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A History of Deep-Dish Pizza

Chicago’s deep-dish pizza gets its iconic look thanks to its many layers and sky-high crust
Chicago’s deep-dish pizza gets its iconic look thanks to its many layers and sky-high crust | © JaCrispy / Alamy Stock Photo
Chicago-style pizza is undoubtedly the Windy City’s most famed food. But the city did not always have such a penchant for deep-dish.

It’s thanks to Neapolitan immigrants that deep-dish pizza first got its start. During the late 19th century and early 20th century, Italian immigrants flocked to Chicago for factory jobs, bringing with them a love of pizza. Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, two such Italian descendants, decided to experiment and craft something a little different: a pizza born out of Italian and American tradition.

Giordano's Pizzeria, Chicago © Richard Brown / Alamy Stock Photo

In 1943, Sewell and Riccardo flung open the doors of Pizzeria Uno on the North Side, slinging pizzas that resembled more of a cake than Neapolitan pizza. This pizza is baked in a pan, with dough crawling up the sides like vines. Because the crust was so deep, more and more toppings were added and the pizza had to be cooked in the oven for a longer time. To avoid burning the cheese, Sewell and Riccardo decided to invert the toppings: the dough is first loaded with cheese (normally mozzarella), then meat, vegetables and finally glugs of tomato sauce spooned on top.

These days, Pizzeria Uno remains a hotspot in Chicago for tourists itching to taste deep-dish pizza. The pizzeria has since expanded to over 200 locations in states like Maine, Ohio and Wisconsin, along with international destinations such as Saudi Arabia and Honduras.

While the franchised locations feature a name change (Uno Pizzeria & Grill), the original location has kept the same name. Here, lines to get in perpetually curl outside and down the street, peppered with pizza fanatics. Once inside, there are wooden tables scattered throughout the space, topped with parmesan and red chili flakes shakers, as well as pans of half-eaten deep-dish pizza, pre-sliced and doled out on plates using a strong spatula. Tomato sauce and cheese ooze everywhere, making a meal here undeniably a knife-and-fork affair.

Uno Pizzeria, Chicago, IL © dov makabaw / Alamy Stock Photo

Although deep-dish pizza is generally attributed to Sewell and Riccardo, another Chicago pizza family often claims they are the true originators. Adolpho Malnati Sr, a former employee at Pizzeria Uno, has maintained that it was his idea that fueled the invention of deep-dish pizza. After a bit of tension between the families, Malnati’s son Lou left Pizzeria Uno to start a new deep-dish pizza establishment. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria opened in 1971 in Lincolnwood. Here, wedges of pizza are plated in thick triangles, boasting a flaky crust, tomato sauce made from canned tomatoes, Italian sausage and melted cheese.

Like Malnati, many of the original cooks and employees who started at Pizzeria Uno went on to open some of the best pizzerias in Chicago: Gino’s East, Pizano’s, Delisi’s Pizza and Louisa’s Pizza. Some have been so successful that they’ve opened locations elsewhere.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX/Shutterstock (812373aw) Gino's Pizzeria is an institution in the pizza business. Chicago, Illinois, America. Chicago, Illinois, America © REX/Shutterstock

Traditional deep-dish pizza has transformed and changed over time. At Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. in Lincoln Park, deep-dish is swapped for pizza pot pies. Dough is dragged across a ramekin to create a concave bowl, then jammed with hunks of cheese, mushrooms and a tomato sauce studded with home-made sausage. The whole thing is shepherded out of the kitchen and flipped over right in front of you, the toppings and cheese slowly sinking into the crust. And at Pequod’s Pizza, deep-dish pizza merges with pan pizza. Instead of ingredients being wrapped in dough like a pie, Pequod’s chars flaky crust in a pan until blackened and caramelized, then crowns it with coins of pepperoni and meatballs, chunky tomato sauce and cheese.

Many cities across the United States have welcomed deep-dish pizza into the fold, allowing it to sit aside New York slices, Detroit-style squares and Neapolitan pies. Even with these reincarnations outside of the Windy City, if you’re craving the real deal, Lou Malnati’s has you covered: the pizzeria ships their deep-dish pizza nationwide, so you can dine like a Chicagoan no matter where you live.

Chicago style deep dish pizza © Brent Hofacker / Alamy Stock Photo

This article is an updated version of a story created by Samantha Looney.