Route 66 history:  the origin of the Chicago-style hot dog (yum!)

Hello again, dear roadies!  We mentioned recently that we visited Henry’s Drive-In in Cicero last month after having been on an architectural tour in downtown Chicago.  Naturally, we had Chicago-style hot dogs.  So you’ve probably been wondering how that tasty Chicago hot dog with the ‘Garden on a Bun’ got started.  With Chicago Restaurant Week afoot, this is an apt discussion.  You’ve seen the yellow Vienna Beef signs, right?  There’s even a seasonal hot dog stand right on the SE corner of Jackson and Michigan in Grant Park, right where Route 66 begins.  Anyone who’s traveled Route 66 from its eastern terminus westward surely must have eaten a Chicago-style hot dog by now – and, perhaps, has wondered about its pedigree.

Oh, it’s got history, all right.  All the way back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — you know, that original Chicago theme park and world’s fair that showed the world the city had risen again better than ever after the Great Fire?  The one for which Frederick Law Olmsted designed Jackson Park (which looked like a landfill before that), Elias Disney (father of Walt) helped build exhibits (how apropos), and none other than Daniel Burnham was Director of Works (as in: he was responsible for getting the whole thing built)?  The fair that got our town dubbed ‘the windy city’ because of all the bragging that our fair city’s boosters did in order to snatch the fair out from under jealous New York City’s and Boston’s noses (which they did)?  Yeah, that one.

A print of an aerial view of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Jackson Park, Chicago (originally published by F.A. Brockhaus, Berlin and Vienna; public domain)

A print of an aerial view of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition grounds in Jackson Park, Chicago, IL   (originally published by F.A. Brockhaus, Berlin and Vienna; public domain)

The Columbian Exposition was responsible for introducing a number of food and beverage items that later became famous, including Berghoff’s beer, Cracker Jack (this one’s disputed), Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats oatmeal, Cream of Wheat hot cereal, Shredded Wheat cold cereal, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and hamburgers served on a bun, to mention a few.  It was during preparation for the fair that Bertha Honoré Palmer, who was in charge of the Women’s Building and the exhibits inside, wanted a small pastry created that could easily be eaten by the ladies as a snack at the fair; she directed the chefs at the Palmer House hotel (where she and husband Potter Palmer, the real estate baron, lived) to invent one.  What they came up with was the chocolate brownie.  Surprise!

Opening day for the Vienna Sausage Company on Halsted Street near Van Buren Street  (photo courtesy of and copyright by the Vienna Beef website)

Opening day for the Vienna Sausage Company on Halsted Street near Van Buren Street  (photo courtesy of and copyright by the Vienna Beef website)

The 1893 world’s fair was also where two Jewish immigrants from Austria-Hungary successfully introduced their convenient, hold-in-your-hand-sized sausages as a hot snack.  Their names were Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl, and their sausage was the wiener (short for Wienerwurst) after their home city of Vienna (Wien in German, pronounced veen).  That’s where that style of sausage was originally created and where reputedly the best sausage in Europe – or at least in the Austro-Hungarian empire – was made at the time.  Their all-beef kosher sausage, eventually known as a hot dog, was such a smash that after the fair closed that autumn, they established the Vienna Sausage Company here in Chicago the following year.

Their original sausage shop was at 417 S. Halsted St. near the corner of Halsted and Van Buren Street, just one block south of Route 66 in the old Maxwell Street immigrant neighborhood (now gone, thanks to the construction of the Chicago Circle campus of the University of Illinois, now known as UIC).  That spot’s almost on top of today’s huge “spaghetti-bowl” intersection, aka circle interchange, of Congress Parkway (leading to downtown Chicago), the Kennedy Expressway (I-90-94 north of Congress), the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-90-94 south of Congress) and the Eisenhower Expressway (I-290, headed west to the suburbs).  Demand soon outgrew that small shop’s capacity, however, and the men opened a sausage factory nearby.  Almost 80 years later in 1972, Vienna Beef, as the company is now known, moved its factory to the six-point intersection of Damen, Fullerton and Elston Avenues on Chicago’s North Side, and there it remains today at 2501 N. Damen Ave.  There’s even a neat, cute factory store and deli, where you can buy stuff to take home or have a sandwich made to eat right on the spot.

Aerial shot of Chicago's Circle Interchange, aka the ';spaghetti bowl,' looking SW; the original Vienna Sausage shop would have been in the upper right of this photo next to a four-way intersection, in teh parking lot of a building with the corner cut off stands today.  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Aerial shot of Chicago’s Circle Interchange, aka the ‘spaghetti bowl,’ looking southwest.   The original Vienna Sausage Company shop on Halsted Street would have been in the upper right of this photo, next to a four-way intersection, on the street side of a roughly triangular parking lot where a building with the corner cut off stands today.  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Wieners were by no means made only by Jewish butchers.  They were a common enough sausage type made across the German-speaking world in Europe.  As German émigrés – both Jewish and Gentile – came to Chicago, they brought their sausage-making skills and preferences with them.  Some of these sausage companies became quite well known outside Chicago.  A young German butcher named Oscar F. Meyer, for example, built a meatpacking empire that was largely known during the 20th century for its hot dogs, bacon and cold cuts (it’s now owned by Kraft Foods, but the brand continues).  Back then, there were many butchering and meatpacking companies near the stockyards and, later, in the Fulton Street Market/Randolph Street area of the West Loop.  Most of the West Loop meat and fish markets tended to be on Fulton, whereas the wholesale greengrocers and florists tended to be two blocks south on Randolph Street; but both kinds of wholesalers could be found on either side of Lake Street, which separates and runs parallel to Fulton and Randolph Streets (today, most – but not all – of the meatpackers, fish suppliers, ice houses, and greengrocers have moved elsewhere, and Fulton Market is the latest hip area for restaurants, nightlife and living near the Loop; but I digress).

A Chicago-style dog at the dearly departed Hot Doug's stand in Chicago  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

A Chicago-style hot dog, dressed and ready for fries at the dearly departed Hot Doug’s eatery on Chicago’s North Side; the shop closed in October 2014. (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The prototypical wiener is made with either finely ground veal, ground beef, veal and pork, or a mix of veal, pork and beef (veal is the meat of a young calf and is a lighter flesh-pink color and more delicate in flavor; beef is the meat of a full-grown cow or steer, a much darker red in color, fattier and stronger in flavor.  Veal is also more expensive today than beef, which is why many kosher hot dog makers stick to beef now).  The kosher ‘dog’ (no jokes about Dachshunds, please!) is made of finely ground veal, beef, or a mix of veal and beef and is more highly seasoned than its non-kosher counterpart.  Because veal and beef both come from the flesh of cattle, just of differing ages, the kosher wiener came to be advertised as an ‘all beef’ sausage.  Soon, the word ‘kosher’ came to be equated with a quality product, as the rabbis certifying such products would never allow suspect ingredients or fillers into the mix.  This was very important to buyers, because before there was federal USDA meat inspection or a Food and Drug Administration, nobody knew exactly what unsavory or unsanitary bits might end up in a sausage – and after Upton Sinclair’s novelized exposé of the Chicago stockyards, The Jungle, was published, people were justifiably in an uproar about food safety.  Thus, kosher meat products, especially sausages, quickly became quite popular even among non-Jews.  As wieners made a perfect ‘fast food’ meal, hot dogs caught on rapidly after the 1893 world’s fair, especially after the advent of automobile travel made fast food more appealing; in time, hot dog stands began to pop up everywhere in and around Chicago.

David Berg logoWhen Messrs. Ladany and Reichl first opened their butcher shop on Halsted Street, the Jewish community in Chicago was still small but growing.  As it grew, so did the number of kosher butchers, sausage makers and meatpackers. Vienna Sausage’s success quickly spawned imitators.  Chicago was later home to many kosher brands, including Sinai Kosher, Best’s Kosher, Shofar and Wilno, all four of which were eventually acquired – and much later discontinued – by the Chicago-based Sara Lee Corporation (now defunct itself; ah, the vagaries of capitalism …).  David Berg was a kosher brand that also made inroads into the Chicago market (it was acquired by Vienna Beef in 1992), as did Nathan’s from New York, famous for their Coney Island connection.  Plus, there were wieners made by local kosher butcher shops and local kosher factories, such as the Romanian Kosher Sausage Co., whose factory store still does business up on North Clark Street in the far-north Rogers Park neighborhood.  Vienna had plenty of competition.

Oscar Meyer was one of many non-Jewish butchers who made sausages in Chicago.  As the German community was the largest immigrant group in Chicago, there were German butcher shops all over town, which also meant plenty of homemade wieners.  Every butcher had his own ‘secret’ wiener recipe, whose proportions and seasonings varied.  And there were Bohemian, Austrian, Hungarian, Romanian, Italian and Greek butchers and sausage makers as well (Crawford Sausage Co., in formerly Bohemian South Lawndale since 1925, is still at 2310 S. Pulaski Road, a block south of where Route 66 meets Pulaski and Cermak Road/22nd Street; if you’re in the area, try their fantastic smoked hunter’s sausages, shaped like skinny cigars – you’ll never want Slim Jims again).

To differentiate itself from its competitors and solidify its reputation, Vienna Beef began giving hot dog stands that sold its sausages exclusive signage, so that customers would know they were buying real Vienna Beef products.  Today, those highly recognizable signs sport the royal blue Vienna logo with a red hot dog on a two-pronged roasting fork tucked into the middle of a large, royal blue capital V, usually on a bright yellow-mustard background.  Vienna was strict about who got to use its signs, too:  if a hot dog or burger stand was found to be selling someone else’s wieners, the company forced the stand to remove its Vienna signage.

Two Chicago-born products made for each other:  Plochman's mustard and Vienna Beef franks    (photo © 2015 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Two Chicago-born products that were virtually made for each other:  Plochman’s mustard and Vienna Beef franks  (photo © 2015 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

As hot dog stands proliferated into virtually every Chicago neighborhood and suburb, Vienna became synonymous with Chicago hot dogs.  And there is a difference:  when you bite into a Vienna dog, it’s firmer than Oscar’s frank or any other non-kosher competitor.  The best hot dogs, of course, are the ones with a natural casing that you can buy at a butcher’s or the Vienna factory store.  A hot dog with a natural casing has a snap to it when you bite into it; some say it’s juicier, too, than a skinless wiener, which is made with a synthetic casing that is removed in the factory after the sausage is cured and cooked but before packing.  And the best Chicago-style dogs are prepared in summer, when ripe, fresh tomatoes are readily available.  Yummy!

There is a difference between kosher hot dogs and kosher-style hot dogs.  The kosher-style ones may or may not be limited to all-beef ingredients but are seasoned similarly to kosher wieners.  Kosher dogs, of course, contain NO pork and are made in a factory that doesn’t handle any pork products or milk products (under kosher dietary rules, milk and meat items must be kept separate and must have their own sets of dishes and cooking equipment.  If you’re really kosher at home, you have the equivalent of two separate kitchens, albeit possibly in the same room but on separate sides of that room).  Vienna Beef hot dogs started off as kosher wieners but eventually became kosher-style all-beef hot dogs.  The company also makes cheddar dogs, which have some cheddar cheese in the meat mix (definitely not kosher!).  Whatever.  Be they store bought or factory bought, Vienna franks are still made only with beef and still beat the pants off poor old Oscar Meyer dogs (sorry, Wienermobile), though Oscar’s dogs are still quite respectable next to chicken and turkey franks, which don’t come close.  And don’t even get me started on those impostors known as ‘vegetarian’ dogs.  Baloney!

The Vienna factory also makes wiener-sized, Maxwell-Street-type Polish sausagesPolish sausage or kielbasa is clearly NOT kosher, being traditionally made of highly seasoned, garlic-loaded pork and beef that is stuffed into a long natural casing and smoked.  Individual sized Polish sausages, served on a bun and covered with fried onions and/or sauerkraut, were a staple of Chicago’s old Maxwell Street market and are still a Chicago favorite.  Other products that Vienna Beef is famous for are its corned beef and pastrami.  The company also makes a decent deli-style roast beef and good bagel dogs and pretzel dogs, especially the minis (excellent appetizers!).  Skip their corn dogs, however:  Vienna hasn’t mastered the corn batter yet, and it has a slightly odd, ‘off’ flavor.  Like cornbread, good corn dog batter needs a little touch of cane sugar or honey and a drop or two of hot sauce to keep it from being mind-numbingly bland and tasteless (alas, Route 66’s fave Cozy Dog also suffers from this blandness problem; hot-dog maker Ball Park Franks (part of Hillshire Farms now), on the other hand, makes a very good corn dog batter – not too bland and not too sweet – though its Ball Park Franks aren’t as good as Vienna’s franks; now if only we could combine Hillshire’s corn batter with Vienna dogs … sigh.  But we’re foodie-dreaming again – that’s the food lover’s equivalent of all-star fantasy football; never mind).

NOketchup-sidebarAs for the ‘Garden on a Bun’:  since hot dog stands that carried Vienna products couldn’t compete against each other on that point, they were competitive about the condiments and additions they offered.  Because most sausages are traditionally served with mustard, that was the starting point for building a classic Chicago dog.  More was clearly better, however.  Eventually, the Chicago-style hot dog came to be a kosher or kosher-style dog nestled in a roomy poppy-seed bun (preferably one from the Mary Ann Bakery of Alpha Baking Co., another Chicago company) and covered with ‘the works’ – yellow mustard (the hometown brand is Plochman’s), tomato slices, celery salt (on the tomatoes, preferably), a long kosher dill pickle spear, and your choice of any or all of the following:  bright green sweet-sour piccalilli relish, chopped onions, and a few sport peppers.  Thus, the garden on a bun, as much vegetable as meat.  If you’re a purist, you’ll insist on the radioactive-neon-green piccalilli sold at the Vienna factory store and also by local grocers; and the only pickled peppers that will do are those skinny, hot Serrano peppers (although I’ve also seen folks use pickled hot Hungarian wax or hot banana pepper slices).  Me?  I like my Chicago dog with mustard, tomatoes, celery salt and pickle spear, with the sport peppers on the side.  But you never, EVER put ketchup on a Chicago hot dog!  Ketchup is only for fries and burgers and is only requested by clueless out-of-towners, newbie residents, and silly little children with a sweet tooth whose parents haven’t taught them any better.  Ugh!

A classic Vienna Beef sign from an earlier era

A classic Vienna Beef sign from an earlier era  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

And how, you ask, did wieners suddenly morph into frankfurters?  Ach, it’s those pesky infighting Germans again.  The frankfurter (literally translated, ‘someone or something from Frankfurt’) is Frankfurt’s equivalent of Vienna’s wienerwurst.  As veal sausages go, the frankfurter and the wiener are extremely similar; their modern iterations are virtually identical in a blind taste test (though the residents of Vienna and Frankfurt would probably vehemently disagree, for the sake of hometown honor), but the traditional versions differ mostly on the degree of seasoning.  Eastern European butchers tend to follow those wild and crazy Hungarians, who like nearly everything spicier and were the real movers and shakers behind Viennese cuisine (hey, they added the oomph to the Austro-Hungarian empire), whereas some Western European German butchers – like those in Frankfurt – made a less heavily seasoned (but still not bland) version (Mr. Mayer’s franks were of that milder variety, but they were later made much blander by mass production).  The Austrian and German butchers of early Chicago must have confused all their non-Teutonic customers with their differing terminology.  Sheesh!  A hot dog, on the other hand, is something we all recognize and understand.

Vienna Beef has come a long way since 1894.  It began selling its franks in Chicagoland supermarkets in 1962, expanded its distribution to Southern California that same year so those guys in Hollywood could finally get a decent hot dog, and gradually added other products to the brand.  The company has been run since 1982 by the Two Jims – Jim Eisenberg and Jim Bodman, who made sure Vienna diversified.  Now Vienna Beef owns almost everything you could put on a Chicago dog except the chopped onions and the bun.  In addition to the Vienna and David Berg brands (added 1992), Vienna also runs the Chicago Pickle Company, acquired in 1984, which supplies the neon piccalilli, pickles and sport peppers, plus celery salt.  Vienna started the Bistro Soup Co. in 1985 and the Vienna Beef Chili Co. in 1995 to custom-make chili and soups and opened the Hot Dog Hall of Fame in 2006, celebrating the best of the hot dog masters (Doug Sohn, owner of the North Side’s recently retired Hot Doug’s gourmet wiener and sausage shop – he of the notorious foie gras dog and duck-fat fries fame – was inducted in August 2014, two months before his wildly popular place closed forever; alas, the man really needed a vacation, but check out this strange, funny video about the closing).  And not to be outdone by the late Mr. Kroc, in 2009 Vienna Beef opened its Hot Dog University to teach prospective hot dog stand owners how to run the business profitably (they offer courses like The Art of The Cart).  There’s probably a tasty business school case study in there somewhere, if anyone at U of C or Northwestern wants to take a shot.

An elaborate rijsttafel buffet in a restaurant in The Hague, Netherlands; you'd probably find kecap here.  (photo courtesy of Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons)

An elaborate rijsttafel buffet in a restaurant in The Hague, Netherlands; you’d probably find kecap used here.  (photo courtesy of Takeaway via Wikimedia Commons)

Tomato ketchup (or catsup), by the way, is descended from Indonesian ketsap, kecap, or ketjap, one of those fermented, multi-ingredient savory sauces (akin to fish sauce) of Southeast Asia that is one of several possible condiments offered at a traditional Indonesian rijsttafel (REES-toff-el in Dutch; it literally means ‘rice table,’ a kind of Indonesian smorgasbord or buffet that one rarely sees in the United States but that you just might encounter in the Netherlands and would certainly see in Jakarta).  The Dutch, who conquered and settled Indonesia, were as formidable a trading force in Asia as the British or the Portuguese, if not more so for a period, and they brought back much that eventually found its way elsewhere in another guise.  It was the Dutch, after all, who brought tulips, saffron, dyes and dye fixatives from Turkey, coffee beans from Africa, spices from throughout the Orient, and porcelain from China (what we think of as Delft pottery originated with the blue and white porcelain of Chinese dynasties that was then copied and mass produced in Delft, Holland).  When the Dutch settled Nieuw Amsterdam (later known as New York), they undoubtedly brought versions of ketsap with them (there are other theories about ketchup’s origin, but we suspect the credible ones all come down to Asia anyway).

The original formulations of ketsap never had tomato as an ingredient, given that tomatoes, like potatoes, are indigenous to Central and South America and were unknown in Asia at the time.  But American colonists – forced to make their own condiments from local ingredients because imported goods were usually expensive and some foods didn’t travel well – certainly knew about tomatoes.  By the time that H.J. Heinz began canning foods commercially, a popular form of ‘catsup’ or ‘ketchup’ in 19th-century America had tomatoes in it, though there were also many varieties based on other primary ingredients.

Salt, sugar and vinegar are all preservatives used to make perishable food last longer, and ketchup has all three, which makes sense – you’d want a condiment, something that is used sparingly to accent food, to last longer because you’d never use that much of it at a time.  But the amount of sugar used in American ketchup today is excessive, which is probably one reason that little kids like it so much (as opposed to sharp, classic mustards, which typically use only salt and vinegar).  That much cloying sugar also overwhelms and masks other, more delicate flavors, which makes ketchup a bad accompaniment for veal-based sausages.

A last note on local ingredients:  did you know that when the late Ray Kroc began his McDonald’s hamburger empire in Chicago and was putting together his supply chain, he lined up the Mary Ann Bakery to make his hamburger buns?  It’s true (it’s right there in his autobiography, Grinding It Out) – and that contract kept the Mary Ann ovens very busy.  Today, Mary Ann is known not only for its hot dog and hamburger buns but also as the distributor of Rosen’s rolls and rye bread, a must-have for Vienna corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.  In its way, Mary Ann is almost as famous a Chicago brand as Vienna franks or Gonnella bread, without which it is impossible to make a proper Italian beef sandwich.  Kroc, meanwhile, never included wieners on his menu: he knew better than to compete with Vienna and local hot dog stands, which all had the Chicago dog down pat and each had its local supporters.  Just as Chicagoans argue for their favorite pizza place and style of pizza, so, too, do they have a favorite hot dog stand and/or a favorite Italian beef stand, which they will defend to the death as being the best in town.  We’re food snobs.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Marie's Chicago-style hot dog    (photo © 2015 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

Marie’s Chicago-style hot dog, at home  (photo © 2015 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved)

ps – Those who want to learn more about Chicago hot dog stands can read Bob Schwartz’s entertaining 2008 picture book, Never Put Ketchup on a Hot Dog (Schwartz was then a vice-president of Vienna Beef).  The preface was written by former Chicagoan and hot dog fan Joe Mantegna, and the foreword and afterword were written by newscaster and fellow Chicagoan Bob Sirott.

And now, I absolutely must have a Vienna Chicago-style double dog; all this blathering has made me hungry …

Your snappy 66 food historian,

pps – The denouement is that Sam Ladany’s grandson, Scott Ladany, got into a spat with Vienna Beef a few years ago re: the original recipe for Vienna’s franks. Sounds like the younger Ladany (whose company, Red Hot Chicago, is Vienna’s only serious competitor in town) thinks the recipe is his by right of inheritance or something similar; you can read about it here and here. We don’t know what happened to the lawsuit, and we don’t really care; we just wanna eat our Chicago dogs in peace. Pass the mustard, eh?


2 thoughts on “Route 66 history:  the origin of the Chicago-style hot dog (yum!)

  1. A Michigan native, I guess I had my first real Chicago dog in 1968 working at Joliet radio station WJRC.  It was about a block away from local Chicago dog landmark, Joe’s, and many days someone at the station would take the orders and go get everyone a Joe’s.  It was hard to eat while juggling vinyl records, tape cartridges, etc., and it was hazardous to eat fast lest one get the hiccups, which would really derail an on-the-air performance.  Ah, but so good!!!  To this day, when passing through Joliet, I try to make it a point to get off I-80 and drive into town to get a Joe’s.


    • Yes, Mike, I agree — there’s absolutely nothing else like Chicago-style hot dogs, and they’re always satisfying!  Fortunately, you can get them almost anywhere in the Chicagoland area; you don’t have to head only for Joliet in particular.  So convenient, and so tasty! — Marie


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