Whether served atop an Italian beef, slice of pizza or by itself as an antipasto, giardiniera is a quintessential Chicago foodstuff.
The versatile condiment is categorically delicious: crunchy and spreadable, with a bright, fresh taste that rounds out your favorite savory dishes. Yet somehow, it lacks a true recipe. And you could say the same for the condiment’s obscure history in Chicago.
According to Dr. Daniel Block, author of Chicago: A Food Biography, the history of how giardiniera made its way from Italy to Chicago is unknown. What we do know are its general contents: smaller pieces of vegetables pickled and then placed in oil.
As Block explains, “a Chicago hot dog has specific ingredients, but giardiniera is loose: cauliflower, peppers … some have olives, others don’t, some are hot, some are not.” But they all “must have that flavor that wakes you up.”
So why is it so popular in Chicago?
“Giardiniera is one of many foods with rich European cooking that became industrialized in Chicago,” Block explains. Many Chicago foods (such as Chicago hot dogs and Italian beef) were popularized in the first half of the 20th century, when people needed food that was cheap but hearty. “That kind of food calls out for condiments. A preserved condiment like giardiniera makes a lot of sense as a topping for a food that can be bland.”
But while many options abound, finding the right bottle can be a risky endeavor. Which is why I conducted a blind tasting of seven local varieties. Here’s how it all went down.
I established four main categories for judging each giardiniera: taste, texture, spice and overall appeal. Each giardiniera was given a score from 1-5, with 1 being poor, and 5 being excellent, for a total of 20 points. To control for bias, each giardiniera was placed in unmarked containers by someone who did not write this article.
For consistency, all giardinieras selected were at the mild spice level (the exception being Potbelly Brand Hot Peppers, which are only offered in one variety). I tasted each brand on its own, as well as topped on cheese pizza.
Bari Mild Giardiniera
Bari — the West Side Italian sub shop and grocery — makes three varieties of house giardiniera. Bari’s version was the only variety to feature mushrooms in its mix. It’s olive-heavy, so if you’re not into olives, pass on this one. The mild version had virtually no spiciness, but there was a nice touch of crunchiness from the carrots and celery.
Ditka’s Mild Giardiniera
Da Coach has two varieties of giardiniera and the one I tasted was as good as the Bears. So … not great. Its consistency was overly oily, and too salty, but it did pack a decent crunch and nice chunks of veggies, including carrots.
J.P. Graziano Mild Giardiniera
The old-school West Loop sandwich shop makes its own giardiniera that you can get with your Italian sub, or in a jar to go. The mild variety was very salty but had a pleasant acidity. The most enjoyable part was its crunchy texture.
Marconi Mild Giardiniera
Perhaps one of the most recognizable names in giardiniera. But just like some others in the lineup, Marconi’s giardiniera was too salty. It had a poor oil-to-vegetable ratio, resulting in an oily mess of tiny chopped vegetables. This one also had a low spice level.
Mezzetta Chicago-Style Mild Giardiniera
While it was the only giardiniera in the roster made outside of Chicago, Mezzetta held its own. This was the most unique giardiniera of the bunch, because it had a strong oregano flavor. It wasn’t overly oily, and had a nice acidity and crunch.
Potbelly Brand Hot Peppers
Potbelly’s Hot Peppers hit my tastebuds with a strong but pleasant kick that lingered. It was the only giardiniera with full slices of jalapeno peppers, which made all the difference when it came to spice and crunch.
Vienna Beef Mild Giardiniera
Vienna Beef knows a thing or two about hot dogs (a perfect pairing for giardiniera). Its medium giardiniera variety had excellent crunch from large celery and carrot pieces. However, this mix had mediocre flavor and minimal spiciness (as to be expected with a mild giardiniera).
After adding up scores across all four categories, I arrived at a clear winner: Potbelly Brand Hot Peppers. I was surprised, too. And sure, my test is slightly flawed. Potbelly was the only spicy giard of the bunch. But its spice, acidity and crunch blew me away.
Here’s how the rest of the pack fared:
2nd place: Mezzetta Chicago-Style Italian Sandwich Mix Mild Giardiniera
3rd place: J.P. Graziano Mild Giardiniera
4th place: A tie between Bari Mild Giardiniera and Ditka’s Mild Giardiniera
6th place: Marconi Mild Giardiniera
7th place: Vienna Beef Mild Giardiniera