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David Lissner
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City of the big sandwiches: Four uncommon Chicago meals on a bun

Big baby at Nicky’s – The Real McCoy (Photo ©2010 Leah A. Zeldes.)

The big baby at Nicky’s – The Real McCoy (Photo by Leah A. Zeldes.)

Classic, uniquely Chicago sandwiches you may never have tasted

When it comes to sandwiches, Chicago is not polite. We don’t settle for dainty bites coolly eaten with little finger cocked. Chicagoans go for big, sloppy meals on a bun — hot, two-fisted, lean-forward food that leaves you licking your fingers.

The Chicago-style hot dog, of course, is nationally famous, and hard to miss, sold everywhere around the city, piled high with its colorful, characteristic toppings of neon-green relish, yellow mustard, chopped onions, fresh tomato, pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. And anyone who’s been in Chicago for long knows about Italian beef, drippy and delicious, with its spicy giardiniera or sweet peppers and its combo version topped with fennel-laced sausage.

If you’ve a little more local sandwich savvy, you probably also know that gyros came out of Greece by way of Greektown, and that the cone-shaped gyros loaves now upright on rotisseries around the country were developed and are manufactured in Chicago. The Maxwell Street polish, plump and greasy under its stack of sauteed onions, is also widely known.

I hope I don’t need to tell you where to find those.

But if you’re a real Chicago sandwich connoisseur, then you’re also hip to the jibarito, the big baby, the Freddy and the mother-in-law.

The jibarito

The jibarito (pronounced “HEE-bar-ee-toe”) is newest in the pantheon of messy Chicago sandwiches, and therefore its history is easy to trace. Juan C. “Peter” Figeroa developed this sandwich in 1996 at his Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park. It’s a steak sandwich with a twist — the grilled steak, typically teamed with melted cheese, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato and a garlicky mayonnaise, is placed between two planks of hot, crisply fried, flattened green plantain in lieu of bread.

The Spanish name translates as “little hillbilly.” “I came from a farm” in Puerto Rico, Figeroa said. “We grew bananas, and this is like a steak sandwich from the country.”

Figeroa created his sandwich after reading about a restaurant in Puerto Rico that served a similar dish called emparedado de platano. Today, his original restaurant sells hundreds of them daily — and fillings have branched out to chicken, pork, ham and vegetables.

Moreover, at least a score of other Latin-American restaurants throughout the city have picked up the dish for their menus — not only Puerto Rican places, but Cuban and Mexican eateries, too.

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