Pepperoni is America’s favorite pizza topping. There’s really no debate. In poll after poll, pepperoni has the No. 1 spot locked down. Look at the pizza emoji on your phone. That’s a slice of pepperoni pizza.
But stop by many cherished pizzerias in Chicago, and it’s a different story. Italian sausage enjoys a popularity at odds with the rest of the country. To be blunt, Chicagoans are obsessed with the stuff. At Gino’s East you can order Italian sausage flattened into a thin disc so big that it covers the entire pizza. Not to be outdone, Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria offers a “crustless pizza,” where the dough is completely replaced by a thick base of Italian sausage. (Don’t call it healthy, but it is gluten-free.)
And this isn’t just any Italian sausage. Many places either make the ground pork mixture in house or have a trusted local butcher shop make it for them.
To help better understand this sausage-fueled hysteria, I reached out to four local pizza restaurateurs to figure out why Italian sausage rules Chicago.
According to the owner of Lou Malnati’s, Marc Malnati, Italian sausage is “by far the most popular topping” at his restaurants. What does that mean for a restaurant chain with 48 locations in the Chicagoland area, plus three in Arizona? “We buy a couple million pounds of sausage a year,” Malnati says.
Malnati has a theory about Italian sausage’s local popularity. “I think it started with the Union Stock Yards a couple generations ago,” he says. “The fact that pork was prominent in Chicago back then led to (sausage) being a staple.” That theory certainly checks out with the poet Carl Sandburg, who memorably dubbed our city “Hog Butcher for the World” in his 1914 piece “Chicago.”
Of course, that poem was published over 100 years ago, and the Union Stock Yards closed back in 1971. But “I think it became a habit,” Malnati says. “It’s like being a Democrat. It was just passed on from family to family.”
The Italian sausage at Lou Malnati’s differs from most in that it’s relatively lean. Malnati estimates its lean-meat-to-fat ratio at about 90/10, when the standard is closer to 80/20 or 75/25. Lou Malnati’s also seasons the mixture simply, mostly with salt, pepper and garlic. One ingredient it doesn’t have is fennel seed. “Never fennel. I think they use (fennel) to cover up bad meat,” says Malnati. That is a controversial opinion.
On the other end of the pizza spectrum, both in style and number of restaurants, is Pat’s Pizzeria, which has just one location in Lincoln Park. Pat’s serves an extra-thin crust, often referred to as tavern-style, that’s cut into square slices. Co-owner Gina Pianetto agrees that sausage is the most popular topping choice. “We usually end up going through 100 to 150 pounds of sausage a week,” Pianetto says.
Although she has no idea why sausage is so popular in Chicago, she’s proud that Pat’s recipe hasn’t changed since the restaurant first opened in the 1950s. “It’s the same recipe as my dad (Nick Pianetto Sr.) first wrote down,” says Pianetto. “Plus, we don’t use anything frozen. We get shipments in throughout the week, so nothing is sitting in the freezer.” Pianetto’s recipe, like many, contains fennel seed.
Sausage is also the No. 1 topping at Villa Nova Pizzeria in suburban Stickney, another practitioner of tavern-style thin crust. “The majority of the pizzas will have sausage on them,” says Sonny Adamczyk, whose wife co-owns the shop. “That’s just a Chicago thing.” The pizzeria gets its fennel-heavy sausage blend prepared specially for it by International Meat in Chicago, the same shop it’s worked with since 1955.
Like nearly every pizzeria in town, Villa Nova is not shy with its application of sausage. In fact, it goes further than most. Each sausage pizza comes with golf-ball-sized pieces of Italian sausage positioned precisely on the thin crust in a grid pattern so that every square slice has a sausage right in the middle. While this creates a distinctive look, Adamczyk actually likes the sausage shaped into tinier portions. “I prefer it in small pieces, so it browns more,” he says. You can ask for the smaller pieces when you order.
Even new pizzerias can’t ignore the draw of Italian sausage. Pizzeria Bebu, which opened last year in Lincoln Park, serves an artfully blistered thin crust that looks nothing like Chicago’s square-cut thin crust or hefty deep-dish. But owner Zach Smith and chef/partner Jeff Lutzow still couldn’t leave Italian sausage behind.
“We are both Chicago guys,” says Smith. “One thing we wanted to accomplish was to make the pizza we want to eat, but not forget where we come from, and Chicago is built on great sausage pizza.” Pizzeria Bebu’s house-made Italian sausage is heavily seasoned with garlic, chili and fennel. “I think that fennel is one of the defining characteristics of Chicago Italian sausage,” says Smith. (I told you fennel in Italian sausage was contentious.)
While the exact origins of Chicago’s infatuation are murky, thanks to a combination of history and sheer deliciousness, Italian sausage doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. As Marc Malnati let me know: “It’s a fantastic topping. There’s nothing better.”