Desserts in Chicago run the gamut from cold and creamy to firm and flaky. Jennifer Billock, a dessert lover who lives in Chicago, reveals seven iconic Chicago desserts that you won’t be able to resist. She shows you where to eat them too!
You probably already know Chicago’s famous savory foods: hot dogs, pizza, Italian beef, pizza puffs. But as a self-proclaimed historic Chicago bakery expert (hey, I wrote the book about them, it’s only fair), I have to tell you – if you haven’t tried iconic Chicago desserts, you’re missing out.
These are my six favorite desserts in Chicago, plus one I don’t like but feel obligated to include, along with some history of each and a recipe:
1. Atomic Cake
Atomic Cake is my favorite cake. I love it so much that we’re having custom trifles made from the cake’s ingredients at our wedding this year. But if you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably not alone. The iconic Chicago cake is a staple of the south and southwest side of the city.
Here’s how to build it: banana cake topped with Bavarian custard, sliced bananas, and whipped cream; then chocolate cake topped with strawberry glaze, sliced strawberries, and whipped cream; then yellow cake topped with a layer of fudge; and the entire cake covered in whipped cream.
The cake officially emerged in the 1950s (the exact date is unknown) at Liberty Bakery on the South Side, invented by baker George Kremm, who conceived of the cake years earlier while working at a different South Side bakery. Over the years the hyperlocal dessert stayed never left the neighborhood.
Luckily for me, my family is from that part of Chicago, and even though I live on the North Side now, I still know where to go to get the best version of this dessert (hello, Weber’s Bakery!).
2. New Look
The New Look itself is a buttery pecan coffee cake with custard filling surrounding the hole. The Bakers Dozen developed it in the 50s, but any further history of the pastry is lost to time.
If you want a New Look recipe, you may be out of luck. There’s only one place to get the authentic version now: Jarosch Bakery, which opened in 1959 and isn’t in the city at all, it’s in the nearby suburbs.
Jarosch Bakery is located at 35 S Arlington Heights Road, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007, USA.
3. Lemon Fluff
“Lemon Fluff! Lemon Fluff! Can’t get enough of Lemon Fluff!”
This catchy chant is usually heard from a parade float in Evergreen Park, just on the other side of the city limits. The float’s riders are touting the signature cake from Wolf’s Bakery, the Lemon Fluff cake. The cake is an airy lemon chiffon with whipped custard filling and topping.
When the bakery opened in 1939, it was a bestseller — and clearly still is, though I personally would love more of a lemony punch. (I know, it’s a whole lemon cake. I just can’t get enough lemon!)
For Chicagoans, a paczki (pronounced poonch-key) isn’t just a treat – it’s an entire holiday.
The Polish pastries look similar to jelly donuts with traditional fillings like rosehip and prune. Every year on Fat Tuesday, or as we call it, Paczki Day, everyone heads out to the bakery to snag a package of their favorite to devour at home. It’s a citywide tradition.
Chefs come up with creative fillings, lines stretch for blocks, and accordion players come out to entertain the crowds. If you don’t have a paczki, you’ll have bad luck for the rest of the year. My favorite flavor is the custard-filled.
Find a paczki recipe here.
If you’ve ever stayed at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel in Chicago, you can officially say you’ve slept where American dessert history was made.
In 1893, Bertha Palmer brought the world the brownie. Well, technically, the chef at the hotel did.
Palmer wanted something to go into boxed lunches for guests that were heading to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. She asked the chef to create a small cake-like dessert, and he churned out the classic chocolate brownie. Bertha Palmer (and chef), the world salutes you.
6. Garrett Popcorn
You probably know Garrett Popcorn, or as Chicagoans call it, just Garrett’s. Their Chicago mix of caramel corn and cheese popcorn is world-famous (and probably my least favorite food product created in this fine city). Interestingly enough, though, it wasn’t originally on the Garrett’s menu.
Customers made it themselves by buying a bag of caramel corn and a bag of cheese popcorn, and mixing them together in a third bag. It was officially put on the menu in 1977.
Everyone (except me) seems to love the salty and sweet combination – it’s a holiday staple in Chicagoland.
Editorial Note: Daryl & Mindi love Garrett’s ‘Chicago Mix’ and make a mandatory stop at the popcorn stand on every trip through Chicago. Sorry Jen!
You don’t really need a recipe for this one — just mix the two types of popcorn together and dive in.
Garrett Popcorn Shops are located throughout Chicago and at the city’s two major airports.
7. Rainbow Cone
Why have one flavor of ice cream when you can have five?
Rainbow Cone first started serving cones in 1926, and the iconic original version of the cone still has the same five flavors: chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House cherry, pistachio, and orange sherbet. The slices — yes, slices — of ice cream are stacked one on top of the other and served on a cone with a drip tray around the top. Though if you’re anything like my niece and nephew, that drip tray is essentially useless.
There’s a trick to eating the towering ice cream. Start your lick from the bottom and swirl upward, then turn the cone to start again, licking and turning, until you’ve eaten all the impending drips. (I learned that from my mom. We’ve got five generations of Chicagoans who all loved Rainbow Cone — my great grandma down to my niece and nephew.)
While you’ll need to make or buy your own ice cream, here’s a video about how to build a Rainbow Cone at home.
Rainbow Cone is located at 9233 S Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60643, USA
Chicago Dessert FAQs
Chicago is known for being the city where the brownie was invented back in 1983.
The brownie is Chicago’s most famous dessert. It was invented in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition
Some of Chicago’s best bakeries include include Jarosch Bakery, Weber’s Bakery and Wolf’s Bakery. These bakeries sell iconic Chicago desserts that have stood the test of time.
The brownie is the most popular dessert that was invented in Chicago. Its popularity spans the globe.
Hungry For More In Chicago?
About The Author
Jennifer Billock is an award-winning writer, bestselling author, and editor. She has written for numerous publications including Apartment Therapy, Conde Nast Traveler, FlyerTalk, Good Housekeeping, The Infatuation, The Kitchn, Lucky Peach, Marie Claire, Mental Floss, Midwest Living, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, Playboy, Readers Digest, Smithsonian, Thrillist, Wine Enthusiast and Yahoo Travel. Jennifer is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferbillock and on Instagram @jenniferjoanbillock, and check out her newsletter, Kitchen Witch.
We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.
Original Publication Date: February 19, 2023