Summer is here, which means picnic season is upon us, and in my book, picnics mean chicken. Whether fried, barbecued, or roasted, and served warm, hot, or cold, it’s what I crave when I’m sitting on a blanket on Ravinia’s Great Lawn, or at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Happily, we are living in the golden age of Chicago chicken, with our pick of Southern fried or Korean barbecued, Greek rotisseried or Latin broasted. It’s an embarrassment of riches, truly. So stop by one of these palaces of poultry and load up — after thoughtfully ordering ahead, of course — because your picnic basket is waiting for you to make the first move.
566 Chestnut St., Winnetka, 847-446-6000
Harrison’s free-range chicken, marinated in the Greek holy trinity of olive oil, lemon, and oregano, and rotisseried to perfection? Hard to improve on. Choose your sauce (riganati sauce or tamarind barbecue) and whether you want it in a rice bowl or sandwich or topping a classic Greek or Arugula and Apple salad, and you’re on your way. Call ahead to request whole roasted chickens.
900 E. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-546-7440
Lettuce wanted to get in on the take-out chicken action, so they opened this fried chicken joint on Navy Pier. Get an eight-piece, spicy, with the Buttermilk Ranch and the Sriracha Mayo on the side, and don’t forget the Green Chili Cheese Fries with pickled jalapeños. Take it outside and watch the fireworks on Wednesday and Saturday nights during the summer.
5347 N. Clark St., Chicago, 773-275-5725
It’s one of my top-three fried chickens in Chicago, and they’ve just put together a pickup Fried Chicken Picnic! Thank you, take-out gods. Inside the package, you’ll find a whole fried chicken (eight pieces), four biscuits with butter and jam, plus pints of Cajun-style potato salad and cole slaw. Even better? All of the picnic packaging is 100 percent recycled and compostable, and each picnic feeds three to four people handily. Dinner is sorted!
2163 S. China Place, Chicago, 312-877-5822/5832; 1615 N. Milwaukee Ave., Unit 100, Glenview
With locations in Chinatown and Glenview, you’re never too far from their signature Korean Fried Chicken. The question at hand: Soy Garlic or Spicy? Happily, a Half & Half option is available, and if you don’t take it, you’re a fool. You get a choice of side with each order, but the play is obviously the pickled radish. It can take awhile, so be sure to call and order the chicken ahead. With 30 wings or strips in a large order, you’ll be the most important person at any picnic.
125 S. Clark St., Chicago (Revival Food Hall); 1008 W. Armitage, Chicago; 4619 N. Western Ave., Chicago; 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, Floor 2, Chicago
If you like Nashville Hot Chicken, you must check out this spot (or spots, as the case may be, as they have outposts in Lincoln Square, Lincoln Park, Revival Food Hall, and the Merchandise Mart). They use only local chicken, all natural and hormone- and antibiotic-free birds. Your spicy chicken comes over thick-cut Texas toast, topped with house-made pickles. Collard greens and Mac ‘n Cheese are the side dishes of choice. The chicken tenders are out of sight.
2940 N. Broadway, Chicago, 773-697-7610
There are five varieties of Korean fried chicken to choose from at this Lincoln Park favorite, including the marinated and fried Plain Jane; the “subtly sweet” Seoul Sassy with ginger, soy, and garlic; and the Buffalo, with an advertised heat level of mild, spicy, or suicide. Wings or half or whole chicken? That’s a very personal decision.
1104 W. Granville Ave., Chicago, 773-754-0255
Edgewater is home to dak, where chickens give their lives for the greater good. Get in my belly, I say. I’m partial to the Dukbokki, chewy rice cakes topped with chicken and Korean Barbecue sauce. Don’t be an idiot — order the kimchi, Korea’s ubiquitous condiment of pickled and fermented cabbage, the perfect foil to any Korean dish. A word to the wise: Large party take-out orders must be placed three days in advance.
1925 N. Ridge Ave., Evanston, 847-328-9360
Evanstonians have been devoted fans of this stalwart for over a quarter century. Why? My guess is, a combination of the shatteringly crisp fried chicken coating, and the can’t-beat-it price. You don’t have to be an ETHS or Northwestern student to appreciate value for your money, do you? So next time you’re throwing a rager, or hosting a family picnic, check out their party pan options.
847 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, 312-733-1971
It was a happy day in Chi-town when this Memphis favorite opened their West Loop storefront, where the chicken is always fresh, and (allergen alert!) fried in peanut oil, which has a higher smoke point than most other oils. Get a 20-piece order of their hot and spicy fried chicken with a few sides, perhaps the potato salad and cole slaw in keeping with the summertime picnic theme.
100 W. 87th St., Chicago, 773-224-3314
Grab your bucket (or party pack) of wings from this South Side darling. It’s been around since 1950, serving up fried chicken to hungry Chicagoans and tons of celebrities. Chance the Rapper is a serious fan.
1902 Green Bay Road, Evanston, 847-492-1182
After more than 30 years in business, it’s still the sauce at Hecky Powell’s barbecue joint that keeps ‘em coming in — that, and Hecky’s philanthropic support of the Evanston community. You’ll love his smoked wings and the whole barbecue chicken; if you’re feeling ambitious, make your own sandwiches from a few pounds of pulled chicken and a pack or two of mini buns. A half pan of Red Beans & Rice is the perfect accompaniment.
3361 N. Elston Ave., Chicago, 773-478-4000
Everything about this place is special, from the caring way they treat their staff to the way they protect the environment and give back to the community. Maybe that’s why their fried chicken is so damn good. Look for the Honey Butter Fried Chicken Pack, perfect for a picnic or party of 10 or so. It includes 20 pieces of fried chicken (all boneless, except for the drumsticks), 15 corn muffins, and a tub of honey butter. Drag that crispy, beautifully seasoned chicken through the soft honey butter on the way to your hungry maw. You’re welcome.
4609 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, 773-961-8196
You are spoilt for choice at this Lincoln Square spot, where chef/owner Darnell Reed is inspired by the food of the south — and his great grandmother (Luella, of course). Whether you opt for his Buttermilk Fried Chicken or the Hickory- and Cherry-Smoked Jerk Chicken, you are in for a treat. The House-Milled Cream Cheese Grits, made with coarsely ground cornmeal from Three Sisters Farm, is a revelation, and the sweet potatoes glazed with Southern sorghum are crazy good.
Named for a spicy African chili, the base for their signature sauce (with an able assist from garlic, lemon, oil, and vinegar), this beloved chain combines culinary traditions of Mozambique and Portugal. The 12 busy Chicagoland locations are testament to its deliciousness. What to order for your hungry crowd of outdoor concert goers? The Jumbo Platter, which features two whole chickens with two extra-large sides (hint: garlic bread and the flame-grilled corn on the cob), will feed four to six people.
6568 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago, 773-381-9480
They’re all about the chicken fingers here, and man, are they amazing. Chicken fingers? Amazing? Yes. Make-a-special-trip good. Southern-friends-weeping good. All they serve: chicken fingers (buy a single order of four or six, or go big with the tailgate option of 25, 50, 75, or 100 … or more), crinkle-cut fries, Texas toast, coleslaw, Cane’s special sauce, and beverages. That’s it. But if you only make one thing, you better make it perfect every time — and they do. Crunchy crust without, moist white-meat chicken within.
1467 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago, 312-261-5564; 455 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, 312-877-5738; 400 S. Financial Place, Chicago, 312-285-2207
This is Southern-style fried chicken, and it’s got the stuff. Lakeview and River West are the neighborhood locales for all this yummy. They’ll need 48-hour notice for your grande order, because they marinate the chicken for a full day before hand-breading and frying it up for your dining pleasure. Whether you choose the original, spicy, or Nashville Hot Chicken, you won’t be disappointed, especially if you opt for the make-your-own Chicken Biscuit Sandwiches on their killer, house-made buttermilk biscuits.
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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.