Who Remembers Maxwell Street? (photo above Jerry Portnoy)
The Original Maxwell Street Market was an impromptu ghetto market established in the late 19th century by newly arrived Jewish residents from Eastern Europe. A Sunday-only affair, it was a precursor to the flea market scene in Chicago. The open-air market was officially recognized by the city in 1912. There one could buy almost anything, new or secondhand, legal and illegal. In need of jobs and quick cash, fledgling entrepreneurs came to Maxwell Street to earn their livelihood. Many say it was the largest open-air market in the country. From clothes, to produce, to cars, appliances, tools, and virtually anything anyone might want, Maxwell Street offered discount items to consumers and was an economic hub for poor people looking to get ahead. Few questions were asked about the origin of a vendor’s items for sale, particularly if the price was “right.” By the time of its demise (1994) it occupied approximately nine square blocks which was centered at Maxwell and Halsted Streets and stretched from Roosevelt Road to 16th Street.
There are however a few survivors: “As you approach Jim’s Original hot dog stand on Union Street, your nose is immediately hit with the sweet fragrance of grilled onions that sizzle in a pile 24 hours a day. They’re the final touch on Jim’s best selling item: the Maxwell Street Polish sausage. “We start with a steamed bun. Then, we add the Polish, mustard, grilled onions and pepper on the side,” said longtime Jim’s Original manager Betty Domagala a native of Poland, so it might make sense that she oversees a crew that cranks out thousands of these Polish sausages every day. But the story of Jim’s Original started 80 years ago with a Macedonia immigrant named Jim Stefanovic. To celebrate that 80-year milestone, the stand will be selling its signature link for 80 cents on Monday, July 8, between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., and giving away t-shirts to early customers. The Stefanovic family says founder James Stefanovic arrived in the U.S. in 1939 and quickly made his way to Chicago. Soon, he started working with his aunt at her hot dog stand at Maxwell and Halsted streets and eventually bought it from her.
He renamed the place Jim’s Original and started serving Polish sausages and pork chop sandwiches with his signature grilled onions and mustard. Stefanovic’s son, Gus, took over after his father died in 1976, and the business continued to thrive in the middle of the Maxwell Street Market for decades.
But, like a lot of businesses in the area, Jim’s Original was forced to move during the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago. It first moved, in 2001, across the street from the original location. In 2004, the stand moved around the block to its current location.
You might notice a pretty similar 24-hour restaurant called Express Grill right next door to Jim’s Original on Union, serving essentially the same menu. The businesses were also neighbors on Halsted Street and are reportedly connected through family ties. But the rivalry remains fairly civil with both claiming their respective fans. So what’s the secret to the deliciousness of Jim’s best-selling item? Domagala thinks it’s the whole package, but especially the sausage.
“We get it from a company that makes it specially for us,” she said. “It’s our old recipe that has been with us for 80 years, but it’s a secret and I cannot share it.” And how can her staff serve up these sausages with such lightning speed — usually delivering a finished bag of food to you within a minute of your order?
“I timed how long it takes them to assemble a Polish, and it’s about 3 seconds,” she said proudly of the sausages that are usually fully cooked and sizzling on the grill. “It’s because the Polish is so simple and our people know how to make it, how to start and finish it, and it’s just great teamwork.”
It also helps that they have those piles of onions, hot, caramelizing and ready to go, 24 hours a day.
(Thanks to Monica Eng)