Hot dogs, deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches are the quintessential culinary hallmarks of Chicago, and for decades, three major brands have been delighting tourists and locals alike with their versions of the classics, all while expanding their restaurants across the country.
Gino’s East, Giordano’s and Portillo’s have successfully taken their cheesy, meaty concoctions into new markets around the country while staying true to their Windy City roots.
All three chains saw an opportunity to go national in part because of former Chicago residents and retirees who had flocked to warmer parts of the country but, craving a taste of home, were ordering from them through their nationwide food shipping programs. The restaurant owners in turn felt they could also make fans of people in those states who weren’t familiar with the Chicago restaurants.
“People love pizza, so there’s opportunity everywhere,” said Jordan Himmel, chief information officer at Gino’s East, which has been serving up Chicago-style deep-dish since 1966.
When it comes to expansion plans, Portillo’s, Giordano’s and Gino’s East had a leg up on other local restaurants. All of the chains already were well established in Chicagoland, with multiple locations in the area and therefore huge name recognition that was built over several decades. Compared to mom-and-pop hot dog stands and pizza joints, they also had the money and resources to expand nationwide.
Born in Chicago
Although burgers, salads and pasta also appear on its massive menu, Portillo’s is best known for its Chicago-style hot dogs—loaded with onions, relish, dill pickles, tomato slices, sport peppers and celery salt on a poppy seed bun—and Italian beef sandwiches made with extra gravy.
Portillo’s started as a humble hot dog stand, “The Dog House,” in 1963 in Villa Park, Ill., and its owner and founder, Dick Portillo, renamed it Portillo’s in 1967.
In its early days, Portillo’s was strictly a suburban phenomenon. It didn’t open its first downtown Chicago restaurant until 1994. In 2005, the chain expanded outside of Illinois to Buena Park, Calif., and Moreno Valley, Calif., and now, it has 48 total restaurants, including outposts in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
That expansion happened thanks in part to the restaurant’s passionate social media fan base, according to Nick Scarpino, Portillo’s vp of marketing and public relations. “We could post on Facebook, ‘The weather today is sunny,’ and we’ll get 400 comments saying things like, ‘Please bring Portillo’s to Nashville.’ It’s flattering. It’s awesome,” he said.
That same passion can be found among fans of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza chains Giordano’s and Gino’s East. Both have a larger national footprint than competitor Lou Malnati’s (which opened a Phoenix outpost last year) and local favorites like Pequod’s, which has two locations in Chicagoland.
“I challenge people to try all of them,” Gino’s East’s Himmel said of the deep-dish competition. “Just because it’s deep-dish doesn’t mean that it’s the same. We all took different routes with our crusts. It’s like wine, really.”
Gino’s celebrated its 50th anniversary last year—it opened its first location in 1966—and now has 18 locations around the country, where customers are encouraged to add their own graffiti to its walls and tables.
“It’s a signature part of our brand, no pun intended,” Himmel said. “Having that nostalgic moment when you come back—as a baby boomer, your name is on the wall, you bring your kids there, and then they’re bringing their kids there to put their names on the wall. You can see how a pizza business has transformed a lot of families.”
Italian immigrants Efren and Joseph Giordano opened Giordano’s first location in 1974 on Chicago’s South Side, and it now has 51 restaurants in the greater Chicago area as well as locations in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan and Nevada.
“We tell our story, our history and describe our unique recipe on social media to make ourselves stand out,” said Giordano’s CEO Yorgo Koutsogiorgas.
Taking such beloved local institutions nationwide involved a blend of new- and old-school marketing tactics.
All three chains make good use of the data collected from their online shipping programs—each one ships its food to all 50 states and uses that data to help decide where to open new locations.
Portillo’s, for instance, expanded to Arizona in 2013 because it was the No. 1 state it was shipping its food to. Portillo’s also looks at census data on where former Chicagoans live, with Phoenix, Ariz., and Tampa, Fla., being prime cities.
“If you go to a place where people have heard of you, it makes it easier,” Scarpino said. “Then, we do all the things everybody else does when scouting sites. We look at the demographics, population, drive times and staff.”
Gino’s East, which uses largely the same methods as Portillo’s to determine where to expand to, also cites the Phoenix area as a hot location, especially with nearby Mesa as the home of the Chicago Cubs during spring training.
“There was an enormous amount of pizza being shipped to Phoenix on an annual basis,” Himmel said. “Then, with the Cubs’ success recently, it became that much hotter.”
Besides using ZIP code data on nationwide shipping and tracking credit card use in its restaurants, Giordano’s uses a decidedly old-school marketing tool to promote its Phoenix and Las Vegas locations. The chain invites members of cab drivers unions to its restaurants for free food in the hopes that cabbies will then recommend Giordano’s to their passengers.
“We’ve been very successful with those types of ambassadors,” Koutsogiorgas said.
Keeping things hot
To foster loyalty among Chicago food lovers nationwide, all of the chains must balance their Chicago-centric brand message while focusing on quality food.
“We’re a Chicago brand, but we also have exceptional pizza. And we always keep that in mind,” Gino’s East’s Himmel said. To keep fans coming back, the restaurant offers a loyalty program and holds private parties and rehearsal dinners (many of the couples had their first dates at Gino’s, according to Himmel).
Giordano’s, meanwhile, has a blog with Chicago vacation tips, Cubs history and more social-friendly content, and fills its restaurant with local design touches, while training its staff to talk about Chicago culture.
“The design of the restaurants evokes the Chicago spirit. The bridges, the L train, the beautiful architecture—anything that connects you to the Chicago landscape,” Koutsogiorgas said. “Then we take to social media to keep people interested.”
Portillo’s capitalizes on fun social media moments to get people talking as well. Earlier this year, when a Reddit user offered a $300 bounty for a slice of Portillo’s lemon cake, which the restaurant stopped selling 10 years ago, Portillo’s donated the $300 to charity and brought the cake back to its restaurants for the month of June.
“It’s about creating situations where people are talking about Portillo’s,” Scarpino said. “People like talking about it, and we want to give them more chances to do it.”
The biggest long-term marketing challenge for Portillo’s is keeping enthusiasm for its nationwide restaurants high after its initial openings, he added.
“When we open a new location, anybody who has heard of Portillo’s will show up in the first few months, and they’ll drive from far away,” he said. “Six months or a year after we open, though, we want to make sure we’re still reaching out to people who don’t understand it. Being from Chicago is important to us, but we know that some consumers don’t know or care about Chicago. It starts with great-tasting food. We don’t want it to be, ‘Let’s go out for Chicago food,’ we want it to be, ‘Let’s go out for great, Portillo’s food, and they were born in Chicago.’”