Chicago-style hot dogs are famous for a reason. No where else in the country do they drag a hot dog through the garden like we do here.
And while you could make a hot dog at home, why bother when there are so many great spots right here on the North Shore?
What’s particularly notable is how long many North Shore hot dog joints have been around. Little Louie’s in Northbrook was started in 1967 and subsequently bought by its current owner, Pete Weiss, in 1999 when he was just 22 years old. Weiss was in college when he decided that he wanted to own his own business and heard that Little Louie’s, near his hometown of Highland Park, was up for sale.
“Louie’s is a modern day Cheers,” Weiss said, referring to the popular 1980s sitcom. “Everyone knows your name and your order. It’s this organic atmosphere.”
At this point Little Louie’s boasts many regulars. It’s what happens when a restaurant has been open for five decades, Weiss pointed out. Many of those customers are multi-generational, with grandparents bringing in their grandchildren for a hot dog.
“You make people feel like it is theirs, like they are walking into their house,” Weiss said.
Maybe that’s why Little Louie’s tagline is “a part of growing up.”
Weiss isn’t the only owner who got into the business as a young man. Sasha Djordjevic was a senior at New Trier Township High School when he purchased Chuck Wagon in Wilmette. He was working at the restaurant when he heard it was for sale, turning his part-time high school job into a career.
Djordievic has kept Chuck Wagon’s menu and atmosphere faithful to its 1974 origins. Kids still belly up to the counter of the tiny storefront in the center of downtown, where they can order a classic Chicago-style hot dog and watch it prepared. “They like the food, friendly atmosphere, and it is cozy. A lot of people grew up going here,” he said. Probably the biggest addition to Chuck Wagon is the large collection of photographs of friends and customers that Djordievic has been hanging on the restaurant’s walls, many taken during his years at New Trier.
But few owners can claim street cred like Andrew Greensphan, whose father started Irving’s for Red Hot Lovers in Wilmette in 1975, and who also helped develop the recipe for the Red Hot Chicago all-beef hot dogs. Irving’s has been carrying the Red Hot brand since 1989, which Greensphan said is a little smokier than other popular hot dog brands.
“Customers love it. I have some customers who come in because I serve that product,” he said.
Speaking of hot dogs, it goes without saying that each spot serves the Chicago-style classic — all beef hot dog, poppy seed bun, yellow mustard, neon green relish, onion, pickle spears, tomato, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt — with some variations.
Greensphan said that Irving’s classic Chicago-style is steamed, but it also offers charbroiled dogs. Likewise, the most popular hot dog at the Chuck Wagon and U Dawg U in Northfield is the Chicago-style hot dog, always steamed, unless someone asks for it grilled. Robert Mages, owner of U Dawg U, said the chili cheese dog with Merktz cheese is also a customer favorite.
The Left Bank, located in a former barber shop in Lake Forest, serves up a classic Chicago-style hot dog, as well as a cheese dog and chili-cheese dog.
A chargrilled jumbo hot dog is the claim to fame of Michael’s in Highland Park, which underwent a complete renovation in the fall of 2017 to mark its 40th anniversary. The restaurant serves the grilled hot dog on a poppy seed bun with all the usual toppings, but also adds sauerkraut to the mix. In addition, Michael’s carries some specialty items, such as a Kosher hot dog called “The Chosen Char,” nitrate-free hot dogs for kids, as well as gluten-free hot dogs — prepared in a special gluten-free portion of the kitchen.
The Mean Weiner in Highwood has its own take on the Chicago-style hot dog. While the classic toppings are consistent with other places, it charbroils and then deep fries an all-beef black angus hot dog. “We feel we get the best flavor out of them that way,” said Steve Geffen, who owns The Mean Weiner with his father, Gerry Geffen. The dogs are served with a pile of fresh-cooked fries — with the fries actually piled onto the hot dog. “It’s more about the experience with the fresh-cooked fries on the dog. We like to put everything together,” he said.
The Mean Weiner is onto something, as frequently there is a line out the door until the restaurant closes at 9 p.m., Geffen said.
While the classic Chicago-style weiner is the most popular dish, The Mean Weiner also has a fresh take on jumbo dogs. The “meanest weiner” is a jumbo-jumbo dog, meaning it is a half-pound hot dog. “It’s a challenge. It’s a big dog,” Geffen said. The jumbo dogs are served on a French-style bun, made at The Mean Weiner’s sister restaurant Once Upon A Bagel.
Catering to the customer is something all of these hot dog joints do well, thus if customers order a hot dog with ketchup (gasp!), they will get what they ordered. “The thing about hot dogs, it is whatever you perceive it to be,” Weiss said. Mages agreed, noting that some customers even like mayonnaise on hot dogs.
When customers at Irvings ask for ketchup, or their bun toasted instead of steamed, Greensphan suspects they are probably from the East Coast or something. “I am not offended by it. It is usually done in a joking manner,” he said with a laugh.
Chuck Wagon is located at 1120 Central Avenue, Wilmette. It’s open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information go to www.chuckwagonusa.com.
Irving’s For Red Hot Lovers is located 3207 Lake Avenue, Wilmette. It’s open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information go to www.irvings.com.
Left Bank is located at 659 North Bank Lane, Lake Forest. It’s open Monday and Tuesday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information go to www.leftbanklf.com.
Little Louie’s is located at 1342 Shermer Road, Northbrook. It’s open Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information go to www.little-louies.com.
Michael’s is located at 1879 Second Street, Highland Park. It’s open Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more information go to www.michaelshotdogs.com.
The Mean Weiner is located at 532 Sheridan Road, Highwood. It’s open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. For more information go to www.themeanweiner.com.
U Dawg U is located at 300 South Happ Road, Northfield. It’s open Tuesday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information go to www.udawgu.net.