The state: Ah, Illinois. It is the most joyfully, unashamedly corrupt Blue State in America—from the Daley dynasty to Rod "Get Yer Elections Here" Blagojevich to Dan "Mail Fraud" Rostenkowski. I miss it so much. Home to Chicago, where snowplow signs go up at 11 pm and the tow truck comes at 5 am, and which remains the only city where a policeman has offered to beat somebody up for me. ("Because that's what we do best," the cop told me. The guy they were going to beat up had sucker-headbutted me in the face, after threatening to assault one of my friends.) Home to East Saint Louis, where the median income is $11,000 (on the books!) but the police all drive luxury SUVs. God Bless Illinois. And God Bless America.
The food: Sure, Chicago's got the biggest Polish population outside of Warsaw, but that mostly manifests as bars named Zimne Piwo ("cold beer"), filled with big dudes who know the names of the entire offensive line but couldn't give two shits about the quarterback. But the Chicago Red Hot or Vienna Beef hot dog is nowhere near as distinctive as the city's Italian fare: the deep-dish pizza or, especially, the Italian Beef, a sandwich so singularly sloppy there's a specific "Italian Stance" you have to use to eat it: hunched forward over the sidewalk, so the juices don't fall on your necktie. What is it? Thin-sliced roast beef, sauteed with Italian spices, heated in a beef broth (called "gravy" or "au jus", though technically it is neither) made from meat drippings and even more spices. You scoop the dripping meat out of the jus into chewy Italian bread, and top it with a wealth of Chicago's signature giardiniera, a mess of hot pickled veggies mix similar to Mezzetta hot mix. (Some order sweet peppers instead, but who talks to such people?) Then the entire sandwich is dunked in or doused in the gravy. That's why the bread has to be chewy. It has to withstand the wetness. If you ask for wet or juicy, the damn thing's a swimming pool. And it is wonderful. The FDA recommends eating no more than one a year.
Other dishes considered and rejected: Chicago deep dish pizza (well-covered, and we don't really have a great one in Portland), Chicago thin "cracker-crust" pizza (who cares!), Chicago hot dog (R.I.P. Wayne's Chicago Red Hots), Chicken Vesuvio, Twinkies, Crackerjacks, Lemonheads, all things McDonald's, the Springfield horseshoe sandwich.
The Italian Beef sandwich at Michael's
Kids' art on Michael's wall
Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.