The Untold Truth Of Portillo's

If you're a fan of Chicago-style hot dogs, a classic American rags-to-riches story, or just some old-fashioned drama, Portillo's is the chain for you. This born-and-bred Chicago hot dog restaurant's origin story certainly seems magical. It was founded by a pair of newlyweds back in 1963, according to the company. In the years that followed, the chain expanded out of Chicagoland to cities nationwide, My San Antonio reports. According to QSR, the business started with an $1,100 investment and ended up being worth a billion dollars. 

But Portillo's also has had its fair share of dark spots, according to the Chicago Tribune, with early days of poor sales, bad hot dogs, and a founder who turned out to be not nearly as clean-cut as he appeared. From rags to riches, from scrappy upstart to publicly traded, billion-dollar company, the story of Portillo's is full of twists and turns. Here's everything you need to know about this classic Chicago hot dog joint.

Portillo's was founded in 1963 by a couple of newlyweds

Portillo's got its start back in 1963, when Dick Portillo founded the brand with a grand and a dream. According to the company, he invested $1,100 in the first Portillo's hot dog stand in Villa Park, Illinois.

His motivation, he tells QSR, was simple. "I'm a hot dog lover, and Villa Park didn't have anything," he says.

Portillo has proven to be a scrappy businessman — it's no wonder that, according to the company, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine in 1994. But back in the '60s, he was flying by the seat of his pants, and the risky move to buy the cart was done with money that he and his new wife were planning to use for a house. It's perhaps no surprise that the original location was dubbed "The Dog House" — we can only imagine his beloved wasn't too happy with the reallocation of their love nest funds!

The original Portillo's location was in a trailer

These days, Portillo's restaurants are known for their big, bustling dining rooms featuring kitschy décor that highlights owner Dick Portillo's love of Chicago history with memorabilia and knick-knacks galore, according to QSR. But before Portillo's became Portillo's, the Dog House was just the humble trailer you can see on Pinterest

The original trailer, QSR reports, measured just 6 feet by 12 and was first parked along busy North Avenue in Villa Park, IL, not far from two big discount stores. According to the company, the trailer was so small it didn't have a bathroom — or even running water. The wily Portillo found a solution, running 250 feet of garden hose into the trailer so that he had enough water to steam his buns and keep things clean. The company wouldn't upgrade to an actual brick-and-mortar location for another four years.

Portillo's is famous for its Chicago-style hot dogs

These days, Portillo's boasts a fairly substantial menu of specialties, but it remains famous for its first offering: the hot dog. The menu features no fewer than six options, ranging from classic to jumbo, all supplied by Vienna Beef. You can choose a normal dog or a Polish sausage, topped with chili and cheese or pickles and peppers. But there's no denying which one is at the heart of the menu: the Chicago-style.

According to Tastes of Chicago, a true Chicago-style hot dog is made by serving an all-beef frankfurter on a steamed poppy seed bun. The hot dog must then be topped with yellow mustard, relish, onions, tomatoes, pickles, sport peppers, and celery salt. At Portillo's, this style of hot dog is dubbed "dragged through the garden," according to My San Antonio.

At Portillo's, 53% of consumers order their dogs in this fashion, NBC reports, while 34% order them with "one of the other 127 possible combinations of toppings." Just 9% of people order their dog with ketchup, the outlet reveals (unsurprising, seeing as according to Tastes of Chicago, such a topping is verboten to true Chicagoans) while a mere 4% order the hot dog plain.

The hot dogs at Portillo's used to be really bad

While the hot dogs are, today, what makes Portillo's famous, according to the company, it turns out that they weren't always such a draw.

Indeed, QSR reports, Dick Portillo knew nothing about cooking hot dogs (or, indeed, most elements of owning such a business) when he first started out. The Chicago Tribune reports that the first hot dogs served at the Dog House were often overcooked, and the buns were a mix of dried out and burned. (Hardly the most appetizing of fare.) It's no surprise that after the first few weeks in business — which were slow as molasses — Portillo's wife even suggested they sell.

But Portillo was not deterred. According to the Chicago Tribune, he did some recon by visiting Gene and Jude's hot dog stand, watching to see how the industry veterans steamed their buns. He even snuck into the back to suss out their relish supplier. Armed with this info — and a desire to do better — he managed to turn things around.

Italian beef is also a major draw at Portillo's

After a few years, Portillo's had outgrown its original Dog House location, and it was in 1967 that, sporting a new name, it moved into a new building, according to the company. But Portillo's didn't just expand its space: It also expanded its menu, notably to include another perhaps less well-known but equally beloved Chicago specialty: the Italian beef sandwich. 

Italian beef, InsideHook reports, is a sandwich with roots in Chicago's meatpacking district. In the early 1900s, the outlet recounts, Italian immigrants would slow-cook tougher cuts of beef in a seasoned broth, thinly slicing it against the grain to make it as tender as possible. Today, in keeping with tradition, the beef is piled on sandwich rolls and topped either with hot giardiniera or sweet green peppers. Sandwiches can be served either be dry or wet (aka dipped in au jus), according to the diner's preference. 

The Italian beef at Portillo's is a Chicago classic, according to the Food Hacker, which recreated it for home cooks, from paper-thin beef to MSG-spiked gravy. At Portillo's restaurants, you can also get it paired with sausage or even piled on a croissant.

Portillo's boasts some famous fans

Portillo's is pretty proud of its famous fans, displaying images of many of them, including late-night talk show hosts Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno, wrestler Seth Rollins, actors Melissa McCarthy and Vince Vaughn, and, of course, "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" host Guy Fieri, on its website. Mindy Kaling is a particularly vocal fan. She shared her Portillo's takeout lunch — an Italian beef sandwich with two sides — on Instagram.

But stars aren't the only ones famous for their love of Portillo's. One "fanatic" includes 86-year-old Bill Blecher, who, Portillo's reports, has been enjoying the restaurant's Italian beef sandwiches and Polish sausages for over half his life. After trying his first hot dog at the original Dog House — "dragged through the garden," as so many fans opt for — he sadly moved away from the Chicago area. In Florida, he resorted to having his Italian beef shipped to him, but when the chain opened a Tampa location, he gleefully returned in person.

Portillo's has developed some fun ways to cultivate a better customer experience

Dick Portillo is unstoppable in his search for ways to innovate at his restaurants, not just expanding the menu to include, for example, Barnelli's pasta bowls and salads in 1993, but also looking for ways to improve the customer experience at his restaurants. The company launched super-speedy drive-thru options in 1983, according to the company website, and even launched nationwide shipping of its star menu items back in 2000. 

Portillo is attentive to all aspects of the customer experience, and so in addition to these sensible choices, he's also had some more off-the-wall ideas. After watching pickup counters at his restaurants, for example, and seeing that the experience was lacking in energy, QSR reports, he opted to innovate some rhyming phrases to make picking up your order more fun, like "Number 22, this is for you!" and "Number 68, don't be late!" "We're a fun operation," he tells the outlet, "but in a professional way."

Dick Portillo has a few regrets

While the story of Portillo's might seem like a heartwarming one motivated by hard work and a dream, there are a few shadier sides to Dick Portillo's story, notably linked to his time spent in jail. According to the Chicago Tribune, while stationed as a Marine near San Diego, he and a friend ran an under-the-table business shuttling soldiers to Tijuana and back for $20 a pop. On one such trip, Portillo ran a stop sign and collided with another driver. He fled the scene only to be stopped at the border. When Portillo tried to bribe — then threaten — the watchman at the Tijuana police station, the future hot dog king was tossed in a cell for nearly two days.

But his biggest regret, he tells the outlet, has nothing to do with his penchant for fighting (this particular police run-in, it seems, wasn't his first rodeo). Rather, it was missing his eldest son's first touchdown because he stayed at work just a bit too late. The experience, he says, still makes him a bit teary-eyed.

Dick Portillo sold Portillo's 2014

Given the success of Portillo's, it's perhaps no surprise that Dick Portillo received several offers to buy the business over the years. One notable offer, the Chicago Tribune reports, came from Jimmy John's, the owner of which was a friend of Portillo's. "I told Jimmy his brand was much different than the Portillo's brand," he wrote in his 2018 autobiography, "Out of the Dog House." "I didn't want someone to come in and change our formula."

But Portillo did end up selling eventually — to a private equity group called Berkshire, according to QSR. Berkshire was one of 24 such groups that prepared bids for the business back in 2013 when word got out that Portillo was preparing to sell.

"I liked that Berkshire had no restaurants in their portfolio, and I felt they understood our culture," he told the outlet. "It takes time and effort to do our restaurants right, and you can't let the real estate get ahead of the training department." Of course, the $1 billion offer couldn't have hurt either.

Portillo's opened its 50th location in 2017 — and it's still expanding

Portillo's has been shipping its famous foods nationwide since 2000, but it wasn't until 2005 that the brand expanded to open its first establishment outside of Illinois, according to the company website. Soon after, Portillo's opened restaurants in Indiana, Arizona, Florida, and Washington. In 2017, it opened its 50th location in Minnesota. 

But while these days expansion of the chain seems like a no-brainer, it wasn't for Dick Portillo — at least not at first. "I was absolutely nervous taking the concept 2,000 miles away," he tells QSR. "I knew the Chicago transplants would like it, but would their neighbors?" They did, it turns out, and, he tells the outlet, he was glad he took the risk. "I believe you must take risks and go into the dark zone, the unknown," he says. "If you do what everyone else is doing, then you can expect the same results." In 2022, the company announced it would be expanding to Texas, according to My San Antonio

Portillo's restaurants are Chicago-themed, no matter where they are

"Understated" is certainly not a word that one would assign to the décor at Portillo's, which reflects Dick Portillo's love of history and Chicago. Chicago-themed memorabilia from the 1920s through the 1960s adorn the walls, and this is true whether the restaurant is actually in Chicago or not. Despite its expansion out of Illinois, Portillo's never forgot its roots, and every Portillo's, QSR reports, features a version of the same kitschy décor. 

Of course, some Portillo's locations have particularly special items on display. Notably, when the first downtown Chicago location opened in the '90s, it featured many items from the original Chicago Stadium, the company website says, including the original Stanley Cup banner proclaiming the win of the Chicago Blackhawks back in 1938. Not only does this décor add a certain vibrancy to the restaurants, but it gives you something to look at while you're waiting for your food to arrive.

Portillo's went public in 2021

While for years, Dick Portillo refused to sell his eponymous chain, after he finally did, it was just a matter of time before the company went public. In its 2021 IPO, Nation's Restaurant News reports, Portillo's raised more than $407.4 million. The company, the outlet reports, had set its opening price at $20 per share, closing at more than $29 per share.

"Going public is not a destination," CEO Michael Osanloo told the outlet at the time. "We want to be a great restaurant company, and that means meeting and beating our shareholders' expectations on a go-forward basis." Since then, Restaurant Business reports, the chain has launched a drive-thru only location and has even more plans for expansion in the coming months and years. The company seems destined to spread Chicago dogs across the whole country. And it all began with a little trailer in Illinois.