As that first really hot day of the year settles on Chicago, the screams for ice cream become downright deafening. From old-school ice cream parlors to newfangled scoop shops, Chicago's cone runneth over with sensational, scream-worthy ice cream destinations. Whether it's nostalgia or something a little more boundary-pushing, this handy guide to ice cream supremacy in Chicago is sure to satiate.
When it comes to vintage ice cream nostalgia in Chicago, it doesn't get any better than Margie's Candies. Any ice cream parlor that cites The Beatles as one-time customers is bound to be fantastic, especially when said parlor looks like it hasn't been refurbished since the Fab Four broke up in 1970. The best backdrop for wheel barrel-sized sundaes and splits is an ice cream shop lined with squishy booths, antiquated music machines, and a time-worn candy counter.
While not the most innovative assemblage or the best straight-up ice cream, it's the wholesome, lovingly crafted sundaes that make Margie's an essential, thanks largely to the warming fudge as thick as brownie batter and the whipped cream, which is as rich and smooth as airy buttercream. The more classic you go, the more pleased you will be. Case in point: Margie's banana split with chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice creams, thick hot fudge, whipped cream, and crushed peanuts is still the best split in the city. The Beatles would probably agree.
Windy City Sweets
If you judge an ice cream shop solely on how close it looks to a Willy Wonka-type Wonderland, then Windy City Sweets is your golden ticket. This classic Lakeview haunt is chock full of so much Americana sweets and ice cream that you practically get a cavity just by entering the front door. The candy (and fudge!) supply is great, but the ice cream is truly special. Windy City Sweets does a masterful job curating ice creams that are thick and rich, indulgent yet mercifully tempered on sweetness. It's ideally consumed in a chocolate-dipped, sprinkle-flecked cone, because... obviously.
It's the type of place with treacly cookie dough, neon-hued "Superman" ice cream, and other kiddie classics. I like the birthday cake ice cream, simultaneously tasting on point with legit cake batter without bludgeoning you to death with excess sugar stimulation. This is whimsy in a cone.
Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
Regardless of what certain chains might say, Jeni Britton Bauer is the real "dairy queen." The woman who ignited an ice cream renaissance in Columbus, Ohio with her namesake ice cream shop has become synonymous with seasonal and innovative ice creams. With several locations in Ohio, she brought her charming wares to Chicago via a sleek scoop shop on Southport. What sets Jeni apart is her unique approach to flavor combinations and textures. She clearly crafts ice cream from a crafty culinary standpoint, toying with unexpected flavors you'd sooner expect to find in a composed restaurant dish.
Your best bet is to opt for a couple different flavors and try them side-by-side. This affords ample insight into Jeni's stylings, like when you juxtapose the Yazoo Sue ice cream with rosemary bar nuts, cherry wood-smoked porter, almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, brown sugar, and cayenne, alongside wild lavender ice cream. The former is burly, brusque, and intense, while the latter is lighter, fresher, and more delicate. Together they form a lustrous yin and yang, especially when flecked with some dark chocolate "gravel"—crunchy ice cream toppers.
Scooter's Frozen Custard
The frozen custard at Scooter's Frozen Custard is such a delicious ice cream-adjacent product that I'd be remiss to exclude it in a roundup of Chicago's most sublime scoop shops. What Scooter's does best is pulverize candy and cookies and peanut butter into frozen custard "concretes" so thick you could fling the stuff off a building without it leaving the cup. But, you know, don't do that.
Softer, warmer, and more velvety than most ice cream, frozen custard lends itself well to the concrete treatment, as it holds up well to being blended with various toppings and accoutrements. My favorite flavor here is the PB&J, a decadent medley of vanilla frozen custard swirled with thick peanut butter and black raspberry jam. It tastes like someone's grandma made a peanut butter and jelly and then crushed it into a milkshake.
Black Dog Gelato
Another cooling dessert worth highlighting is the gelato at Black Dog Gelato, which the brainchild of crafty pastry chef Jessie Oloroso. Her offbeat gelato flavors are fascinating, not only in surprising ingredient combinations, but in silken texture and illustrious hue. You really can't go wrong with any of the them, from the rich malted vanilla to the goat cheese-cashew-caramel.
But one surefire means of summer refreshment is a root beer float. But this isn't just any root beer float, mind you. This one is made with Goose Island root beer, which is caramel-y and wonderful in and of itself, but exponentially more delicious when paired with milk stout gelato. Guests can select whichever flavor they want with the root beer, but the milk stout is just perfect. The boozy, creamy essence of the gelato marries seamlessly with the root beer, making for one divine sipper.
West Town Bakery & Diner
The vibe at West Town Bakery & Diner may feel like a polished version of vintage Americana lore, but thanks to pastry chef wunderkind Chris Teixeira, there's plenty of surprises lurking beneath the surface, especially in regards to ice cream. For summer, the chef has unveiled his own take on modernized ice cream cart/truck favorites, covering the classic gamut of freeze pops, frozen bananas, drumsticks, and more. One of the best bets is Teixeira's version of the classic ice cream sandwich.
Made with chocolate shortbread cookies and Nutella ice cream, this thing substantially raises the bar on ice cream bars. The wafer-like shortbread provides a pleasantly crispy bite against the velvety ice cream, so delicate and soft it's just a notch above soft-serve, providing a nice juxtaposition of crunch and custard. Sure it's messy as well, but that's what the wrapper is for.
Bill Kim is best known for his modern interpretations of ramen, dumplings, and Latin-Asian fusion, but one menu item equally worthy of adoration is his soft-serve ice cream. The dessert has been a fixture at Belly Shack since day one, but my favorite version is the PB&J soft-serve at Urban Belly. The velvety, slightly sweet soft-serve is heaped into a tall cup striated with ample doses of crunchy peanut butter and huckleberry jelly. I love this stuff for the satin-smooth texture of the ice cream, delicately sweet and emboldened by the sweet infusion of crunchy peanut butter, which adds a sort of feuilletine-esque bite, like you're chomping into the inside of a Kit Kat. It's a delicious gourmet riff on a childhood lunchbox staple.
The best example of an ice cream parlor that toes the line between bygone nostalgia and modern polish is Cone, the adorably named West Loop parlor with an Irish accent. Prior to Cone's opening, I wasn't aware Irish ice cream was a thing, but apparently it is, and it's pretty great, because any opportunity to consume Jameson in ice cream form is pretty cool. From milkshakes and sundaes to candy and soft-serve, the menu covers the whole spectrum of dessert.
I like the sundaes for their unique flavor combinations and textures, like the Irish Breakfast made with maple- and bacon-infused ice cream, hot fudge, and corn flakes. It arrives in an embarrassingly large portion with a cherry on top, perfect for plunging spoons deep down inside and shoveling into your mouth with reckless abandon.