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There are several hallmarks at a classic Chicago street food stand. The food centers around hot dogs, Italian beef, and the occasional pizza puff. The letter board menus (often featuring a soft drink sponsor) make natives feel they are in a safe space, a place where they can find an affordable and quality meal. To honor these restaurants, Eater Chicago has launched a regular feature called Standing Reservation highlighting some of the more noteworthy stands around the city and suburbs.
Next up is Jim’s Original, a Chicago street food staple for more than 80 years.
Let Eater know about your favorite street food stand by emailing [email protected] with the subject “Street Food.”
Chicago’s distinctive dragged-through-the-garden hot dogs are the subject of much chatter, but locals know there is no earnest conversation about their city’s street food without paying dues to Jim’s Original. First established in 1939 on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets in the epicenter of Chicago’s historic Maxwell Street Market, the stand’s Yugoslavian-born founder Jimmy Stefanovic is credited with creating the now-famous Maxwell Street Polish sausage sandwich, a culinary invention that many feel has become synonymous with the Windy City.
Spelled out, the components of a Maxwell Street Polish are deceptively simple: a flat-grilled smoked pork and beef Polish sausage with a slightly crunchy casing, piled with caramelized sweet onions, topped with a few spicy sport peppers, and couched in a yellow mustard-smeared hot dog bun. When delivered in concert, however, the sweet-hot-garlicky-meaty melange has earned generations of fans.
Adherence to tradition is important at Jim’s, which was long known for its 24-hour service. But change was foisted upon the adored stand in 2021 when its landlord, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), told ownership that it needed to close between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. daily as part of an effort to reduce crime in the area. A second location is also open at 2775 N. Elston Avenue.
Third-generation co-owner Jim Christopoulos answered a series of emailed questions. Below are his lightly edited responses.
Eater: Who are you and what is your relationship to Jim’s Original?
Jim Christopoulos: I am Jim Christopoulos and a co-owner and operator of Jim’s Original (aka Jim’s Original Hot Dog, Jim’s Original Maxwell Street). I own the stand with my parents.
When did Jim’s Original open?
We have been open since at least 1939, and sometime before that. My grandfather, Jim Stefanovic, began working at his aunt’s hot dog stand on the northwest corner of Maxwell and Halsted Streets in 1939. Shortly after that, Jim was running the stand and bought it from his Aunt. We have continuously operated the stand since Jim’s passing in 1976, even after we had to move for the UIC expansion in 2001.
What’s the one thing that customers would notice if you changed?
Our menu and preparation are simple so I expect our customers would notice almost any change to the menu, but most definitely they would notice a change to the onions. Onions are served on every sandwich, so if we changed the onion or the cook of the onions, I am certain our customers would notice.
That is important for three reasons: (1) Origins: Keeping true to our origin as a simple hot dog stand selling Maxwell Street sandwiches; (2) Relevance: Jim’s has served so many Polish sausages to Chicagoans for such a long time that it is a quintessential part of the Chicago Street Food scene, and Jim’s is one of the last remnants of Maxwell Street; and (3) Authenticity: Jim’s is authentic and the Original Maxwell Street Polish Sausage Stand. We stay true to the way Jim served Maxwell Street sandwiches when we were on that famous corner.
What is the best-selling item at Jim’s, and what do you think makes it special?
Polish sausage. It is special because it is our own recipe for Polish sausage created over 80 years ago by Jim. It can only be purchased at our stand and cannot be found in any other stand or store. It has the perfect blend of spices balanced by smokey pork flavor and it pairs exceptionally well with yellow mustard and sweet grilled onions.
How did the end of 24-hour service impact the stand?
We lost almost 20 percent of our gross revenue. Our low prices are based on volume, and we can only afford to keep prices low if we are able to sell a large volume of food. So our margins are being squeezed, but more important than that is the loss of late-night customers. Our late-night customer base must have shifted to other restaurants in other areas and we may never regain our reputation as a place for great late-night street food.
How have price increases for food affected Jim’s Original in recent months?
Over the past year, there have been substantial price increases for almost all food and ingredients, most in the range of 10 to 30 percent. It’s another squeeze on our margins. We raise our prices only once a year in July, so until then, we just have to suck it up. When we raise prices we try to keep them at a minimum so that we maintain our “street food” status and don’t price ourselves out of the market.
What do you think makes Chicago street food special?
Chicago street food is special because it is unique and hearty food that has been developed over many decades and Chicago’s long history as an epicurean center. It speaks of the many cultures that have come to Chicago and made it home. It is also food that has to satisfy customers in all types of Chicago weather, from freezing cold winters to sweaty hot summers.