The Untold Truth Of Portillo's

With a menu of gravy-dipped Italian beef sandwiches, char-grilled Polish sausages, and Vienna beef hot dogs "dragged through the garden" (meaning with all the fixings), Portillo's is a one-stop-shop for classic Chicago fare. Sure, one might have to venture elsewhere for say, a deep-dish pizza or a shot of Malort. Nonetheless, Portillo's has been synonymous with Chicago eats for more than half a decade.

The Portillo's story started back in 1963 when founder Dick Portillo opened the window of his first red roof hot dog stand. The venture was something of a Hail Mary for the young man recently home from a tour with the Marine Corps. With no experience in the restaurant biz, Portillo opened The Dog House, a trailer in Villa Park, Illinois (via Portillo's). In a 2013 video, he admits that he made up for his lack of experience with a bit of espionage, snooping around his competition's kitchens and storerooms to glean some intel about products, purveyors, and proper hot dog making technique. His spying missions paid off and by 1967, Portillo moved into the first of his eponymously named chain of restaurants.

Portillo's menu has changed considerably over the years

While the menus of today's Portillo's have upwards of plenty of items to choose from, the original hot dog stand kept it simple with a menu of hot dogs, fries, soft drinks, and curiously enough, tamales (via Reference for Business). 

The origins of Chicago tamales are mysterious, but they have been served in the Windy City since the 1930s (via Dining Chicago). Unlike their Mexican born, hand made, corn husk wrapped inspiration, Chicago style tamales are machine extruded cylinders filled with seasoned ground beef. Sandwiched between sides of onion rings and pasta salad, tamales remain a staple on Portillo's side order menu to this day.

Over the years, Portillo's beefed up their menu to include their own take on the Chicago-style hot dogs and a sizable selection of non-sandwich entrees including slabs of barbecue ribs and hearty plates of pasta including penne ala vodka and baked mostaccioli.

The unlikely key to making a DIY Portillo's chocolate cake

Oddly enough, there's a salad amongst Portillo's mostly meaty bestsellers that's been a hit since its introduction in the 90s (via Portillo's). The chopped salad is a mix of romaine and iceberg tossed with tomatoes, bacon, gorgonzola, chicken, red cabbage, and ditalini pasta. But that's not the only item that gives the meat a run for its money.

Even with all of the stick-to-your-ribs fare that Portillo's is known for, a diehard fan might manage to save room for dessert, namely a two-layer chocolate cake. Like most trade secrets, Portillo's keeps the recipe under wraps, but there are plenty of intrepid people out there who have come up with copycat recipes. According to Spoon University, the best DIY version of the beloved cake can be made using a variety of name brand supermarket ingredients, including Betty Crocker cake mix and frosting and the unlikely addition of Hellmann's mayonnaise.

How you can get your Portillo's fix from home

In its 50-plus years, Dick Portillo saw his business grow from a mobile hot dog stand to a chain of more than 60 restaurants operating in Illinois, Indiana, Arizona, California, and other states. While all locations boast the same menu of Chicago favorites and plenty of glowing neon, each outpost is decorated with Americana-inspired themes, including the Old West, Prohibition, and gangsters.

Outside of the brick and mortar locations of Portillo's, the restaurant does big business catering (you have to love the customized toll-free number, 866-YUM-BEEF). People missing the Portillo's menu at home can get their fix with a number of packages that are available for shipping throughout the states, like a subscription service that includes a full year's worth of monthly deliveries that comes with all of the fixings for Chicago hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, Polish sausages, and DIY chocolate cake making kits. And for those whose love affair with Portillo's runs particularly deep, the company offers a Love at First Bite Wedding Package, i.e., enough hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches to serve to about 90 of the newlyweds' nearest and dearest.