People visiting Chicago (or people with friends visiting Chicago) often ask where to visit or what to do when they are in town. Without a question, Portillos should be on that list.
Portillo’s was founded in Villa Park, IL in the early 1960s. It started as a hot dog shack and is now the mainstay of the “largest privately held restaurant company in the midwest.” They now have over 30 locations, as well as a couple of other restaurants. Their locations are all unique, decor-wise, and supposedly no two restaurants are exactly the same.
Portillo’s offers pretty standard fast food fare, hot dogs, burgers, chicken sandwiches, italian beef and fries. They also have several popular salads and ribs. Additionally they provide catering services. Italian beef, to those outside Illinois, is basically seasoned roast beef that sits in meat juice until served. It is served on Italian bread, sometimes with peppers. Until recently I was unaware that this wasn’t found many places outside of Illinois. Some of their locations contain an additional menu under the name “Barnelli’s Pasta Bowl”, which offers a range of pastas, sauces and other sandwiches.
Judging by the menu at face value, the question like is, “what’s so special about Portillo’s?” Most people I know agree it’s collectively the best. Sure it’s possible to get a better hot dog somewhere, or a better beef somewhere, but it’s virtually impossible to find a complete menu that is this good. As someone who has tried many things on their menu, and also tried my fair share of places serving similar food, I am confident that I have not yet found a place that top to bottom is this good, with almost no misses. That is what makes Portillo’s a must have stop on your visit to Chicago. The added bonus of having 30+ locations around Chicagoland means that in all likelihood there is one near where you will be.
So what should you have while you are there? Not an easy call…
If you are hoping to have a hot dog in Chicago, Portillo’s is pretty top notch. Chicago hot dogs are easier to find around the country, but if you have a jones for good hot dog that is a good choice. Hitting up the italian beef is something that apparently is limited just to Illinois, and Portillo’s beef is good. If you want a different twist on it, they offer italian beef with cheddar cheese on a croissant, which is quite tasty. One of their underrated, less talked about items, the Maxwell Street Polish, is another Chicago staple. Its a specially made polish sausage with grilled onions and mustard. It has recently become one of my favorite items at Portillo’s. Make sure you specially say “Maxwell Street Polish” or you will end up with a different version that is much more like a hot dog.
Their hamburgers are also very good, and some of our favorite around, but by no means the best burger you can have, and it’s likely that with just one visit on tap, the burger doesn’t warrant a taste. Their fries are solid, but not spectacular, but the onion rings are pretty good. One of their other popular items is their chocolate cake, or more specifically their chocolate cake shake, which is a chocolate shake with chocolate cake blended into it. I am not a huge fan of cake so that doesn’t make my list of must haves. If you happen to end up at location with a Barnelli’s Pasta Bowl in it, I have always liked the Oven Baked Spaghetti, which you don’t see many places.
Bottom line, if you are looking for a hot dog of Italian beef while in Chicago, Portillo’s is must visit. I have friends who insist on going every time they come, and others who insist their friends and family go if they have never been there.