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David Lissner
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The Maxwell Street Polish, a Chicago original

Jim's Original Maxwell Street Polish.

Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Polish.

While there are a few more days of National Hot Dog Month left, I’m going to talk about Chicago’s second favorite sausage sandwich.

In some ways, the Maxwell Street Polish is even more uniquely Chicagoan than the Chicago-style hot dog. Sure, the unique combination of toppings says Chicago, and even the wieners are a little different from other places’ — but, after all, they do eat hot dogs all over the country. Whereas the Maxwell Street Polish is all ours, served at pretty much every hot-dog stand in the city (some better than others, of course).

Now, I’m not trying to claim credit for kielbasa, the real Polish sausage in all its myriad wonderful variations. The fat, spiced-up version of a natural casing hot dog that is the centerpiece of the Maxwell Street is only distantly related to the sausages of Poland (even if Bobak’s does make a great one). It may be all-beef, but just as likely it has some pork mixed in, like the original, made by Slotkowski.

Jim's Original sign


A little more variation exists among Maxwell Street Polish sandwich renditions than Chicago hot dogs, and a bit more skill goes into cooking and building them. The sausage is scored and grilled or sometimes deep-fried, till browned and crisp. Then it goes into a steamed soft bun (poppyseeds optional) with a slather of yellow mustard, or Dusseldorf. Then comes what really makes the sandwich: sweet Spanish onions, sliced and sauteed in butter with a little sugar till they reach just the right level of caramelization. It’s the onions that really distinguish one Polish from the next. Finally, a couple of sport peppers go on top.

The origins of this flavorful creation are a little misty. We pretty much know where it originated, and about when, and even who likely built it, but we don’t what inspired him. Everybody’s pretty sure that the sandwich started on Maxwell Street — natch — at the Maxwell and Halsted Street hot dog stand owned by Macedonian immigrant Jim Stefanovic about five years after he bought the stand from his aunt in 1939. Likely, he was trying to offer something different from the dragged-through-the-garden hot dog, which also originated on Maxwell Street, something a little earthier, a little grittier and more gloriously messy.

Jim’s Original is still serving up Maxwell Street Polishes 24 hours a day, although University of Illinois expansion shoved it off Maxwell Street along with the rest of the Maxwell Street Market. The stand now flourishes on Union Street in University Village, side-by-side with Express Grill, a rival copycat founded by Stefanovic’s own nephew, Tom Lazarevski, who went into close competition with his uncle in the 1950s after Stefanovic sponsored his immigration and taught him the business.