. A dozen or so pitmasters, mostly South Side African Americans, still cook in aquarium pits over wood. Ribs, rib tips, hot links, pulled pork, and chicken are their signature dishes, often served on top of slices of white bread, smushed into a cardboard boat, doused with a sweet-tart tomato-based sauce, and topped with fries. Many sell carryout only, pretty much like their antecedents did back home under the big shade tree in the Mississippi Delta. Among the remaining Delta-stylejoints are Lem's, founded in 1954, and Leon's, founded in 1940. My favorite is Honey 1 BBQ, opened in 2003.

2) Boilbecue. Boilbecue is based on the Eastern European tradition of boiling ribs, then drwoning them in sweet sauce and perhaps grilling or broiling them to caramelize the sauce. Boilbecue can be found in scores of restaurants and carryouts around town. Although the boiling makes the meat very tender, alas, much of the meat's flavor comes out in the water.

3) Smokeless roast. Restaurants like Twin Anchors Restaurant & Tavern, founded in 1932, and a favorite of Sinatra, pop their ribs in the oven to roast, then sauced them, and finished them on the grill. The Gale Street Inn opened in 1963 also became famous for sweet fall-off-the-bone ribs that are first steamed, then roasted, and then broiled. Incidentally, in researching this article wwe have never encountered an owner nastier and more surly than the one at Gale Street.

4) Digital. Since the year 2000, a dozen or so first rate restaurants on the Northside and in suburbs have opened, several gaining national renown, among them Smoque BBQ and Chicago q. They use gas fired pits supplemented with logs for flavor, and are fitted with digital thermostats and timers. The most popular are Souther Pride and Ole Hickory. Many of the old timers have upgraded to the digital smokers, among them: Russell's, in Elmwood Park, founded in 1930, and Carson's, an upscale chain launched in 1977, now with three locations. These pits, in the hands of pitmasters like Barry Sorkin of Smoque, turn out the Platonic ideal of Southern barbecue.

5) Fusion barbecue. While modern barbecue tends to stick to the classic Southern canon of ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket, burnt ends, and chicken, contemporary chefs, often classically trained, many influenced by Asian cuisines, have taken barbecue to exotic new places with creative spices, tomato-free sauces, unusual buns, and unexpected side dishes. Among them are bellyQ and Lillie's Q.

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 Southside declined. The Yards closed at midnight on Friday, July 30, 1971 and were 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 on the Northside was a speakeasy during Prohibition, and a favorite of Sinatra when he was in town. They dry roast, smokeless. 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 making Delta style.

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 Works 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 still selling for under $100. They also operate three restaurants in the area where most of the food is cooked spectacularly on large Weber Kettles.

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 Southside destination for Delta style.

hickory pit 1955

1955 Glass Dome Hickory Pit opened in 1955, I think, and closed in the 1990s. Anthony E. Beninato, Sr., the 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.

1960. Kraft BBQ Sauce introduced. It soon becomes the number one selling sauce in the nation. It has slipped a bit but still remains in the top five.

1963. Gale Street Inn opens.

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.

1960. Smoky Joe's on South State Street was popular.

1974. In November, MASH ran the famous Adam's Ribs episode discussed above.

1977. Carson's Ribs opened the first of six 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). Chalie Robinson wins first.

1985.In 1985 brothers Dave and Larry Raymond came in second among 700 teams in the Royko Ribfest. Their sauce was so good that Dave bottled it and started selling it wholesale from the trunk of his car. In 2001 the brand was bought by the large food processor, Ken's Foods. Now Sweet Baby Ray's is by far the most popular barbecue sauce in the nation with about 40% of the market, although it is no longer made in Chicago.

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. I have hilighted my favorites in yellow. Alas, I have not tried them all yet.

Delta style

These Delta style joints still use the aquarium pit and carry on the old tradition of hardwood smoked meats. A number are carryout only. This is very traditional old fashioned open pit style cooking. Lem's, Uncle John's, Barbara Ann's are all within blocks of each other, all similar enough to be franchises.

  • Barbara Ann's, 7617 South Cottage Grove Ave., Chicago, IL, 60619. 773-0651-5300. First time I went there I stopped in at noon and 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, 60651. 773-287-0363. Austin neighborhood. Not sure if they use the aquarium.
  • Exsenator's Bar-B-Que, 3349 West 159th St., Markham, IL, 60428. 866-403-3631.
  • Honey 1 BBQ, 746 E. 43rd St, Chicago, IL 60653, 773-227-5130, Robert Adams Sr., wife Patricia, son Robert Jr. Opened in 2003 on Division St., moved to Western Ave, and now located in Bronzeville. A cut above the rest of the Aquarium pit joints. Shade tree-BBQ in a no frills joint. 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., Chicago, IL 60619. 773-994-2428. **
  • The Original Leon's Bar-B-Que, 4550 S. Archer Ave., Chicago, IL 60617. 773-247-4171. Founded in 1940, this is a new location with new owners, but they say the recipes are the same.
  • Mary's Bar-B-Q, 606 S. Pulaski (between Harrison St. & Ohio St.) Chicago, IL 60624. Mary & McKinley Jones from MS. arrived in 1960s. 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. In the Hyde Park neighborhood, how of the University of Chicago and President Obama. 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 dishes up Asian-inspired BBQ.
  • Blackwood BBQ. Real BBQ in downtown Chicago.
  • Carsons, River North, 612 N. Wells, Chicago IL 60654, 312-280-9200. Carson's Deerfield, 200 N. Waukegan, Deerfield IL 60015, 847-374-8500. Dean Carson is the owner.
  • Chicago q, 1160 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago, IL 60610. 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 and rib tips.
  • County Barbeque, 1352 W. Taylor St., Chicago, IL. 312-929-2528. Chef Michael Korncik is well known for his upscale restaurants.
  • Dickey's, a Dallas franchise founded in 1941 has three suburban Chicago locations.
  • Fat Willy's, 2416 West Schubert Avenue, Chicago, IL. 773-782-1800.
  • Green Street Smoked Meats, 112 N. Green Street, Chicago, IL 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.
  • Small's Smoke Shack & More, Albany Park
  • 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. ***
  • Todd's BBQ at Mariano's Grocery. Shocking as it may seem, this grocery chain has some of the best Que in town. Many of their stores now have Southern Pride smokers, the same kind used by many of the nation's best BBQ restaurants, and they have a counter and chairs aor you can take it home. They sell a full range of classic meats and sandwiches. The prices are surprisingly low. ***


  • Gale Street Inn, 4914 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago, IL 60630. 773-725-1300. Surly owner.
  • 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.

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