Plenty to digest at new Elmhurst History Museum exhibit highlighting Chicago food classics

Elmhurst History Museum food exhibit
The "Eat Your Heart Out: Iconic Chicagoland Foods" exhibit at Elmhurst History Museum Photo credit Lisa Fielding/WBBM Newsradio

Ketchup on your hot dog? Deep dish or tavern style? Italian beef: wet or dry? Chicago’s spiciest food questions are now up for debate inside the Elmhurst History Museum's new exhibit "Eat Your Heart Out: Iconic Chicagoland Foods.”

"Food is one of those general topics that brings us together,” said Dan Oberg, Executive Director of the Elmhurst History Museum. “We all have our personal relationships, we all have our personal favorites. We thought this exhibit would really spark some great conversations and debates."

Inside the new 1,200-square-foot exhibit, three rooms offer a closer look at the origins of the Chicago style hot dog, the history of the Italian beef sandwich and deep dish pizza.

"This is the holy trinity of Chicago food,” Oberg said. “Hot dogs, pizza and Italian beef are all synonymous with Chicago. We thought we'd have dessert, too, so we have a display about Rainbow Cones, a perennial Chicago favorite."

Oberg said the exhibit was created from scratch, and they wanted the exhibit to give visitors an immersive experience.

Elmhurst History Museum
Dan Oberg, Executive Director of the Elmhurst History Museum Photo credit Lisa Fielding/WBBM Newsradio

"As you go through, you'll see a Vienna Beef hot dog stand. You get into the Italian beef, and it looks like you're in an Italian Beef joint — you've got the booth, you've got the checkerboard floor. We're sitting in the pizzeria with the brick wall and linoleum tile and neon. We wanted to have that feel like you're walking into these various joints." said Oberg.

A key aspect of "Eat Your Heart Out: Iconic Chicagoland Foods" will be not only these well-known foods, but also the traditional ways that Chicagoans consume them.

"In the case of the Hot dog, this has largely German, Austrian, Hungarian roots, [and it] initially debuted at the World's Fair in Chicago,” Oberg said. “These are humble foods that have immigrant roots, a working people food."

Elmhurst History Museum
Photo credit Lisa Fielding/WBBM Newsradio

Oberg said patrons can get a closer look at the tavern style versus deep dish controversy. Condiments will also be a hotly-debated topic, including the proper way to deck out a true Chicago hot dog, as well as the right ingredients to concoct an ideal giardiniera garnish.

"Giardiniera is a Chicago thing,” Oberg said. “Most people outside the city have never heard of it. We have more than 100 varieties that are made in the greater Chicagoland area. We have a wall of giardiniera here in the exhibit."

The exhibit also looks at the history of ice cream, particularly the hometown Rainbow Cone.

Elmhurst History Museum
Photo credit Lisa Fielding/WBBM Newsradio

"We have the original price board. One cone, 12 and a half cents, you can get 8 scoops for a dollar back then. I love it," he laughed.

Patrons can learn the stories behind the companies and entrepreneurs, with names familiar to any Chicago food fan, such as Portillo's, Vienna Beef, Lou Malnati's and more.

"We were lucky to work with Vienna Beef, [which] loaned us material, the folks that run Buona Beef gave us material and gave us some great history along the way,” Oberg said. “Lou Malnati's gave us some great stuff. The Sapp family gave us some cool stuff from the Original Rainbow Cone."

Elmhurst History Museum
Photo credit Lisa Fielding/WBBM Newsradio

There will also be a "Food Fight" ballot, which patrons can fill out to vote for their favorite — some might say, “appropriate” — ways to eat Chicago foods.

Adults can play a round of trivia to test their Chicago foodie knowledge at Pints in Elmhurst. The program includes two rounds of trivia, one beer and four individual appetizers.

Throughout the month of August, the Elmhurst History Museum will host a couple of food-related events.

The first event will be a Family Pizza Making Workshop on Aug. 3, which will be led by chef Zachary Holston and cost $20 per person.

Later in the month, on Aug. 28, historian Leslie Goddard will present a lecture on five iconic Chicago foods — and how each one is connected to Chicago’s patterns of immigration, creativity and cultural traditions. The lecture will be free to museum members and will cost $5 for non-members.

Rainbow Cone
Kathryn Sapp at the original Rainbow Cone. Photo credit Courtesy Elmhurst History Museum

"We want this to be a jumping off point for a deeper dive into the history of our culinary traditions, a history of some of the people who brought us these culinary treasures,” Oberg said. “The Portillos, The Malnati's, The Sapp family, The  Buonavolanto family. We want to … appreciate that family a bit more when we gather around, and eat this food."

"Eat Your Heart Out: Iconic Chicagoland Foods” will be on display until Oct. 2 at the Elmhurst Museum of History, located at 120 E. Park Ave.

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