When you visit Chicago and order pizza, you probably expect to get a deep-dish pie, right? Well, you might. But you might also get a stuffed pizza, which has an extra layer of dough between the cheese and the sauce, or a pan pizza, a breadier pizza with a distinctive crispy-cheesy exterior.
You're actually most likely to get a tavern-style pie — a crisp thin-crust pizza cut into little squares, unless you're in the Loop or River North, in which case, yep, it's going to be deep dish.
Got all that?
While this might be rightly confusing to a visitor, there's even debate among residents about what counts as Chicago pizza. "Do we even have a signature style?" asks George Bumbaris of George's Deep Dish in Edgewater. "It depends on what part of the city you're from. I would say it's tavern; that's the most ubiquitous throughout the city."
Deciding what "Chicago pizza" is can be looked at two ways — is it the pizza styles that were created here? If so, that's deep dish, pan, stuffed and tavern style. Or is it the most ubiquitous style in the city and suburbs, the pizza most Chicagoans grew up eating? Because that is resoundingly tavern style.
"Chicago pizza to us is thin crust," says Cecily Federighi of Kim's Uncle Pizza, in the suburb of Westmont. "It will come square cut, with toppings and cheese all the way to the edges. A lot of the outside perception is that deep dish is the style of Chicago, but I think that day-in and day-out, more people that live here are going to go for their local favorite thin crust as opposed to a stuffed or a deep dish."
Other locals, such as Steve Dolinsky, author of two books about Chicago pizza, say that Chicago pizza is all the styles that were created here, so deep dish (and pan, which he considers a subcategory of deep dish), stuffed and tavern style.
Robert Maleski of Milly's Pizza in the Pan, who specializes in pan pizzas, sees that style as its own distinct category from deep dish. And this is all before broaching the debate both nonresidents and residents like to have: Is deep dish even pizza? An oft-repeated jab at the style is to call it a "casserole," like Jon Stewart famously did on "The Daily Show" in 2013. Chicago chef David Posey repeated the phrase to Eater in a 2014 piece titled "Chefs Weigh In: Is Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Really Pizza?" Most said no.
But this still does not quite explain how out-of-towners got the idea that Chicagoans only eat deep dish the way New Yorkers grab a foldable slice.
"When you go to D.C., you want to see the monuments and the Smithsonian. When you come to Chicago, you want to see the pizza. And the pizza is typically a deep dish," Dolinsky added.
That's certainly not to say that Chicagoans only eat a thick pizza when entertaining out-of-town guests — it comes down to personal taste, of course — but it's simply less prevalent in the city than tavern-style. "Tavern style has just been in every nook and cranny in the city and the suburbs for forever it seems like," Dolinsky says.
Chicago's pizza history helps highlight the development of the different styles. According to Chicago-based pizza historian Peter Regas, who focuses on the origins of pizzerias in America, the first pizza in the city — probably thicker, Sicilian-like slices — was probably sold at Italian bakeries.
From looking at ads of the era, Regas estimates the first dedicated pizzeria opened in 1906 in Chicago and sold a pie similar to Neapolitan, which were being served in New York. For Regas, one of the most crucial things about Chicago pizza is how early pizzamakers were unbound by tradition, allowing them to create their own styles. "When pizza first came here, it came from the Campania region and it was similar to what was served there," he says. "In Chicago, it got changed by Sicilian bakers. While they didn't have the benefit of being a baker from the Campania region, they had the benefit of freeing themselves from the tradition — they could do whatever they wanted."
That led to tavern owners in the 1930s and 1940s rolling out dough to make pizza to offer alongside drinks. "The main distinction about why we're different from New York is that they have tradition there," Regas says. "We had a different culture and that gave us the space to develop something different; it was a golden opportunity for these tavern owners. They didn't have the experience to know what they were doing, so they invented something all their own."
That style, as we see it today, is made by baking the dough directly on a stone or steel hearth of the oven, Dolinsky says. "The dough is typically sheeted through a sheeter, so it's pressed really thin," he explains. "It's often cured for a couple of days in a cooler. The goal is to achieve something really dry, brittle, firm and crisp." The dough is completely covered with sauce, cheese and toppings, with minimal crust — "There is no naked area at the end of the pizza," Dolinsky says — and it's served cut into squares. The cut has a variety of names in Chicago, from party cut to tavern cut to square cut.
Further innovations came in 1943, when a restaurant called the Pizzeria (later becoming Pizzeria Uno) began serving the first iteration of deep-dish pizza. The style features a biscuit-like dough, and it's pressed into and up the sides of the pan, covered with mozzarella, then the toppings, then the sauce. One of the best known purveyors of this style is Lou Malnati's, which has 61 Illinois locations, plus some in Arizona, Wisconsin and Indiana. Their signature pizza, the Malnati Chicago Classic, comes with sausage and extra mozzarella, and is served on a crust made with butter.
A common deep-dish variation is pan pizza, which got its start at Pequod's Pizza in 1970. It has a focaccia-like crust and the edges have a crispy, cheesy, burned exterior. Maleski describes the differences between the styles: "With traditional deep dish, the dough is going to be a lot denser," Maleski explains. "It has fat added to it. With my pizza, I don't add any of that. They're not going to let it rise in the pan, they're going to press it in and bake it."
Maleski says he presses the dough in and lets it rise for three hours before baking. Both styles have the cheese on the bottom and the sauce on top, he said, but "the caramelized crust is not something you'll see on a traditional deep-dish pizza."
The final variety is stuffed, which has a couple key differences. While pizzamakers use the same pan as deep dish, they add shredded mozzarella rather than slices on top of the dough, then the toppings, then a second layer of dough, followed by the sauce. You can find it at Nancy's Pizza, which invented the style in 1971, and Giordano's, the most prevalent stuffed purveyor (there are 48 locations in Illinois, and others scattered mostly around the West and Midwest).
Pizza evolution in Chicago hasn't ended. The most notable new pizzerias in Chicago are working within these local styles, while pulling in new techniques and ingredients. Bumbaris of George's bases his dough off the Greek flatbread called lagana, which lands between focaccia and ciabatta, and he also incorporates a sourdough starter. "I want to get the outside really crispy and the center to be a nice, pillowy dough, like a good baguette," he says. His pizzas are named after famous Georges, such as the Harrison's White Album, with spinach-artichoke dip and roasted garlic.
Maleski launched Milly's Pizza in the Pan as a pandemic pop-up in 2020 before opening a bricks-and-mortar space in 2022. He grew up in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, eating tavern pizza at Barnaby's. "That's a tavern-style pizza with crimped edges and cornmeal on the bottom," he says. "I didn't know about all the different styles until I started delving into pizza several years ago."
Once he started, he was taken with the pizza at Burt's Place in Morton Grove, which the founder of Pequod's opened 1989. "I had never seen a pizza like that, pan pizza with a caramelized crust," he recalls. "I instantly fell in love." Maleski started trying to re-create the pizza at home, but his style has evolved and now includes a starter, a blend of whole wheat and bread flours, and a poolish, as well as a 36-hour cold fermentation.
Maleski's pies, like the Clickbait, topped with olives, red onion, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, jalapeño, Calabrian chile and ricotta, are vibrant works of art. "I add the toppings on mid-bake so they stay fresher and are brighter in color," he says. Maleski recently started dabbling in South Shore bar pizza (a style from Massachusetts), with thin crust, mozzarella and white cheddar, and frico edges.
At Kim's Uncle Pizza, which opened in July 2022, Federighi, her husband Billy, and their business partner Brad Shorten serve tavern-style pizzas. In their previous endeavors, the trio made Neapolitan and Sicilian pizzas, but the move to tavern-style was a practical one - "we needed something that was going to deliver and was more family friendly." It also lets them reminisce about the tavern pies they grew up eating at places like Vito and Nick's, a South Side institution since 1932. Their crusts are made with a cold-cure method also employed by other local spots, such as Pat's Pizzeria, a notable Lincoln Park spot that has been open since 1950. Their sauce is spicier and their sausage is more heavily seasoned than you'll find elsewhere.
While tavern-style pizza has long been a Chicago secret to those outside the city, that seems to be changing, with the style on offer at pizzerias such as Seattle's Windy City Pie and New York's Emmett's on Grove. "The last couple of years it's been Detroit style that's been big in the pizza world; I feel like tavern-style is the new wave," Federighi says. "I think it's this social media era of always looking for the new, cool, underground thing. Tavern style has been an underground, insider Chicago thing for so long and I think everybody kind of wants in."