The Maxwell Street Polish sausage sandwich is a simple thing: just the (usually garlic-y) sausage, onions, mustard, whole sport peppers and griddled onions on a bun. Yes, it’s that simple, but so very satisfying.
Like deep dish pizza and Italian beef, the Maxwell Street Polish sandwich is a Chicago original, a food created without much fanfare that achieved city-wide popularity and that’s found in few places outside Chicago and almost never on the white tablecloths of high-end restaurants.
Like many Chicago original foods, the origin of the Maxwell Street Polish is in some dispute, but consensus seems to be that it was first served at Chicago’s historic Maxwell Street at Jim’s Original. In those early days, the nearby Union Stockyards generated a lot of meat scraps that could be spiced up and turned into sausage, and the Polish workers who labored alongside other Eastern Europeans at the stockyards would have favored such a flavorful and inexpensive sausage.
Recently, I was at Jim’s Original researching a book about Chicago original foods that I’m writing with Monica Eng, a regular voice on WBEZ’s “Curious City” series. This book, to be published by the University of Illinois sometime in 2022, will feature around thirty foods that originated in the Chicago area, including well-known favorites like Chicken Vesuvio and the much lesser known Mother in Law.
“Our top-selling item is definitely the Polish sausage,” says Jim Christopoulos, grandson of James “Jimmy” Stefanovic, founder and namesake of Jim’s Original. Christopoulos has his sausage made according to a proprietary recipe, and one of his guys pickles the sport peppers in the backroom. The sausages he serves have usually been warming on the large window-side griddle for hours, staying warm and slightly charred alongside huge mounds of chopped onions.
Jim’s Original used to be on the corner of Maxwell Street and Halsted. “The Halsted Street bus stop was right in front, so we had lots of traffic,” said Christopoulos. “The Polish sausage was convenient, cheap, quick, filling, and delicious. It’s a one-third pound sausage, so it’s a sizeable meal.”
We were glad to see that Big Guys presents the Polish sausage in the traditional format: griddled with just the onions, mustard, and sport peppers. The sausage itself is about the same size as the ones we’ve enjoyed at Jim’s Original, and it is a “sizeable meal” …and kind of a mess to eat. It was good to be able to bring it home and eat it at a table, rather than standing and eating ours al trunko, as we do at Jim’s Original.
Fries are pretty much the standard “side” to a Maxwell Street Polish, and Big Guys cuts their potatoes in house, which makes a huge difference (fry aficionados will never give top honors to a frozen fry). It’s also particularly good that the Big Guys leave the skins on the potatoes for added flavor and texture.
With Big Guys, you call in or order online, pay in advance, and then they bring it out to your car, thus minimizing the human contact so dreaded in this plague time. And in a time like this, a beautiful Maxwell Street Polish offers not only comfort but a flavorful remembrance of Chicago’s culinary past.