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Who Invented Chicago Deep Dish Pizza?

Wondering who invented the deep dish pizza? Well, that depends on who you ask. Even Tim Samuelson, the city of Chicago’s official historian, doesn’t have a definitive answer. 

“I wish that there were more written records — recipes or vintage photographs,” Samuelson told the Chicago Tribune

“It’s an enigma, wrapped in a pie crust,” Chicago-based food writer Jeff Ruby told the newspaper. “Every day, it feels a little more lost to history.”

Indeed, there are two sides to this story, just as there are two sides to every pizza. Join us as we go deep, from top to bottom, to explore both versions of the tale. 

Story 1: Ike Sewell, the founder of Pizzeria Uno, invented deep dish pizza.

Sewell spent much of his career in the liquor business and made a good living for himself in the post-Prohibition era. Years later, he discussed opening a restaurant with local businessman Ric Riccardo. 

Sewell wanted to serve Mexican food, but Riccardo thought that was no bueno. Sewell’s Plan B was pizza, but he wanted to serve pies that were more filling than your average ‘za. 

Eureka! He came up with the idea to make a much thicker, denser, and cheesier twist on the pizza, and Chicago deep dish was born. Decades later, Sewell sold the franchising rights to his Pizzeria Uno, bringing deep dish to cities around the country.

Yep, that’s how Chicago deep dish pizza was born. Unless…

Story 2: Rudy Malnati invented deep dish pizza.

The Malnati name should sound extremely familiar to pizza lovers everywhere. If you were to ask Chicagoans who serves the best deep dish pizza in the city, many would direct you to Lou Malnati’s, a local institution that now boasts more than 50 outposts. 

Like the many components of a deep dish pizza, the stories of Sewell and Malnati are intertwined. The Malnati version of events goes something like this:

  • Malnati served a longtime employee and bartender under Sewell.
  • Malnati, who spoke Italian and broken English, was a behind-the-scenes profit-sharing partner of the pizzeria. 
  • As the pizzeria’s most loyal employee, he created the legendary Chicago deep dish pizza, but did not outwardly seek credit for it.

So, where’s the proof? His son, Rudy Jr., points to a 1956 news article that credits Rudy Sr. with establishing Pizzeria Uno. 

It may not be concrete, but there’s little in the way of hard-hitting evidence in this matter. Chicago historians and pizza historians alike have spent decades on the case, but so far, no one has been able to get to the bottom of this endlessly deep mystery.

So, who invented the deep dish pizza?

We’ll leave that up to you to decide. 

Clearly, Sewell had a major hand in promoting and popularizing the deep dish pizza and, without his contributions, Chicago’s famed pie may have never achieved worldwide popularity.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that Malnati had at least something to do with getting deep dish off the ground, and his son Lou is responsible for Chicago’s most famous rendition of the classic.

Feel free to make your own judgements, but don’t do it on an empty stomach. Order a deep dish pizza on Slice and taste the history in every bite.

— Zach Links is an L.A.-based sports journalist who is equally concerned with the outcome of the game and what he’ll be eating at halftime. In addition to serving as a staff writer for The Sauce, he’s also the lead writer and editor of ProFootballRumors.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachLinks and on Instagram @FatZachLinks.