Sweet Home Chicago

I am a Chicagoan born and raised.  I have fond memories growing up in the Second City.  The blues nurtured me, the city feed me, and the politics shaped me.  Even though I call NYC home, Chicago is the essence of me.  Below are some of my favorite things about Sweet Home Chicago. I emphasis free because NYC is so expensive that I took for granted the luxuries of how culturally accessible Chicago is – regardless of your wallet or deposit account. I could experience the best of arts and entertainment at no cost.

HOT DOG – The first thing I do when I visit home is get a Chicago hot dog – yum. My favorite hot dog place closed – Hoagie Hut.  It mastered the perfect Chicago dog – poppy seed bun, Vienna beef hot dog, mustard, relish, sport pepper, tomato, celery salt, pickle spear. Go to Luke’s in the loop near Sears/Willis Tower. My love of the Chicago hot dog is why I love the Cambodian sandwiches at Num Pang in NYC. For more on the great Chicago dog debate, click the link below.

JIM’S MAXWELL STREET – the other Chicago hot dog and the best snack at 3am or after prom. Hot dog fries and a pop for $3. This is a hot dog, grilled onions and mustard – imagine  a White Castle burger as a hot dog.  They also have pork chop sandwich and burgers. It is a Chicago landmark and if you saw Blues Brothers you probably seen it.  However, due to expansion of UIC, it relocated to off the Dan Ryan Roosevelt Street exit.  

PIZZA – I think the best stuffed pizza is Carmen’s in Evanston.  If you can’t go to Evanston, then Giordanos is my spot for stuffed.  If I’m trying to be healthy, I get the wheat crust veggie from Edwardos.  I like Beggars Pizza because they have a sweet sauce. Lou Malnatis is a Chicago tradition, I just don’t like the cornbread crust (doesn’t stop me from going when I can’t get to Giordanos). The Giordano vs Lou Malnati debate is highlighted in the link below.

FLACO TACOS – I lived in the South Loop and this was my spot on $3 margarita night.  A margarita and two fish tacos $2.25/ea.  Delicious and cheap.  Don’t forget the red velvet cupcake.  It is the BEST I’ve ever had.  My nephew calls Flaco our cupcake place.

YOLK – I go to the Michigan Avenue location for my Saturday breakfast.  It is sorta’ like a NY diner.  I order the same thing every time – Belgium waffle with bacon and eggs, cup of coffee.

ELEVEN CITY DINER – a New Yorker opened this deli/diner in the heart of the South Loop.  I loved it when it first opened and was unknown.  Now it is hip and politicians patronize it.  It is as close as you’ll get to a NY deli/dinner in the Midwest.  I recommend the brisket, challah French toast, hamburgers.  My favorite is their turkey burger and the Thanksgiving turkey burger.  It is the best turkey burger I have eaten and typically what I order with a root beer.

PUBLICAN – I don’t like trendy places, but when I heard this place made homemade pork rinds I had to go.  OMG the pork rinds are lip smacking delicious and I don’t share them! The apple autumn salad was so good it is a staple on my holiday menu.  The pork sandwich with a nice ale is awesome.  It has over 300 beers and is fashioned after a typical German pub. Good eats all around.

CARNIVALE – If I am meeting the girls, this is the spot.  Frozen white sangria, fish tacos, empanadas and there is Latin music that makes the hips swing. For dessert, nothing but the churros baby!

PASTORAL – For good wine, cheese, a baguette and jamon – this place can’t be beat.  It was my Friday treat to myself. The south loop location was my spot.

PANAZZO ITALIAN MARKET – After leaving Pastoral, I would head to Panazzo’s for tuscan bread, real parm reggiano, bufalo mozzarella and handmade sandwiches.  

$2 BURGERS – ran out of money or too many people visiting and you don’t want to cook? Tuesdays is $2 burgers at Bar Louie.  When my six nieces/nephews and sibling visits, we go here.  Better and much cheaper than McDonalds .  Order a basket of fries or tots and voila dinner is served!

 – oh this place is a Chicago institution.  Fresh seafood and they cook it to order.  It’s on the far south side in the Beverly neighborhood, but worth the trip.

RIBS-n-BIBS – located in Hyde Park and it’s been there for a while. Carry-out only but so good.  When I go to a rib joint, I order the rib tips.  If someone can make tender tips, they know how to bbq.  This place has some tender tips!

CANADY CHOCOLATIER – I fell in love with this south loop chocolatier because his pink grapefruit sorbet, add of scoop of the blood orange and it is happy summer day. The chocolate 
is good and he offers classes. I am sad to report that on my last trip home, this is now closed. For shame!

Once a month, the museums have a FREE DAY, all day.  Chicago residents get a discount on regular days.  If you have a Chicago Library card, you can get a FREE museum pass for seven days for you and three guests.  That is the best deal ever! As a kid and even now, my favorite museum is the Museum of Science & Industry.  Next on my list is the Chicago Historical Society/Museum – there is more to the city than a fire and Capone.  Head to Museum Campus near Soldier Field and check out “Sue” at the Natural History Museum and the man feeding the sharks at The Shedd Aquarium. Star gaze at the Alder Planetarium.  Take the water taxi from Museum Campus to Navy Pier for more fun. To find out about Chicago’s founding father, head to Hyde Park for the DuSable Museum – close by the Museum of Science & Industry. It is worthwhile to visit the Chicago Cultural Center – nice architecture and art exhibits.  I also spent tons of time at the Harold Washington Public Library – visit the 9th and 10th floors and the Popular Library has an excellent collection of international dvds/cds that you can check out.

The best thing about Chicago is that so long as you have a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) pass, the city is yours for FREE.  So many things in Chicago are free to residents.  If you have a Chicago Library card, then even the museums are yours for the taking. 

MUSIC FESTIVALS. Chicagoans know it is summer when the music festivals start. The Blues Fest is honest to goodness down home blues. Then there’s the Gospel Fest, Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest – all FREE. 

SUMMERDANCE in Grant Park is your introduction to all genres of dance, including Chicago Style Stepping.  There is an hour of free dance lessons, then the band plays in the night.

BIKE THE DRIVE or the LATE/MIDNIGHT BIKE through Neighborhoods is awesome.  Just biking the lakefront from South Shore to Evanston is beautiful.

INTERNATIONAL FREE FILM SERIES – Wednesday nights I loved seeing films at the Chicago Cultural Center.   

Free trolleys from the loop to Navy Pier or to Lincoln Park Zoo.

Lincoln Park Zoo is FREE.  Take the kids and have a ball.

Navy Pier is a fun place. Rent a bike and ride along the lakefront.  Take the water taxi from here to Museum Campus or the loop.

BOOK FAIR PRINTER’S ROW is a fave of mine.  Meet authors, fun stuff for kids and adults.

There are always neighborhood festivals, movies in the park, and concerts – all FREE.

CHRISTKINDLT MARKET in Daley Plaza is wonderful. It is based on the traditional German holiday market.  I make a point to go each year and take my “babies” – nieces and nephews.

Sledding down the statute at 9th and Michigan Avenue is also a holiday tradition.  Better yet, sled down the hill by Soldier Field – if you dare!

Ice Skate downtown.

POLAR ADVENTURE DAYS at Northerly Island. Dog sleds, snow shoes!

A sad farewell to the HOLIDAY SPORTS FESTIVAL at McCormick Place – another spot I’d take my babies that is no longer.  Whatever happened to tradition!

ONE OF A KIND ART FESTIVAL at Merchandise Mart was a holiday tradition that I shared with my nieces.

Spring never really arrives in Chicago.  However, St. Patrick’s day kicks off spring for us.  The Chicago River is dyed green and the parades commence.  The north side parade (downtown) is a family affair, although drunks do abound.  The south side parade is more like a frat party bar crawl for grown-ups. We’re all Irish that day.
Ronda Lee
Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Ronda is an attorney, writer, and entrepreneur. She is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Originally from Chicago, she has lived in Los Angeles and New York. She loves to travel and is passionate about education equity, especially for first generation college students.