In an era where you may find any sort of foodstuff on your gourmet pizza, the classic za with sausage not only gets overlooked, but looked upon suspiciously, as if one is ordering something called a Cannibalism Special off the menu.
Sausage is one of the foods where people avoid the manufacturing process not out of apathy, but outright terror. The hot dog, an item with an ingredient list that usually just reads DON’T ASK, belongs to the extended sausage family, as do the various wurtzes. Yet the hunger for sausage in all its forms is so pervasive that the health-minded went to the trouble of inventing turkey sausage in order to keep the delicious item on their breakfast plates.
The former Hog Butcher of the World goes in more for finance and lawyering than sausage these days. But as The Chicago Food Encyclopedia tells us, there’s a reason the city earned that title. Chicagoans’ love of sausage and sausage-making went back almost to the beginning:
Local sausage production began with German butchers in the 1850s. Oscar F. Mayer and his brother Gottfreid came from Germany to open his butcher shop on Sedgewick Avenue in 1883. They were one of many German sausage makers who have long since departed Chicago. Among the remaining companies is the redoubtable Paulina Meat Market founded by Sigmund Lekan in 1949. Paulina makes a huge variety of German and other sausages ranging from andouille to debreziner, Nuremberger bratwurst, rinderwurst, Swiss and German thuringers, and weisswurst. Gepperth’s, founded in 1906, also makes classic German sausages including knackwurst, bockwurst, bratwurst, and perhaps the only South African boerewors brats in the city. Since 1960, the Bavarian Stiglmeier Sausage Co. in Wheeling has made German-style products, especially Bavarian weisswurst and brats.
Jewish immigrants took up the sausage business beginning in 1860 when David Berg established his butcher shop on Wells Street. He sold kosher beef franks to local baseball fans as early as 1901. The Vienna Sausage Company was started by brothers Samuel Ladany and Emil Reichl in 1894, after they had moved to the city from Budapest the year before. The company moved into a larger facility on Halsted Street in 1920 and moved again to a facility at the intersection of Damen, Elston, and Fullerton Avenues in 1972 when the neighborhood was gutted to make way for UIC facilities. They stayed at that facility until an overhaul of that infamous intersection forced them to find new facilities in Bridgeport. Other Jewish companies, such as Best Kosher and Sinai 48 and Wilno, were sold to larger companies and no longer exist.
The Slotkowski Sausage Company, founded in 1918 by Joseph Slotkowski, proved instrumental as producers of the city’s Polish sausages—similar to a hot dog, but with larger-diameter hog casings and more aggressive spicing. Slotkowski had brought his son Leonard into the business by the time the company opened a factory on West 18th Street. Following the elder Slotkowski’s death in 1956, the company expanded production to more than 100 products as the popularity of the company’s sausages boomed with the city’s Polish population. The company fought declining margins until Slotkowski sold it to Joseph Halper in 1986. It was acquired at bankruptcy auction by ATK Foods in 1992, which still produces andouille, garlic sausage, kielbasa, and kiszka under the Slotkowski name.
ATK Foods began as Leon’s Sausage company in 1924. Leon Kurzawski came from Austria where he learned the art of sausage making. Located at 1143 West Lake St., the company grew especially well under the leadership of Leon’s granddaughter, Amylu Kurzawski. Sausages by Amylu, an all-natural chicken sausage line became so popular that the company expanded into gourmet sausage products that are sold in big box stores and groceries across the country.