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Handheld, easy-to-eat meals are a must for an outdoors Chicago summer. Here are out 20 essential foods to treat yourself through Labor Day.

Illustration by Jazmin Rodriguez for WBEZ

20 quintessential summer foods in Chicago to enjoy — from ice-cold to spicy hot

Yes, Chicago is always a food town. But summer brings forth a particularly glorious array of handhelds, frozen delights and seasonal specials.

We Chicagoans are used to fielding commentary about our intolerable weather from out-of-towners and nonbelieving expats. “Those winters are unbearable!” they gasp. Internally, we smirk at their misplaced hubris, knowing full well that no city summers better than Chicago.

With so much to do during the summer months, eating necessarily becomes far less precious. We need sustenance: often cold and nearly always handheld. If savory, it must be well-ratioed, sustaining and fairly easy to wolf down on the go. If drinkable, we’d like it ice cold and packing an invigorating punch. We won’t say no to something sweet, either; after all, we’re treating ourselves — at least through Labor Day.

Behold: 20 essential foods to try right now that say Chicago summer is here.

Miko’s Italian ice is a 25-year-old, family-owned Italian ice stand that slings over a dozen flavors of water ice.

Miko’s Italian ice is a 25-year-old, family-owned Italian ice stand that slings over a dozen flavors of water ice.

Courtesy of Zach Roombos/Miko’s Italian Ice

1. Miko’s Italian Ice

This 25-year-old, family-owned Italian ice stand, with locations in Irving Park (4125 N. Kimball Ave.) and Logan Square (2236 N. Sacramento Ave.), slings a dozen-plus flavors of water ice, with the more exciting often pervading the line chatter: “Ooh, they have hibiscus!” “I’m getting guava!” Maybe you go bold with lychee or a combo (we’re patiently awaiting the return of the elusive black respberry). Maybe you keep it classic with bracing lemon. Regardless, that first fluffy spoonful melting on your tongue always says the same, glorious thing: Summer is here.

Open April-October; check Instagram for summer hours.

Elote is a mobile staple across Chicago in the summertime.

Elote is a mobile staple across Chicago in the summertime.

Justine Tobiasz/WBEZ

2. Elotes

Meaning “corn cob” in Spanish, this grilled Mexican street corn — slathered in saucy mayo and garnished with lime, chili powder and crumbled cotija cheese — is a mobile staple across much of the city in summertime. A few semi-reliable vendors include the stand in front of Lindo Michoacan grocery store in Albany Park that goes heavy on cheese and on 18th Street just west of Carpenter Street in Pilsen, where dressed-down elotes come in a cup. Those less keen on the thrill of the chase can always go for the staple corn in a cup at Taqueria Traspasada in Avondale (3144 N California Ave.) or at Edgewater Tacos (5624 N. Broadway), where you can pay $1 extra for a crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or Takis garnish—y por qué no?

3. Scooter’s Frozen Custard

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The Coconut Cream Pie flavor at Scooter’s Frozen Custard is stirred up with coconut and graham cracker crust then topped with whipped cream.

Phyllis Cha/WBEZ

Digging into your first bite of custard from this 21-year-old shop in Lake View, you may absently wonder, why on earth is this so lusciously creamy? The answer: a production process that produces less air (“overrun”) and fewer ice crystals than traditional ice cream. You can experience this phenomenon in cone, cup or sundae form, but we strongly suggest the concrete, in which all manner of mix-ins and flavorings are blended till smooth. Consider the Coconut Cream Pie, a.k.a. vanilla custard stirred up with coconut and graham cracker crust then topped with whipped cream — thick enough to stand your spoon up.

1658 W. Belmont Ave.; Open afternoons till 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; check online for the weekly flavor schedule.

The Depression Dog is just tidy enough to be a truly handheld treat.

The Depression Dog is just tidy enough to be a truly handheld treat.

Courtesy of Maggie Hennessy

4. Depression dog at 35th Street Red Hots

It feels silly at this point to include Chicago’s most famous handheld on any food list; the hot dog permeates everyday life here like the Vienna Beef factory’s wafting aromas that hit your nostrils around Halsted and Pershing. One Chicago dog variation that gets slightly less love than its dragged-through-the-garden cousin is also the ideal meal for life in the fast lane come summer: the Depression dog. A snappy, all-beef red hot is dressed down with simply yellow mustard, onions and sport peppers (at spots like the iconic Jimmy’s, it also includes sweet relish and a pickle) with a mound of hand-cut, skin-on fries wrapped up with the doggie or heaped right on top.

500 W. 35th St.; Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday (closed Sunday), with additional Redhot Ranch outposts in Bucktown and Lake View.

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Tourists and locals flock to La Michoacana Premium for more than 40 flavors of paletas made daily.

Justine Tobiasz/WBEZ

5. Paletas from La Michoacana Premium

Since Marco Andrade opened the first La Michoacana Premium in Aurora in 2008, this paleta purveyor has swelled to more than 80 franchise locations around the country. One of its most bustling outposts is a pink candy-striped storefront in Pilsen. Day and night, tourists and locals flock for more than 40 frozen treats on a stick made daily with whole ingredients, such as water-based guava chile or tamarind and kiwi, and milk-based Fruity Pebbles, coffee and Oreo. In the spoonable realm, might we suggest a mangoneada, with fresh mango ice cream topped with tajín, lime juice and chamoy? A perfect prescription for the stickiest summer days.

1855 S. Blue Island Ave.; Open 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. in Pilsen, with additional locations in Lincoln Square and Archer Heights.


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The jibarito is a sandwich that features a flattened, fried plantain as a stand-in for bread.

Brian Rich/Chicago Sun-Times

6. Jibaritos

A Chicago original, the jibarito is a beguiling little sandwich with flattened fried plantains standing in for bread, created by Puerto Rican immigrants at Borinquen Restaurant in Humboldt Park in the ’90s. It’s savory, sweet and a little greasy — a.k.a. no-frills summer eating at its finest. The sandwich traditionally layers sliced marinated pork, steak or chicken topped with cheese, grilled onion, tomato, lettuce and garlic mayo. More creative offerings have cropped up since (Bucktown’s Casa Yari, at 3268 W. Fullerton Ave., offers a vegan jibarito with house seitan and Chipotle vegan aioli). A few other favorites include the bistec encebollado at Jibaritos y Más (3400 W. Fullerton Ave.), spit-roasted chicken at Papa’s Cache Sabroso (2517 W. Division St.), and the deliciously simple lechon at Borinquen Lounge (3811 N. Western Ave.), now in a new location, still serving the same OG recipe.

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The Ube Bae ice cream gets its vibrant hue from ube, the sweet Filipino purple yam often used in desserts.

Courtesy of Jojo Ybe

7. Milky Milky Ube Bae ice cream

What began as a pandemic project for founder/owner Jojo Ybe has become a beloved small-batch ice cream brand, dishing up sweet, imaginative Filipino American nostalgia in oft-changing flavors such as CTC (that’s cinnamon toast crunch), pandan and strawberry basil. Our favorite, the violet-hued ube bae, gets its vibrant color and pistachio-like sweetness from ube, a mild, sweet Filipino purple yam often used in desserts. Online ordering is underway. You’ll also find Milky Milky’s telltale blue-and-white cartons at L&M Fine Foods in Lincoln Square (4363 N. Lincoln Ave.). We’d suggest grabbing one or two — along with a few other picnic fixin’s — and heading across the street to Welles Park.

Follow on Instagram for collaboration events, to find out when Milky Milky is taking orders and what flavors are available.

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The negroni slushy at Parson’s Chicken & Fish is perfect for a hot summer night.

Courtesy of Clayton Hauck

8. Negroni slushy at Parson’s Chicken & Fish

You won’t find a happier place on a hot summer night than lounging beneath the red-and-white umbrellas of this hipster fried chicken minichain, frosty Negroni slushy ($13) in hand. On the menu since Parson’s opened 11 years ago in Logan Square, the boozy slushy that launched the trend is as good as ever, sporting just enough complexity to still feel like a craft cocktail. Local gin, bitter aperitivo, citrus juices and sweet vermouth are churned up with ice till sippably thick. In fact, we just might stay for one more, bittersweet round beneath the twinkle lights.

Locations in Andersonville, Logan Square and Lincoln Park; check online for hours.

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Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream has a gift for mixing and matching hand-churned flavors that inspire warm nostalgia.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

9. Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream

The hospitality is palpable from the moment you enter Yahya and Nataki Muhammad’s sunny Bronzeville ice cream shop, where the indecisive customer can expect a barrage of signature-flavor samples from friendly staff. Honey cinnamon graham cracker! Blue moon! “My momma’s famous slap yo son” banana pudding! It’s a tough decision with no wrong answer. Shawn Michelle’s has a gift for mixing and matching these hand-churned flavors that on their own inspire warm nostalgia (think lemon pound cake plus vanilla). Even if you keep it simple with Grandma’s old-fashioned vanilla, you’ll find that plain never tasted quite this good.

46 E. 47th St.; Open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

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La Chaparrita Taqueria offers some of the best tacos in town.

Brian Rich/Chicago Sun-Times

10. Tacos from La Chaparrita Taqueria

Speaking of iconic Chicago handhelds, nothing quite beats that first bite of a taco, head cocked to one side as juice drips down your arm. Biting through piquant, crunchy onions, soft corn tortilla, toothsome juicy meat edged in char, you think, “Life is good — and I’m glad I’m wearing short sleeves.” In Chicago you’re never very far from superb Mexican tacos. But if you’ve never popped by the colorful taqueria tucked inside this Little Village grocery store, now’s the time. La Chaparrita slings silky suadero (beef belly) and toothsome carne asada, tangy nopales (cactus) and crispy fried tripa (tripe) to convert even the deepest offal skeptic — all atop warm, tender corn tortillas. Douse to your liking with red (chile) and green (avocado) salsa, and wash it down with sweet, gently fizzy pineapple tepache. Sí, por supuesto; la vida es buena.

2500 S. Whipple St.; Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday; closed on Thursday.

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The Chicago Mix Pop is a salted caramel ice cream in a cheese popcorn shell.

Courtesy of Pretty Cool Ice Cream

11. Chicago mix novelty pop from Pretty Cool Ice Cream

It’s easy to become overwhelmed when taking in the display case of novelty popsicles at Pretty Cool Ice Cream. Propped upright like little technicolor soldiers, these desserts on a stick span such whimsical flavors as buttermilk-based Mango Lassi, vegan Piña Colada and chocolate-dipped Peanut Butter Potato Chip. Pastry chef Dana Salls Cree opened the original, bubblegum-pink outpost six years ago in Logan Square with Bang Bang Pie’s Michael Ciapciak. Now with a second location in Lincoln Park, you can grab a pop to slurp on the 15-minute walk to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Might we suggest the Chicago Mix, a.k.a. salted caramel ice cream in a cheese popcorn shell? Just like the signature popcorn, but delightfully frozen.

Open daily 12 to 9 p.m. at Logan Square, 2353 N. California Ave.; open 12 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday at Lincoln Park, 709 W. Belden Ave.

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The Viet Dip from Phodega is a spicy variation of the classic Italian beef sandwich.

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis/WBEZ

12. The Viet Dip sandwich from Phodega

The already legendary Italian beef has soared to new heights of fame since The Bear debuted to stunning popularity two years ago. And though you can revisit the classic anytime at beef joints all over town, this summer we’re craving a spicy, fresh variation that nods to our city’s rich second-generation restaurant culture. At Vietnamese Singaporean noodle and snack shop Phodega, the Viet Dip comprises crackly French bread slathered in butter, heaped with thinly sliced ribeye, cilantro, onions and jalapeños with a side of pho jus for dipping (trust us, you’ll wanna dip). It’s familiar in that deliciously messy way, but just new enough — and already a Chicago icon.

1924 W. Division St.; Open 11 a.m. through 9 p.m. Monday through Sunday

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The style of cold brew in Kyoto, Japan, utilized in Kyoto Black’s cold brew, involves letting water drip, drip, drip over smaller batches of grounds for a cleaner, smoother, sweeter and more flavorful brew.

Courtesy of Justin Doggett

13. Kyoto Black cold brew

This smooth, delicious Chicago original was born out of founder Justin Doggett’s obsession with a style of cold brewing coffee that was popularized in Kyoto, Japan. Rather than steeping coffee grounds in huge vats of water overnight, Kyoto style involves letting water drip, drip, drip over smaller batches of grounds for a cleaner, smoother, sweeter and more flavorful brew. Fortunately for Chicagoans, Doggett’s hobby turned into a career, meaning we can get a delightful Kyoto Black caffeine jolt at his namesake shop, plus cafes, bars and sandwich shops from Edgewater to Avondale to the Loop. It takes forms to suit any mood: creamy and indulgent (on nitro at Metropolis Coffee in Edgewater, 1039 W. Granville Ave.), boozy-sweet (in an espresso martini at Quality Time bar in Logan Square, 2934 W. Diversey Ave.), and thirst-quenching (over ice while brunching at Cindy’s Rooftop downtown, 12 S. Michigan Ave.).

1445 W. Devon Ave.; Open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday; available at locations throughout the city.

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The oat milk base of Vaca’s Creamery’s vegan affogato is confoundingly creamy.

Phyllis Cha/WBEZ

14. Vaca’s Creamery vegan affogato

At long last, we’ve reached a golden age for plant-based desserts. Case in point: Vaca’s Creamery, whose vegan, and mostly gluten-free, soft-serve delights have drawn long lines since Mariana Marinho and Dylan Sutcliff opened the original walk-up location in 2021 in Wicker Park. Their oat milk base yields confoundingly creamy chocolate and vanilla soft serve, which can be swirled into a cone or form the base of sundaes, milkshakes and handshakes. Inventive toppings and mix-ins include miso caramel, toasted marshmallows and confetti cookie dough, plus crackable chocolate and peanut butter magic shells. When feeling sophisticated, we’ll go for the affogato, or a shot of espresso over vanilla or chocolate soft serve.

Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day in Wicker Park, 1436 W. Blackhawk St.; and 12 to 9:30 p.m. every day in Lincoln Square, 2324 W. Giddings St.

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The Original Rainbow Cone’s signature stack features orange sherbet and pistachio, palmer house, strawberry and chocolate ice creams.

Courtesy of Original Rainbow Cone

15. Original Rainbow Cone

This year, the Original Rainbow Cone and its signature, stacked cone turn 98. You can certainly hit up the original Beverly location (9233 S. Western Ave.) for a nostalgic taste of this deliciously busy creation — layering orange sherbet, plus pistachio, Palmer House (vanilla studded with walnuts and maraschino cherries), strawberry and chocolate ice creams. But while you’re out touristing in your own city, keep your eyes peeled for seasonal kiosks, such as one at Navy Pier, which reopened in late April, and the Original Rainbow Cone’s roving pink polka-dot trucks. There’s one permanently parked at the Shedd Aquarium, too. You can follow the other trucks’ whereabouts online.

The Original Rainbow Cone truck is open daily; check online for hours. The Navy Pier kiosk opens 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and during the fireworks shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer. Other locations include kiosks in the Buona Beef locations in 3754 W .Touhy Ave., Skokie, and 7343 W. Lawrence Ave, Harwood Heights.

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El Mercado Food Mart in Wrigleyville has Argentine-style empanadas, including a fried ham and cheese option.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

16. Empanadas

Something about a meal in pocket form just hits different. Consider, for instance, the empanada: savory, often cheesy fillings tucked inside a buttery, flaky pastry purse, with a sauce or two for dipping. An order of three makes for the perfect walk-and-eat lunch. The empanada styles in Chicago represent a broad geographic swath: from Peruvian (D’Candela, 3449 W. Irving Park Road, where we love the seasoned beef with olives and raisins) to Venezuelan (Rica Arepa, 2913 N. Lincoln Ave., with some 25 varieties wrapped in corn dough and deep-fried to order). Some of our perennial favorites live at South American grocer El Mercado Food Mart (3767 N. Southport Ave.), where Argentine-style empanadas include ham and cheese (fried), chicken (fried) and beef (baked). Meanwhile, bright and bustling walkup Omarcito’s (3801 W. Fullerton Ave.) pulls from all over Latin America for inspiration, via silky ropa vieja empanadas and sweet, creamy timba empanadas with cream cheese and guava paste.

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Spots like Legend Tasty House offer hand rolled ice cream, which gets blended, chopped, spread then rolled into four neat little cigars.

Justine Tobiasz/WBEZ

17. Hand-rolled Thai ice cream at Legend Tasty House

This Thailand-born ice cream style skyrocketed to global fame five or six years ago thanks to the rolled ice cream’s magnetic texture, which starts out almost crunchy before melting into silky creaminess on your tongue. At spots like Legend Tasty House in the heart of Chinatown, this method involves pouring ice cream mix onto frozen pans where it’s “stir-fried,” or blended, chopped, spread then rolled into four neat little cigars — meaning you get a show with your dessert. PSA: The creamy, refreshing Mango Tango, topped with mango chunks and whipped cream, is a best seller for a reason.
2242 S. Wentworth Ave.; open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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The pizza rangoon from 3 Little Pigs is an upscale ode to Hot Pockets and Totino’s Pizza Rolls.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

18. Pizza rangoon at 3 Little Pigs

Since starting pickup orders through Instagram DMs mid-pandemic, 3 Little Pigs chef/owner Henry Cai has developed a loyal fan base for his mouthwatering, Chinese-American comforts, like finger-licking BBQ pork ribs, porky fried rice, plus one of the city’s best fried chicken sandwiches. But he unlocked a new dimension of childhood throwback with pizza rangoon, a supercharged ode to Hot Pockets and Totino’s Pizza Rolls. He lovingly encases shredded mozzarella, onions, pizza sauce and a dusting of five spice in a slice of mozzarella before folding said cheesy pouch into a wonton wrapper and frying it. Grab an order at the South Loop outpost — and watch the cheese streeetch! — en route to Museum Campus, a less than 10-minute walk. Or check out his newly opened standalone location in Bridgeport. Follow on Instagram for other rangoon pop-ups.

Located inside Molly’s Cupcakes, 1150 S. Wabash Ave., with an additional location at 964 W. 31st St.; open 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, and 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.


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The root beer float at Margie’s Candies represents a bit of Chicago history.

Courtesy of Stephenhamiltonproductions

19. Margie’s Candies root beer float

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. One could say the same about almost everything on this century-old ice cream parlor’s menu, though Margie’s root beer float — purportedly on the menu since Greek immigrant Peter George Poulos opened the shop in 1921 — holds an extra special place in our hearts. Not only does it represent a bit of Chicago history, born at a time when the demon liquor was outlawed here; it’s also an almost-perfect, drinkable, spoonable dessert, balancing the minty sarsaparilla and caramel notes of house-made root beer with luscious vanilla ice cream, heaped on top till the glass nearly overflows. It’s one for the kid in all of us.

Locations in Bucktown, 1960 N. Western Ave.; and Ravenswood, 1813 W. Montrose Ave.; check online for hours.

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Cleo’s Southern Cuisine’s NoLa Po’boy has a flaky catfish, buttered lump crab and house-made remoulade sauce wrapped up in a crusty french roll.

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis/WBEZ

20. NoLa Po’boy from Cleo’s Southern Cuisine

We may be 800-odd miles from the Crescent City, on a Great Lake rather than the almighty Gulf, but Chicago and New Orleans share a few commonalities, among them smothering summertime humidity and a love of (and knack for) superb sandwiches. You’ll find a host of great po’boy variations across our fair city, from Daisy’s Po-Boy and Tavern (5215 S. Harper Ave.) and Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods (1415 N. Wood St.) to Big Jones (5347 N. Clark St.). But Cleo’s Southern Cuisine in Bronzeville (and the Loop) takes the crown with its NoLa po’boy ($16.95), a rich, textural dream and the sole knife-and-fork sandwich entry on this list. Mild, flaky catfish in a craggy, creole-spiced crust is piled with sweet, peppery, creole-buttered lump crab and drizzled with house-made remoulade sauce, with a tangy crunch from dill pickles. A crusty french roll ensures no bit of sauce or butter goes unsopped. As they say at Cleo’s, “Pack your appetite for this one!”

Locations in Bronzeville and the Loop; check online for hours; eatcleos.com

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