The History Behind Chicago’s Deep-Dish Pizza

By Jessica Ferrer
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Pizza is a favored dish across the world with a plethora of interesting and delicious variations popping up. In South Korea, there’s pizza with bulgogi, in India you can find pizza with chicken tikka on top. Fresh cream might top pizzas in France, and Banana Curry pizza is a favorite in Sweden. All countries have adapted the Italian staple to their regional tastes, and with a base as versatile as dough, sauce and cheese, it’s no surprise. 

But no type of pizza is as controversial as the Chicago deep dish pizza, a style that comedian Jon Stewart once famously referred to as, “tomato soup in a bread bowl.” There were some other words said, but for the sake of keeping things family-friendly, we recommend watching it yourself

All opinions aside, Chicago deep dish pizza has managed to make a name for itself and become one of the Windy City’s iconic dishes, sharing the ranks with Italian-style beef and Chicago hot dogs. The story of origin is as controversial as the pizza itself, but one thing is certain: this type of pizza belongs to Chicago, and Chicago only. 

Two Entrepreneurs Walk into A Bar...
In the basement of a building where Ric Riccardo lived was a bar that Chicago historian Tim Samuelson “a rough place.” After the bar gets busted by the Feds, Riccardo decides to purchase it. He partners with fellow entrepreneur Ike Sewell, a native Texan, former football player and businessman. Originally, Sewell thought what Chicago needed was Mexican food, as he was from Texas and found the city lacking in the cuisine. Riccardo wasn’t a fan, however, and after a trip to Italy decides that pizza should be what they served. Due to the influx of Italian immigrants who came to the US during the late 19th century and early 20th century, there was already an Italian community that they could cater to.  

Sewell, being the brawny Texan, he was, wasn’t entirely happy about the classic thin crust style of Neapolitan pizza. He thought that the pizza should be heartier, and eventually Chicago deep dish pizza was born. Instead of a thin layer, the dough would creep up the edges like a pie, cheese goes on next to melt into the crust and act as a glue, lots of meat or veggies would go next, and the sauce would be the final layer to top it all off. Ok, we kind of see where the casserole parallel comes from…

It was most certainly the hearty dish  that Sewell was looking for and went on the menu at Pizzeria Uno, the entrepreneurs' joint venture. This is where the controversy comes into play, however. Who exactly came up with the recipe is the contested piece of the puzzle, with some claiming it was Ric Riccardo, and others claiming that Italian immigrant Rudy Malnati Sr., who worked at Pizzeria Uno. Unfortunately, Riccardo died in the early years of the restaurant, so it’s not entirely clear who came up with the recipe. Depending on who you ask, of course. 

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Catches On 
As with any good business idea, there will eventually be competitors. Enter Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s. 

Opening in 1966, Gino’s East was started by Fred Levine and Sam Bartoli, two gentlemen in the taxi business who could recognize the potential of deep dish pizza. They managed to convince Alice May Redmond, the chief cook at Pizzeria Uno, to join them. They certainly weren’t the only competitor restaurant at the time, but in terms of the big names of Chicago deep dish pizza, they are the second oldest still around today. 

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria is another one of those names, opening up in 1971. The Malnati family had been involved in Pizzeria Uno from the beginning, with both father Rudy and son Lou working at and managing the flagship and Pizzeria Due, the second outpost. After Lou was told he didn’t have as much stake as he thought in the restaurants, he left and decided to open his own. 

Today, you’ll find many places across Chicago that aim to serve some of the best deep dish pizza out there, like Pizano’s, that also has a tie to the Malnati family. Ultimately, the choice is up to you as long as you remember that this is a Chicago thing. No one else’s. 

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