River Grove is a sleepy neighborhood of Chicago located about 25 minutes by car Northwest of ‘The Loop’. It’s mostly a residential area with little in the way of restaurants or nightlife, but Gene & Jude’s has been calling Chicagoans, tourists, and hot dog lovers for nearby states for the last 70 years to this modest suburb. It’s iconic and a must-visit on any trip to Chicago, but how has this small joint stood the test of time in a quickly changing food scene?
A Chicago Dog is a time-honored icon of Chicago. It’s something that’s replicated all over The Second City, and imitated across the country, but is relatively simple in its execution. A classic Chicago Dog starts with an all beef hotdog with natural casing, which ensures a nice “snap” when you bite into the dog. The dogs are steamed and placed into a poppy seed bun, then topped with with yellow mustard, neon green relish, chopped onions, tomatoes, pickles, sport peppers (essentially a small, pickled hot pepper), and celery salt. And, as always, there’s no ketchup. This style is the classic, one you’ll find at most hot dog establishments around Chicago.
On a weekday afternoon in the heat of summer, Gene & Jude’s is crowded, the line snaking through the no-seats establishment. The crowd is a mix of regulars, families, local rail workers, and tourists looking for a quick, cheap, and satisfying lunch, and the line is a regular part of the lunch rush at Gene & Jude’s. The line moves quickly considering how long it is, and the menu is simple. When it’s your turn to order, you only have a few options, so you better know what you want so the line keeps moving.
Gene & Jude’s offers a unique take on a Chicago Dog, and as legend goes, a twist dreamed up in the stands of Wrigley Field. The year was 1946 and founder Gene Mormino thought his hotdog at Wrigley Field was lacking. He started to experiment by adding fries to his dog as a way to add more crunch and salt to the mix. By 1950 the stand was so popular that he brought on a friend — Jude DeSantis — and opened a permanent location in River Grove. Virtually unchanged since the current location opened in the 60s, Gene & Jude’s lives by their motto:
No seats, No Ketchup, No Pretense, No Nonsense.
Gene & Jude’s Depression Dog is a variation on the classic dog and is somewhat limited in toppings compared to other Chicago Dogs. What the Depression Dog lacks in “salad” toppings is made up for in the pile of hand-cut fries that are served on top. It’s simple and unpretentious, and some historians argue that this was this was the original style of Chicago Dog. Born out of the idea that the Chicago Dog should be a full meal, the Depression Dog at Gene & Jude’s is consistent, fast, and cheap; something to grab on a lunch break or after school.
Long-time general Manager Dan Ciancio is a regular presence at Gene & Jude’s and while we chatted with him he frequently chipped in to help fill sodas or clean up. He’s been working at the shop since he was a teenager, working his way up from working the counter, to shift manager, to GM. Gene & Jude’s is a family establishment and it’s as evident in Dan’s history as with many others: his brother got a job there first while his mom was a regular who worked down the street; many of the current employees are high school students or returning college students, their shifts scheduled around busy lives.
Gene & Jude’s 70 year history is an unchanging part of the River Grove neighborhood, amassing a following that stretches into the far suburbs of Chicago. “For the most part, everything inside is the same. We’ve remodeled with some better equipment that helps us move the line faster, but that’s it,” Dan says. “We’ve been using the same brands for a long time,” he says, though now they have potato growers that sell just to them to maintain the quality and taste of their fries. It’s that consistency and quality that keeps loyalists coming back to Gene & Jude’s, and a regular clip of newcomers joining the ranks. “Several times a week we get people saying it’s their first time here,” Dan says.
There are essentially two options at Gene & Jude’s: a single or double dog, both topped with a pile of fresh-cut fries. Behind the counter is a bit of organized chaos with different people in charge of each part of the order. From steaming the buns to adding the mustard to cutting the fries, it’s a well-choreographed dance to get your order to you. “We wait until you order, everything's made to go,” Dan says. There’s an open aversion to ketchup — it’s right there in their motto — and you literally won’t find any there. “If you make fresh-cut fries,” Dan says, “you don’t need to dip them in anything to make them taste good.”
Chicago’s food scene has seen an explosion in recent years, but Gene & Jude’s has stood unchanged and unwavering in its commitment to a humble and simple dish. Quality ingredients and tradition are what bring Chicagoans to Gene & Jude’s on a daily basis and continue to entice outsiders. It’s a tradition that has lasted as food trends have come and gone, and Gene & Jude’s is not going anywhere any time soon.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.