When asked about Midwestern cuisine, many out-of-towners might joke that all there is to eat is meat, corn and potatoes. Natives know, however, that this is not the case. From international fast food restaurants and regional specialties to gourmet cuisine and locally grown foods, America’s heartland has much more to offer than meets the eye.
Iowa Pork — Sherill, IA 1852:
Iowa is well-known for producing pork and hosts the World Pork Expo each year. Breitbach’s Country Dining, the oldest restaurant in Iowa established in 1852, is the best place to try some of Iowa’s specialty. The restaurant’s breaded pork tenderloin sandwich won the Iowa Pork Producers Association Best Tenderloin award in 2012.
White Castle — Wichita, KA 1921:
Founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921, White Castle has largely remained in the Midwest where its impact on the fast food industry is undeniable. The burger chain was the first fast food restaurant to open in the nation. Its founder, Walt Anderson, is also the credited inventor of the hamburger bun.
Pizza Hut — Wichita, KA 1958:
Chicago may have the best pizza around (unless you ask a New Yorker), but Wichita, Kansas gave rise to some of the most famous pies in town. Pizza Hut was founded in the Sunflower State and has since expanded far beyond the simple pepperoni slice. The company sells some crazy pies, from coconut shrimp pizza in South Korea to crown crust pizza with cheeseburgers in the Middle East.
Barbecue — Kansas City, MO 1920s:
Kansas City-style barbecue originated in the 1920s. The city is now home to over 100 barbecue restaurants. Barbecue is cooked slowly over wood, traditionally hickory, and homemade sauces are added just before
serving. A few restaurants in Kansas City, like Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, still prepare barbecue the same way it was prepared in the ‘20s.
Steak ‘n Shake — Normal, IL 1954:
Though Steak ‘n Shake does not span nearly as far as neighbor Mickey D’s, the burger chain is loved by many throughout the United States. Founder Gus Belt introduced the concept of premium burgers and shakes in 1934 in Normal, Illinois. The “steakburgers,” made from a combination T-bone, sirloin and round cuts, pair perfectly with any of the restaurant’s signature shakes.
McDonald’s — Des Plaines, IL 1955:
The fast food restaurant that started it all has undeniable Midwestern roots. With the success of their first Californian burger joint, brothers Dick and Mac McDonald worked with agent Ray Kroc to open the first official restaurant of the McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois in 1955. Today, McDonald’s has over 34,000 restaurants in 119 countries, ensuring that you can eat a Big Mac virtually anywhere in the world.
Chicago Steak — Chicago, IL 1934:
Once the largest beef producer in the world, Chicago is home to a variety of high-end steak restaurants. Splurge at The Capital Grille, where chefs dry-age their meat in a glass case at the front of the restaurant for all patrons to see. Carnivores also cannot go wrong at Gibsons, the self-proclaimed Chicago steakhouse.
Jimmy John’s — Charleston, IL 1963:
It’s no surprise that Jimmy John’s is a favorite at Northwestern; the company was founded with college kids in mind. It has promised to deliver good, cheap sandwiches “freaky fast” since 1983. Though the franchise has expanded from its original Charleston, Illinois location, it still bakes all its bread in-house and only uses fresh ingredients in each of its subs.
Chicago Hot Dogs— Chicago, IL 1893:
Though it’s up for debate, Vienna Beef claims to have invented the hot dog at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. This hot dog consists of an all-beef frank on a poppy seed bun topped with yellow mustard, chopped onions, sweet relish, dill pickle spears, tomatoes, peppers and celery salt (don’t you dare try to put ketchup on a Chicago-style dog). Head to The Wiener’s Circle in Lincoln Park or to Hot Doug’s in Avondale for a taste of this local favorite.
Cincinnati Chili — Cincinnati, OH 1920s:
In the 1920s, Cincinnati was introduced to its own style of chili by a pair of Macedonian restaurateurs trying to broaden their customer base. They began putting chili on hot dogs and spaghetti, practices still observed in Cincinnati today. Foodies order the classic chili: chili, spaghetti, grated Cheddar, diced onions and kidney beans. The two most famous chili joints in Cincinnati are Empress Chili and Skyline Chili.
Wendy’s — Columbus, OH 1969:
Wendy’s employees have been flipping square burgers since 1969, when it was founded by Dave Thomas in Columbus, Ohio. Though Wendy’s offers a variety of unique menu items such as chili, baked potatoes and a salad bar, its original Frosty desserts are what seem to keep customers coming back for more.
Chicago Deep Dish — Chicago, IL 1943:
Invented at Pizzeria Uno 1943, Chicago-style pizza is baked in a round steel pan. Its thick crust is filled to the brim with sauce, toppings and cheese. Gino’s East’s sausage topping is a must, while Lou Malnati’s butter crust perfectly complements its traditional pie.
Frozen Custard — Milwaukee, WI 1933:
Frozen custard is made with eggs, in addition to the cream and sugar found in ice cream, making for a much richer treat. Although it was invented in New York, it was introduced to the Midwest at the 1933 World’s Fair. Today Milwaukee is known as the unofficial frozen custard capital of the world, and Kopp’s Frozen Custard, Gilles Frozen Custard and Leon’s Frozen Custard are considered some of the best shops in the whole state.
Cheese Curds — Sauk City, WI 1964:
Cheese curds are a Midwestern delicacy and can be found all over Wisconsin. Also known as “squeaky cheese,” they are pieces of fresh young Cheddar cheese in their natural form. They can be eaten plain, but are also popular as a fried dish. The cheese curds at fast food chain Culver’s, founded in Sauk City, Wisconsin, are guaranteed to satisfy any curd craving.