A Chicago Local Reveals the Best Spots for Deep Dish Pizza and Dogs

exterior of Byrons Hot Dogs
Traveling to the Windy City and want to sample all the classic local food? Here are some of the best Chicago restaurants that stay within your budget. Photo courtesy of Patrick Grieve

During the height of Chicago’s meatpacking industry, Carl Sandburg dubbed the city “hog butcher to the world.” That may no longer be the case, but people here still sure do eat a lot of pork.

Not to mention beef, pizza, tacos, fries and just about every other type of artery-clogging street food that is heavy on the heart but light on the wallet.

Though the cost of living has shot up here in recent years, the Windy City has still retained much of its blue-collar appetite for hearty (if not healthy) meals at a low price. Here is a handy guide to some of the city’s most iconic cheap eats and where to find them.

Hot Dogs

a hot dog with toppings
Photo courtesy of Patrick Grieve

In many ways, the Chicago-style hot dog is the ultimate value meal, as it dresses up a normal frankfurter by “dragging it through the garden”—piling on a long list of veggie toppings that include sport peppers, tomato slices, chopped onions, a dill pickle spear, neon green relish and bright yellow mustard (no ketchup).

There are fine and affordable examples of the genre all over the city, but perhaps none better than the one found at Byron’s Hot Dogs. Byron’s has two locations, one in Ravenswood and one in Wrigleyville, and three available sizes: a 1/8 pound dog for $3.26, a 1/4 pound Jumbo Dog for $4.42 and the infamous half-pound Dogzilla, which can be yours for $5.79.

Several spots in the city serve a more minimalist version of the Chicago-style hot dog: It’s known as the “Depression dog” and ditches the tomato slices and pickle spear and replaces them with a heaping helping of French fries. The most acclaimed purveyor of this unique style is Gene & Jude’s, a River Grove institution that was named the best hot dog in America by no less an authority than “Every Day with Rachael Ray” magazine.

Open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, G&J’s is also the perfect place for late night drunk food, if you happen to have spent your evening imbibing at the nearby Hala Kahiki Lounge, the city’s oldest tiki bar.

To try the legendary Maxwell Street Polish Sausage Sandwich — a Polish sausage with sweet grilled onions, hot sport peppers and mustard — head to Jim’s Original on the corner of Union Ave and James Rochford Street (Jim’s Original was chased from its original Maxwell Street location due to University of Illinois at Chicago expansion). In addition to their world-famous Polish dog, this 24/7 stand serves up a variety of cheap and tasty sandwiches, all of which come with free fries.

Deep Dish Pizza

a slice of deep dish pizza on a plate
Photo courtesy of Patrick Grieve

When it comes to the city’s signature culinary creation, most Chicagoans choose to align themselves with either Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s, the area’s two most prevalent deep dish pizza chains. And while both are good and reasonably priced options, neither is the most cost-efficient way to experience the ooey gooey deliciousness of Chicago-style pizza.

For that, head to The Art of Pizza, a Lakeview joint that’s been named the best deep-dish restaurant in the city by both “Thrillist” and the “Chicago Tribune.”  The Art of Pizza is one of the few places that sells deep dish by the slice (each one just $3.95 plus tax), meaning you can try a couple of different pies without spending too much dough. It’s also a BYOB establishment, so you can save even more on drinks by grabbing a six-pack of your favorite beer from the Jewel-Osco nearby.

However, if you miss the lunch or dinner rush and go during one of the restaurant’s less busy periods, you do run the risk of getting a slice that’s been left sitting under a heat lamp for too long. So if you’re committed to ensuring freshness (and getting more than enough food to eat), it’s also not too pricey just to have them bake you up a pizza of your own.

Italian Beef

a beef sandwich in tinfoil
Photo courtesy of Patrick Grieve

Another Chicago staple is the Italian beef sandwich, which features thin slices of roast beef on an Italian-style roll, served either “sweet” with sautéed Italian sweet peppers, or “hot” with spicy Chicago-style giardiniera relish. For extra greasy goodness, most places will also offer to dip (or even double-dip) the hoagie in its own au jus sauce.

Johnnie’s Beef, a tiny hot dog stand out in Elmwood Park, serves up what some argue is the city’s best Italian beef (which can be chased down with what some argue is the city’s best Italian ice, to boot). Though this joint only accepts cash, you won’t have to part with much of it to get your hands on their famous Italian beef, which costs just $4.58.

If you would like to get some shopping done while you eat, head to Bari, an Italian deli and grocery located in River West. Available as a nine-inch sandwich for $7 or as a 12-inch sandwich for $9, Bari’s Italian beef features tender meat covered in its own unique giardiniera, which they make in-house with a healthy dose of spices (if you’re a true masochist, ask for the “super hot giardiniera,” which legitimately made my eyes water the first and last time I tried it).

Mexican Food

close up of tacos with toppings
Photo courtesy of Patrick Grieve

With sandwiches like Polish sausages and Italian beefs dominating this list, it’s easy to see how many of Chicago’s signature cheap dishes came about due to the influence of European immigrants. But the more recent wave of Hispanic immigrants has also had a huge influence on the area’s culinary scene, bringing yet another type of ethnic food to the Windy City.

I live in a part of Chicago where taquerias are a dime a dozen, but I’ve grown particularly fond of Turbo Tacos, a hidden gem in Logan Square. This no-frills restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue serves its delicious namesake tacos a la carte for just $1.50 each ($1.99 for pricier fillings, such as lengua, tender tongue meat that’s well worth the extra 49 cents). Turbo’s burritos, gorditas and tortas are also all delicious and dirt cheap.

Though its original Humboldt Park location has closed, Cemitas Puebla is still serving up unique Mexican sandwiches at outposts in West Loop and Hyde Park. Your choice of meat, from a list that features milanesa (breaded pork loin), carne asada (steak) and arabe (spit-roasted pork), is topped with avocado, oaxacan cheese and homemade chipotle sauce and stuffed inside a sesame covered roll baked fresh on site. These tasty traditional Poblano dishes range in price from $7.95 to $11.50.

All told, Chicago’s best and most iconic dishes are all relatively affordable (as long as you don’t include the dry cleaning bill for getting all those grease stains out of your shirt). While it may not be the healthiest way to eat, sinking to the depths of Depression dogs and deep dish depravity is at least a pretty affordable way to feed yourself.

Patrick Grieve is a tight-fisted skinflint who can typically be found scrounging around in dive bars, empty baseball stadiums and second-run movie theaters. He’s also a writer, so The Penny Hoarder just felt like a natural fit for him.