Recipe Roots™ – 91 years of Cincinnati Chili:
Any type of food that has been enjoyed for 91 years and counting can’t be half bad. Any food that was born on the hopes and dreams of two immigrants and has since turned into 100 million dollar plus industry is certainly worth a taste. Any food that can take you “home” with just one bite is pretty special. Everyone has their comfort food. Some of us have many. One of mine is Cincinnati chili.
Patricia Jonas marries Paul Hillen, 1953.
Both sides of my family hail from the banks of the Ohio River. My mother was born in Bellevue, Kentucky and raised in Mt. Washington, Ohio with her 6 siblings. My father was born and raised in Oakley, Ohio. He went to Withrow High School, met my mother at an Alt Park dance, served in World War II, went to Xavier University, served in Korea, got married, started working for General Electric and had 6 kids. The five oldest children were born in Cincinnati; me, the odd ball, was born in Cleveland. After several moves, the GE career landed us near Philadelphia.
My Mom and her Mom before, had lots of mouths to feed so our family chili recipe was a little soupy, not too spicy, loaded with inexpensive beans and served over mounds of spaghetti. It was a great way to stretch a meal. When we went on our trips to visit relatives in Cincinnati, they too served chili over spaghetti. It wasn’t until I was about eleven years old that I realized eating chili with spaghetti wasn’t a typical dish for most families besides those with some ties to the Cincinnati area. My sister-in-law’s family ate chili over rice, and in restaurants, Texas style chili came thick in a bowl without any starchy accompaniment. A few years later on one of our trips to Cincinnati we visited a Skyline Chili Parlor. It was there that I had my first taste of real “parlor style” Cincinnati chili. It was thick and rich and had a tangy, slightly spicy and sweet flavor. I learned the chili lingo of 3-ways, 4-ways and Coneys. (The name Coney, is thought to have come from the NY Coney Island chili topped dogs.) It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started tinkering around with my own Cincinnati chili recipe. Chili parlor recipes and many family recipes are kept secret. So, it’s with trial and error that you develop your own formula.
Vintage photo of Dixie Chili Parlor in Newport, KY. The original location was the smaller building on the right side. Photo courtesy of Dixie Chili.
It was one of those nights when I had an experimental pot of chili simmering on the stove, that I ran into a friend, Melanie Sarakatsannis, while picking up my daughter from her piano lesson. We chatted about what we were making for dinner, I mentioned I was making chili. I clarified that it was a different style of chili, she’d probably never heard of… Well little did I know that my friend is Cincinnati chili royalty! Her uncle on her Mother’s side owns a Skyline Chili parlor franchise and her Papou (Grandfather) Nicholas Sarakatsannis is the founder of the Dixie Chili parlors! Small world!
This past summer I took my girls and my mom on a road trip to visit relatives in Cincinnati. Melanie had arranged for me to meet her uncle Spiro at his Newport, KY Dixie Chili Parlor. Spiro, one of six sons of Dixie founder Nicholas Sarakatsannis, was very gracious to show me around his family’s flagship chili parlor. All of the family was involved in the chili business in some way. Currently Spiro, his brother Panny and other family members run the parlors. (There are currently 3 locations in N. Kentucky.) Spiro answered all my questions while we enjoyed cheese coneys and 3-ways (at 10:00 AM). It was a breakfast with 84 years of family history behind it! Even though Spiro has worked at the family chili parlors for over 40 years, you’d never know it. He seems to work everyday like it was his first. He wears his signature spotless white shirt and tie, keeps the cleanest restaurant I’ve ever seen and always has his eye on the door to make sure each customer is promptly serviced. The Newport location also houses the Dixie Chili Commissary. This is where they cook 150 pounds of chili a dayI Spiro boasts with great pride of using only the best ingredients: 96% lean hand trimmed beef, Wisconsin cheddar cheese and sweet Bermuda onions that are hand chopped. Also housed onsite is the top secret spice room. I got to peek inside this treasure trove of spices. The heady aroma of warm and sweet spices hits you as soon as the door is opened. When I emerged, I think I was covered in a fine dusting of paprika. The spices are purchased from several spice purveyors in an effort to protect the family’s secret spice blend. Only Spiro and a few family members know the exact components of the mixture.
Cincinnati style chili was born when brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff left Macedonia, which was in great turmoil at the time, to set up their lives in America. They opened a restaurant on October 24, 1922, and named it Empress Chili Parlor. They created their own version of chili using the spices of their homeland. They sold chili dogs, chili spaghetti, coffee, cigars and some grocery items. Their location right next to the Empress Burlesque theater provided a steady stream of customers. “The Empress” became the model that later chili parlors would follow and was a first job for many other immigrants. One of those immigrants was Nicholas Sarakatsannis. Nick worked at Empress for several weeks before scouting out a location of his own to open his first Dixie Chili location with his partner Petro Manoff on Monmouth Street in Newport, KY. This tiny parlor was right next to the current location I got to visit.
Cincinnati chili is usually an all beef chili that is simmered with water or broth, some sort of tomato product(s) and a unique mixture of savory and sweet spices and seasonings. My chili is a combination of lean beef and pork. Cincinnati was once known as “Porkopolis” and was a large pork production region. So, it seems like a natural addition. I have seen it used in other recipes, so I figured I wasn’t breaking any chili laws. The chili with spaghetti combos are served in shallow oval dishes (thank you Dixie Chili for my 1st official chili dish!) and are accompanied with oyster crackers.
You order your chili at a parlor with the following language:
- Two-Way: Chili on top of spaghetti
- Three-Way: Chili on top of spaghetti with shredded cheddar cheese
- Four-Way: Chopped onions added to the three-way
- Five-Way: Beans added to the four-way
- Coney: Vienna sausage or hot dog with mustard, topped with chili, onions and cheese
Cincinnati Chili My-Way Steps:
Spiro Sarakatsannis, thank you for your hospitality and time!
Melanie Sarakatsannis, thank you for setting up the meeting with your uncle Spiro!
Dan Woellert, your book, The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili was a great reference.
Thanks to all who follow epicuricloud! I hope you enjoy the recipe! Tina ( :
Cincinnati Chili - My Way
- 1 tablespoon oil (I used safflower)
- 2 cups sweet onion chopped fine
- 1 tablespoon garlic minced
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1 14.5-ounce can low-sodium beef broth
- 1 cup water
- 1 tablespoon cumin seed whole
- 1/4 cup chili powder
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon oregano (dried)
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 teaspoons allspice
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 2 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup cider vinegar
- 1 29-ounce can tomato sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt if desired, adjust to taste
Accompaniments for Chili Spaghetti 2-Way – 5-Way platters:
- Hot cooked spaghetti
- Warm kidney beans
- Finely shredded cheddar cheese
- Finely diced sweet onions (I soak in water to make sure they are mild.)
- Oyster crackers
Accompaniments for Coneys:
- Hot dogs
- Hot dog rolls
- Finely shredded cheddar cheese
- Finely diced sweet onions (I soak in water to make sure they are mild.)
- Add oil to 4-quart or larger pot over medium heat.
- Add onions and garlic, stir and sauté for about 3 minutes or until softened.
- Add the beef, pork, broth and water. Stir to break up meat in liquids.
- Cook stirring frequently for about 10 minutes. (You want the meat to have a fine texture, cooking in the liquid helps accomplish this.)
- Add spices/herbs: cumin, chili powder, bay leaves, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, paprika.
- Add cocoa powder, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and tomato sauce.
- Stir well and and adjust heat to low simmer.
- Maintain low simmer and partially cover for 45 minutes. Stir frequently.
- Taste and add salt if desired.
- This recipe make enough to have chili spaghetti platters one night and then freeze/refrigerate the leftover chili to have Coneys another night.
Assembly for chili spaghetti platters:
- 2-Way, spaghetti topped with chili
- 3-Way, spaghetti topped with chili & cheddar cheese
- 4-Way, spaghetti, chili, cheese & onions
- 5-Way, spaghetti, chili, beans, cheese & onions
Assembly for Coneys:
- Top hotdog in bun with chili and cheese, add onions if desired.
What a great story, Tina! My grandmother used to put a dollop of mashed potatoes on her chili.
That’s great Debbie – almost like a chili Shepherd’s pie! Love to hear family food traditions ( :
İ normally hate recipe shares in the internet as they are bloated with ads and superfluous words that were meant to be interesting stories (İ don’t need anything but the recipe thank you!).
However, as a native Northern KY gal who grew up with Dixie Chili, i consumed every word is this story with delight. Mouth was watering for that soft Coney bun loaded with chili and mounds of cheese. Don’t forget the minced onion.
Great recipe too by the way!!!
I hear you on too wordy posts! Glad you enjoyed this one – it deserved the background!
I will be making this. It’s so cold here and this is a perfect "warm-up" dish. Love the beef/pork mix and the cocoa powder for complexity. What a great story about you family. Happy anniversary! Looking forward to many more years.
Thank you so much for your support Marie!! I hope you love it as much as we do ( :
Jersey Girl Cooks
Love your stories! I once got chili on spaghetti in a chili restaurant in DC and loved it that way. Great recipe.
Thanks so much Lisa!! I’ve seen a famous chili joint on TV in DC – will have to try sometime!
Brett C. Youmans
Happy anniversary!! GREAT post–craving some chili now!!
Hello, Do you know if this would freeze well? I’d love to make it for a quick easy cabin meal. Thank you!
Hi Vicki – Yes it freezes beautifully! Enjoy! ( :
Happy Anniversary Tina! Love your recipes!
Thanks Diane!! I appreciate your support!
Thanks, always enjoy what you share. (From a class mate of your sister Nancy)
Hi Sandy! Thanks so much for following! I remember you! I could use some of your green thumb help. Will stop by Floral & Hardy the next time I’m in Skippack!
Yum! One of my favorite foods. Laura and I make ours with ground bison, a nice flavor and low fat.
I need to try bison! Great idea!!
Dixiie also offers the 6 way..chopped garlic! So good!
I saw that option! Will have to try on my next visit – 10am was a little early for chopped garlic – IMHO!
Thanks for stopping by ( :
My parents owned a Dixie Chili franchise in Beechgrove, Ky. for 19 years. They went into business with the Sarakatsannis family when I was 9. I spent many a snow day and summer mornings riding with my dad to the commissary in Newport to pick up the chili and other products fresh three days a week. My dad used to take me in, let me chat with George (who has since turned over the reins) and all the other people who worked there. As I grew up, I have always felt that heritage a part of my own, and am very proud to say that my family played a part in Dixie Chili for 19 of the 91 years. I worked at my parents restaurant for the majority of the time it was open, and after getting out of high school I too made the runs to the commissary. Now, I live in St. Augustine, Florida with my husband and two children and have cans of Dixie chili always stocked in my pantry, very eager to share it with my new friends and neighbors! Thank you for writing this piece and educating others about a wonderful comfort food!
Cherie Rust Bennett
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing Cherie! I love hearing more of the history!
Must have been pretty cool making the chili runs with your Dad ( :
Take care!! ( :
Thank you for this recipe. I was going to reinvent it for myself as my mother always made it. It is getting expensive to have it shipped to Washington state. My cousins and aunt have the Peluso store down the street from Dixie Chili on Mommouth St in Newport. I enjoyed visiting and having Dixie chili from my visit last June. I’ll be back! Thank you, Teresa
Hi Teresa- So glad you visited here! I hope it reminds you of your mother’s recipe. I hope to visit Newport/Cincy again next summer – I’ll be sure to check out the Peluso store. I already googled it, looks like a must visit! Take care & stay in touch ( :
Hi Tina,There is somewhat of a chili challenge happening amongst some of us up heah in the great white north. I am finally going to throw my hat in the circle with this recipe… of course with mention of the origins of the recipe… I am betting our side of the family will be the new champions! Heavens, with you in our court, we may never lose again! Thanks for Epicuricloud, so all of the far away family members can feel close by all the time! Hope I’ll get down to see you all this summer, if we ever have ice out!
Hey Kim, thanks so much! I can’t wait to hear the results!! The flavor is even better if you make it the day before ( : Be sure to let me know how it goes! Hope you win big!!
Congratulations on your one year anniversary! Just started the day off reading about the Cincinnati chili and now have a hankering for a Coney, right now, but it’s only 6:45am!
Peace & love to the family!
LOL! I have some experience with early morning Coneys – well maybe not that early ( ;
Thanks for visiting – I appreciate your support!
What an interesting post. I love all the historical information. And Happy Birthday to Epicuricloud!
Was fun to learn all about the history! Thank you for your support Nancy!
Hi Tina, just had a chance to read your Chili Blog, Happy Anniversary!! I love the history, stories and pictures, you are amazing!! Always so proud of you . . .
Thank you very much for all your sisterly support!! XO!
Can you believe I have never tried Cincinnati Chili? Clearly I need to fix that.
I can’t believe it Angela!! Hope you love it!!
Love I love your blog of Cinti Chili w/ your family and the Dixie Chili. I also grew up close to your mother, Dayton Ky. and now live in Fl. this really warmed my heart. Thank you for making my day. Irene (Wilson) Ramey
Hello Irene – Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad that you enjoyed my story! I hope you have a wonderful day ( :
Hi Christina – so I’m comparing several Cincy chili recipes – and yours has some big differences. (For example, yours is the only one I’ve seen with pork and beef – not just beef. And you also use a broader selection of spices.) Wondering if this is you being creative – or if you were trying to replicate Dixie Chili (which, sadly, I never visited during my college years in Cincinnati.)
Hi John –
My recipe was a result of reading lots and lots of Cincinnati chili versions. If I remember correctly Dixie is all beef. The pork came from reading various recipes I found online – there are some that call for part pork. I figured I’d give it a shot and won’t go back – it is just so flavorful! I wasn’t trying to replicate any of the famous parlor recipes, just trying to figure out one that we really love. Next up is goetta! Lol – here I thought it was just some weird thing my mom made – didn’t realize it was a regional specialty. I visited goetta-fest a few years back – what a riot!! Take care! Tina ( :
Hi Christina – yes, despite growing up in Ohio and spending my college years in Cincinnati – I never heard of goetta either! That is, until Cook’s Country published a recipe! Who knew! Where/when is Goetta-Fest? I may have to plan my next Ohio visit around that! 🙂
Oh yes an Ohio food tour!!
I’ve taken my Mom and my daughters a few times over the summer to visit relatives – and we ate so well!! Would love to go back soon – so much more to try! Goetta-Fest was in early August. I think Glier’s Goetta company organizes it. It’s held along the river at Newport on the Levee right over the bridge on the KY side. We bring a cooler on our trips so we can bring home brats and goetta. We of course visited various Chili Parlors….and Graeter’s in Hyde Park. Another fun ice cream stop is Aglamesis Brothers in Oakland, homemade ice cream since 1908! I got to meet Mr. Aglamesis who is there most days. He went to high school at Withrow with my father. We also made a pilgrimage to the KitchenAid factory up in Greenville and took the factory tour – Greenville is a very cute town for walking around and having lunch – They’re known for the Maid-Rite sandwich shop. Now I work for KitchenAid – I demo the products on QVC, so was a fun – full-circle kind of thing! Let me know how your chili testing goes!
I have been a fan for years…grew up in Silver Grove and when I can’t make it to the parlor…I can enjoy it at home in a can! I got online today to see why Dixie Chili is the best. I found out that you use only the finest ingredients! I thought so!!! Because your brands clearly outshines the others. Thank you so much for always knowing exactly how to satisfy my crave!!!!
Hi Julie!! Yes love Dixie Chili Too!
I’m going to try this next time I cook cincy chili. I’ll let you know how it turns out…
Enjoy the chili! As soon as the weather cools off here in PA, I’ll make a batch too! Take Care! Tina ( :