Whenever I visit a new city — especially overseas — I book myself on a food tour. Getting to know a culture through its food is the fastest way to its beating heart. I’m that weird foodie tourist that likes to visit a grocery store wherever I go; not necessarily just to buy comestibles (although of COURSE I do, starting with dark chocolate and ending with many condiments), but rather to see what the local produce looks like, what their comfort foods might be, and how the residents shop. If there’s a farmers market, you’ll likely find me there, taking photographs of gorgeous mountains of deep purple eggplants, craggy and misshapen heirloom tomatoes, hearth-baked sourdough boules, ripe farmstead cheeses, and the like.
Food tours are the speed-dating version of cultural immersion, a three-hour primer with heavy sampling of local food and drink, the opportunity to meet the very people who make the food magic, and a side order of historical information. So, whether you’re hosting guests from out of town, or just want to understand this “toddlin’ town” a little better yourself, book a food tour and indulge a little. One thing is certain: You won’t go hungry.
When all of the guides are “native Chicago professional chefs,” you know you’re in good hands. These small tours spotlight culinary neighborhoods, like Pilsen/Little Village, Maxwell Street, and Bronzeville/Hyde Park/Bridgeport. You’ll taste plenty of deliciousness, of course, but also hit many local cultural touchpoints, like the street murals of Pilsen, President Obama’s neighborhood, and the National Museum of Mexican Art. Discover some of Chicago’s hidden gems guided by people who really know their stuff. Plus, drinks are included at select stops. Custom group tours are also available. ($135 per person)
Not surprisingly, this company focuses on the plethora of craft beers and breweries in Chicago, but throws in some history as well. There are three walking tours to choose from — Bacon & Brewing (Lakeview/Lincoln Park), Sin & Suds (Loop/South Loop), and Pioneers & Pints (Bucktown/Wicker Park) — and they run on Thursday through Sunday afternoons, depending on the specific tour and time of year; each lasts three hours and includes at least 10 beer tastings (equivalent to about four pints, so maybe plan on a ride-share service or the CTA) and a little bit of food to absorb all that beer. ($62 per person; $35 non-beer tasting tickets)
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, filled with the rich culture of immigrants, and the best way to discover it is to literally walk the walk. These 3.5-hour tours capture that feeling by spotlighting the Argyle and Andersonville areas on their “Saigon to Stockholm Food Tour,” which throws in some of Andersonville’s Middle Eastern cuisine as well. The “Little Italy Food Tour” takes you through one of Chicago’s oldest neighborhoods, visiting the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and stopping at Italian cuisine stalwarts to give you a feel for the real Little Italy. ($62 per person)
Chicago pizza goes far beyond deep dish, so hop on the Chicago Pizza tour bus to discover just how far. On the 3.5-hour “Original Chicago Pizza Tour,” you’ll wind your way through many neighborhoods, tasting as you go, with stops at Flo & Santo’s (South Loop), Pequod’s (Lincoln Park), Piece Pizza (Bucktown), Spacca Napoli (Ravenswood), and more. Truly a comprehensive expedition! You can also opt for the “Big Shoulders” walking tour (five stops) or the adult-only Pizza & Cocktails Tour (they provide the driver for this progressive dining and imbibing tour). Private tours also available. ($50-$80 per person, dependent on tour; discount for kids)
It’s not surprising that Chicago’s first (and thus oldest, of course) food tour company has the largest selection of tours from which to choose, from the original “Second City Classic” (hot dogs, Garrett’s popcorn, deep-dish pizza, etc.) or “Chinatown Adventure” (classic Chinese egg tarts, barbecue pork buns, dim sum, and more) to the more recently added “Gateway to the West Loop” (Do-Rite donuts, Urbanbelly, Bonci Pizza, etc.) food tour. (Prices range from $45-$75 per person)
Get the personal touch with guide Rebecca Wheeler, a professional cooking instructor and global traveler, on a private tour of the Argyle (Southeast Asian), Chinatown, or Devon (Indian and Pakistani) communities. These tours veer off the typical tourist guidebook path, and can be customized for up to 10 guests. You’ll learn the historical and cultural ramifications of each destination and cuisine, with numerous opportunities to taste, shop, and learn along the way, visiting local markets and points of interest as well as restaurants and food vendors of note. (Price ranges from $82.50-$150 per person, depending on number of spaces booked)
James Beard Award-winning broadcast journalist Steve Dolinsky (aka “The Hungry Hound”) loves pizza, and he knows that you do, too. After researching his new book, “Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago is America’s Greatest Pizza Town” (Northwestern University Press, to be released September 2018), he had so much great material that he launched a tour business in May. The three-hour long walking tours offered each weekend cover the Wicker Park/Bucktown, West Loop, and West Town areas; the Saturday bus tour lasts 3.5 hours. Each tour offers tastes of four distinct styles of Chicago pizza, from tavern-style to classic Chicago deep dish, artisan-style to coal-fired. Beverages not included. (Walking tours, $49 per person; bus tour, $69 per person)
The four-hour walking tour of Little India features visits to a temple, a sari boutique, an Indian bookstore and other specialty stores, as well as various snacks and Indian delicacies as you traverse Devon Street. Explore the cuisine, history, and more of this unique neighborhood — maybe even get a henna tattoo as a memento of your journey. Private tours also available. ($85 per person)
This one is a little (ahem) farther afield, but well worth the trip. Head out to the Brunner Family Forest Preserve in Dundee to see a working farm in action. Farmer Cliff McConville (he bills himself as the “Chief Eggsecutive Officer”) rides herd (sorry, puns are catchy) over free-range, grass-fed cattle, turkeys, chickens, and pigs as they wander happily around the property. The 90-minute hayride farm tour is free; hop on any Saturday at 2 p.m. Afterward, head to the farm store for raw Guernsey milk, pasture-raised eggs, local raw honey, heirloom wheats and grains from Hazzard Free Farms, grass-fed meat and pork, and more. (Free!)
As you’re enjoying your food and drink tour, take a moment to remember that there are many who don’t know where their next meal will come from. Feed your stomach, then your soul by joining the fight to end world hunger.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.