Do you take your Italian beef wet or dry? Is it still a Chicago style hot dog if you skip one of the key ingredients? These are the questions visitors will be asking themselves as they visit the newest temporary exhibit at the Elmhurst History Museum, “Eat Your Heart Out: Iconic Chicagoland Foods.”
Dan Bartlett, curator of exhibits for the museum, led the research and design of the exhibit that explores the stories behind foods that have become synonymous with Chicago. A non-native of the Chicago area, his curiosity drew him to investigate how many of these foods have become ingrained into the Chicago area food culture.
“I grew up in south central Wisconsin and I really had no idea what an Italian beef was up until I moved to Chicago about five years ago,” Bartlett said.
What he learned is many of the roots to these recipes can be traced to hardworking immigrants making the most of what they had and helping stretch food. Thin slices of beef marinated and served in a bun was a hardy meal.
And it was families such as the Buonavolanto family that launched Buona Beef and Dick Portillo, of Portillo’s, that elevated the dining experience of these simple, quick foods often found at small food stands. Bartlett said he was surprised to learn Portillo’s first location was in neighboring Villa Park and Buona Beef opened its first restaurant in Berwyn. Visitors will be able to learn more about these and other families known for their contributions to the iconic foods.
“These people had an idea about food, a recipe and experience and now they are iconic family brands. Each had a story that tied so well to the exhibit,” Bartlett said.
The exhibit also spotlights ice cream and, of course, Chicago style pizza and thin crust, too.
Bartlett said the research for the exhibit was fun and it definitely had him craving the foods.
“I was researching the story of Vienna Beef and by 2 p.m. I had to go and get some hot dogs,” he said.
Visitors will no doubt leave hungry, too, but they can satisfy a few cravings when the museum hosts Picnic on the Park from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. July 10 where the first 300 guests receive a free small Rainbow Cone.
Snap a photo for your Instagram page by the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile and enjoy live music and activities for children. The museum will be open to visitors, a perfect time to check out the exhibit, said Dave Oberg, executive director for the Elmhurst History Museum.
Visitors to the museum will have a chance to leave their thoughts as to how they prefer these foods and cast a ballot with results to be posted on the museum’s social media channels.
“We’re calling it a Food Fight,” said Oberg, who takes his Italian beef wet with hot giardiniera.
There will be a Gallery Talk with Bartlett on July 24. For those who can’t attend in person, there will be an online version after the event.
“Our gallery is only 1,000 square feet and these talks with Dan can dive deeper into the exhibit, those items that perhaps didn’t make it into the exhibit,” Oberg said.
For those with younger children, check out Maker Mondays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 27, July 18 and Aug. 8 Families will have an opportunity to drop in to visit the museum and children can enjoy a food-themed craft.
Within the exhibit is a small play area for children to play with foods, including some of the foods featured in the displays, Bartlett said.
For those with children elementary school age and older, check out the Family Pizza Making Workshop Aug. 3. Registration is required and Oberg said he expects the program to sell out. A chef will lead participants in making their own pizza dough and topping it before they take it home to bake.
For those ages 21 and older don’t miss the chance to vie for prizes in the Chicago Foods Trivia Night at Pints in Elmhurst. Registration is required to play two rounds of trivia and enjoy a beer and a few light appetizers.
Local historian Leslie Goddard will lead a free lecture that focuses on Chicago foods and the immigrant populations behind them.
“Leslie is a wonderful historian and she will focus on five iconic Chicago foods: deep dish pizza, Italian beef, hot dogs, cheesecake and Frango mints,” Oberg said. “Most of the iconic foods were developed by immigrants. It was for working men and women. It was their street food and now it’s our comfort food.”
There’s even a section of the exhibit dedicated to nostalgic food advertisements that will have visitors thinking about Sara Lee desserts and Twinkies.
The Elmhurst History Museum is located at 120 E. Park Ave., Elmhurst. It is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays and Saturdays. For information, visit Elmhursthistory.org