One of the most important parts of a great road trip is the food! From world-class barbecue and bushels of fresh produce to hometown favorites and decadent desserts, the Great River Road offers delicious choices.
Illinois is home to some of the finest BBQ in the United States. To find it, look no farther than Murphysboro. Dubbed the BBQ Capital of Illinois, it boasts two BBQ joints whose pitmasters have been inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. 17th Street Barbecue has received nationwide acclaim, including serving the “Best Ribs in the U.S.” and being recognized as one of the “Top 10 BBQ Joints in the U.S.” Pitmaster Mike Mills dishes up BBQ using his Magic Dust and mustard-based barbecue sauce. Try your favorites with a side of tasty collard greens.
While its reputation is less widespread, locals say Pat’s BBQ and Catering goes toe-to-toe with the competition. Pitmaster Pat Burke doles out BBQ with his sweet and spicy rub and a sweet vinegar barbecue sauce. Except for potatoes and cobblers, everything is smoked at Pat’s BBQ. Savor your choice of delicious meats alongside a side of smoked mac and cheese.
Murphysboro isn’t the only place along the Great River Road with delicious BBQ. Locals all along the byway have their favorites, like Shemwell’s Bar-B-Que in Cairo, where it’s all about the sauce; Jim’s Rib Haven in Rock Island, where they’ve been making BBQ at this family-owned business for more than 30 years; and BEAST Craft BBQ in Belleville where the principles of fine dining are paired with high quality meats and the flavor of BBQ.
One thing we do really well in Illinois is comfort food. If it’s deep fried, carb heavy or covered in cheese, we make it…and it tastes good! Castelli’s at 255 in Alton has been making fried chicken with the same secret, trademarked recipe since 1937. It’s so popular that more than 70 percent of their customers have ordered it. Another fried chicken favorite is Gallagher’s in Waterloo. Its famous all-you-can-eat fried chicken Sundays have been voted “The Best Fried Chicken” by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Riverfront Times. They also serve a scrumptious candied bacon cheeseburger.
If you enjoy crispy, golden brown fish, then hit up Huckleberry’s Pub in Mounds, which claims to have the best catfish around. The Fin Inn, in Grafton, is as much a destination as it is a restaurant. Sit tableside at one of four 2,000-gallon fish tanks while enjoying all-you-can-eat fried catfish on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Are you a meat lover? Then we’ve got you covered. Maid-Rite in Quincy has been serving famous loose meat sandwiches since the franchise opened in 1928. Try yours like a local with a side of fries dipped in a chocolate shake. Serving dinner since 1937, the Log Cabin Steakhouse in Galena is the place for sizzling, juicy, hand-cut steaks. If you love cheese, start off with a flaming saganaki served with a scorching “Opa” flourish! At Rams Riverhouse in Port Byron, get two meals in one with The Ram Jam. Topped with crisp bacon, melted cheese, potato crowns and an egg, this burger is an all in one breakfast/lunch mouth-watering combination!
Along the Great River Road, there’s more than deep dish on the menu. Enjoy some of the best thin crust pizza around at Manny’s in Savanna or Manny’s Too in Fulton. Family-owned and operated since 1973, Manny’s serves delicious pizza and Mexican food in a casual atmosphere. Be sure to order tacos to go with your pizza. Gem City Pizzeria is the oldest pizzeria in Quincy. Locals love the nachos and Jeff’s Special – a pizza topped with sausage, pepperoni, ham, mushroom and extra sauce.
A trip along the Great River Road wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Quad Cities-style pizza. What exactly is Quad Cities-style? The crust has a nutty flavor, due to the addition of malt to the dough. Add a zesty sauce and cheese on top, and cut it into strips. In Rock Island, Harris Pizza is the go-to location for Quad Cities-style pizza. It first opened 50 years ago, when pizza was so new to the area that they had to give it away to get people to try it! Now it’s a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Try yours with Harris’ famous secret recipe sausage.
With almost 75 percent of the land used for farming, Illinois offers a bounty of locally grown foods. Buying local means growers can select varieties for their flavor instead of their long shelf life, resulting in fresher, tastier produce. Growing seasons run from the asparagus and spinach harvests of May to the pumpkins and apples of autumn and everything in between.
You can find a farmers market in almost every town along the Great River Road. Farmers markets are usually weekly or biweekly and offer a variety of local produce and vendors in one location. The Galena Farmers Market is held Saturdays from May through October. Local farmers, bakers and artisans offer everything from fresh produce, meats and delicious baked goods to beautifully handmade crafts and soaps.
Produce stands and roadside markets crop up along the Great River Road during the height of harvest season. They may offer just one crop or a variety. Odelehr’s Roadside Market in Brussels sells crafts, jams and jellies and pies, as well as produce, flowers and pumpkins.
Orchards and u-picks allow you to stroll among the trees and in the fields, selecting the freshest produce. Known for its variety of hot peppers, Happy Hollow U-Pick in East Moline also grows 48 vegetables and berries. Eckert’s started out as a small roadside stand in 1910. Its Belleville location now has pick-your-own fruits and vegetables, a restaurant, country store and garden center. Eckert’s also hosts special events and free concerts during the summer. Visit Jacobs Orchard in Golden Eagle if you are looking for the famed (and delicious!) Calhoun County peaches, usually ready in late June and into July.
A trip along the byway is perfect for those who love desserts. Grab lunch at My Just Desserts in Alton, known for its half-pound chicken salad sandwich and the 9 to 13 different pies served fresh daily. Menu favorites include Mrs. Ledbetter’s chocolate pie and Toll House brownies.
If you’re looking for tasty baked goods in northern Illinois, check out Krumpet’s Bakery in Fulton. It serves breakfast all day and sandwiches made with homemade bread, but a meal at Krumpet’s isn’t complete until you’ve sampled its made-from-scratch pastries or desserts. Choose from a rotating variety of cream puffs, éclairs, pies, cakes and more. Headed to Quincy? Follow the scent of cinnamon to Underbrink’s Bakery, “The Best Bakery in Illinois,” according to Taste of Home magazine. Serving authentic German recipes since 1929, Underbrink’s is known for its amazing ice angel food cupcakes.
If cold treats are more your style, check out Bobby’s Frozen Custard in Maryville, voted “Best Ice Cream Stand in the Area” by Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville and “Best Ice Creamery” by the Riverfront Times. Take your pick of vanilla or chocolate custard and mix in a variety of your favorite toppings for a one of a kind treat!
In the Quad Cities, no name is more synonymous with delicious confections than Lagomarcino’s. Grab a seat in an authentic mahogany booth, sip on a homemade soda, enjoy delicious handmade chocolates or try a tuna salad sandwich. If you love ice cream, savor one of Lagomarcino’s famous hot fudge sundaes, featuring a mini pitcher filled with their bittersweet fudge sauce to pour over homemade ice cream.
Whatever you have a taste for…it’s likely you’ll find it along the Great River Road.