For generations, sandwiches were the ultimate guilty pleasure of subcultures that had no patience for guilt: hungry bachelors, school kids, working stiffs, old men in delis. To fridge-foraging rubes like Dagwood, quality wasn’t half as important as quantity. The sandwich was one of the only snacks you were allowed to pile as high as you wanted with anything you desired and cram into your face with both hands—a meal so inelegant and blithely proud of its inelegance that it came in six-foot segments for parties. And we ate it. Standing up.
Now we’ve got French dips made with shaved prime rib, po’ boys with organic shrimp, and grilled cheese with fancy pimiento cheese. Hell, you can get a buttered ciabatta layered with local eggs, house-cured speck, and fontina for breakfast at Balsan if the idea of spending $19 for a ham and egg sandwich does not scandalize you. What in the name of John Montagu is going on here?
The sandwich pendulum has always swung erratically from the treat of the nobility to the fuel of the proletariat. But what we’re witnessing now is the sharpest swerve yet toward the land of fine dining—a shift that overlaps, not coincidentally, with the great democratization of Chicago’s restaurants. Ground zero for the boom is Publican Quality Meats, where Paul Kahan regards sandwiches as serious dishes. So does Acadia’s Ryan McCaskey, who makes a mean lobster roll, and Rick Bayless, who offers up a vegetarian stunner at Xoco.
To guide you through the bustling sandscape, we fanned out across the city and suburbs, hitting spots high and low in search of anything delicious between two slices of bread. For the purposes of this story, we defined “sandwich” in the strictest of terms: no wraps, dumplings, or open-faced pretenders. Hamburgers and hot dogs didn’t qualify. Italian beef sandwiches did, but not one made this list. (Face facts: Chicago’s spongy grease bomb is not among the better contributions to the genre.) We gave points to the well crafted, the fresh, and the robust, anchored by bread with enough distinct character to bolster the proceedings without overshadowing or interfering.
The result: our list of Chicago’s 50 best sandwiches, ranked in order of deliciousness. Some are ingenious, such as Scofflaw’s layered masterpiece of braised brisket, pork belly, and pork loin. Others are blunt and glorious classics, done simply and done right. (Meatball sub from Bari, take a bow.)
In our research, we learned that the sandwich is a wily chameleon, soaking up and synthesizing every trend, be it the resurgence of house-cured charcuterie or the sudden ubiquity of arugula. We learned to ask for extra napkins ahead of time. And we learned, above all, that quality and quantity can intersect in restaurants, and there’s no shame in that. Only joy.