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Our Rich History: Cincinnati chili — a Greek immigrant tradition — a fun food that really caught on

By Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD
Special to NKyTribune

Part 2 of an occasional series about fast food restaurants

Cincinnati Chili is a fun food, invented and perfected by Greek immigrants to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region. According to Dann Woellert, author of The Authentic History of Cincinnati Chili (Charleston: History Press, 2013), this regional favorite was a way for people to stretch their food budgets.

Empress Chili, Vine Street, Cincinnati, Ohio, in the Empress Burlesque Theater building. (Photo provided)

Woellert traces the lineage of many of Cincinnati’s chili families to the area that gave birth to Alexander the Great — Macedonia. In the early 1900s, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, and the First World War, spelled an end to the old Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, Macedonia was divided between Greece, Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Thousands of Macedonians immigrated to the United States.

These Greek immigrants included the Kiradjieff brothers, who established Empress Chili in Cincinnati in October 1922 on Vine Steet (between 8th and 9th Streets) in a corner of the Empress Burlesque Theater. They invented what we know today as “Cincinnati chili.” Similar to some lamb stews of Macedonia, it included spices like cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg, but used beef instead of lamb.

Dixie Chili, 733 Monmouth Street, Newport, Kentucky. (Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views)

In Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, these chili restaurants bear the name of “chili parlors.” As Woellert states, “In some ways, chili parlors are like diners. Waitresses typically yell the order to the steam table cooks, who portion chili on coneys and on spaghetti with a swift turn of the wrist. The terms ‘three-way’ and ‘four-way” were invented as shorthand for the waitresses” (Wollert, p. 14). In chili terminology, a “two way” consists of spaghetti and chili; a “three way” adds cheese. A “four-way bean” includes spaghetti, chili, cheese, and kidney beans, while a “four-way onion” contains spaghetti, chili, cheese, and onions. My favorite — the “five-way” — has all five, namely spaghetti, chili, cheese, beans, and onions.

Nicholas “Nick” D. Sarakatsannis (1900–1984), also of Macedonia, soon became synonymous with chili. A short-time employee of Empress Chili, Nick did not wish to hurt the Kiradjieff family’s business, so he opened his chili parlor in 1929 across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky — at 733½ Monmouth Street.

The Hippodrome (“Hipp”) Theater, Monmouth Street, Newport, Kentucky. (Courtesy of Northern Kentucky Views)

Newport was a noted gambling and entertainment city at the time. Dixie Chili’s location was centrally located, next to the Hippodrome Theatre and nearby the State and Strand Theaters. In fact, 1930s performers at the Hippodrome (“the Hipp”) included comedians George Burns, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton, all of whom ate at Dixie Chili late night following their shows. According to Woellert, “Bob Hope would come in and eat two coneys without cheese and a water because that’s all he could afford” (Wollert, p. 47).

In 1931, one of the original partners of Dixie Chili—Petro Manoff—“opened the Strand Chili Parlor one block south of Dixie at 843 Monmouth Street” in Newport, along with his son Thomas Manoff. Purchased by Thomas Sarakatsannis (Nick’s brother) in 1946, the Strand was renamed Crystal Chili. In 1986, Steve Stavropoulos, also a Greek immigrant and a former employee of Skyline Chili, bought Crystal Chili and rechristened it Gourmet Chili.

Charles Sarakatsannis, a Newport city commissioner and owner of Crystal Chili. (Kentucky Post Collection, Kenton County Public Library)

In Dayton, Kentucky, the Christofield family, a Greek immigrant family, opened the Dayton Chili Parlor on Sixth Avenue in 1939. Other chili parlors popped up in Bellevue, Ludlow and Covington. In Covington, “Macedonian immigrants Pando Golodova, Nicholas Evinoff and Steven Labo” opened Liberty Chili Parlor at 512 Madison Avenue in 1940, near the Liberty Theater. The parlor was purchased by Alex Tolevich by 1951 (Woellert, p. 69). In the Latonia neighborhood of Covington, Greek immigrant Samuel Gerros opened Latonia Chili Parlor in circa 1940.

Certainly the most famous of Cincinnati chili parlors founded by Greek immigrants is Skyline Chili. Nicholas Lambrinides of Macedonia opened his first restaurant, “a short-order diner at the corner of Ninth and Elm Streets” in downtown Cincinnati with partner and fellow Greek immigrant, Christoph Pappas. (Woellert, p. 126). The restaurant did not succeed, and eventually, Lambrinides began working for Empress Chili downtown. In October 1949, he and his sons opened the first Skyline Chili Parlor on Glenway Avenue in Cincinnati.

Jim Kappas, owner of the A-1 Chili Parlor, Covington, Kentucky. (Kentucky Post Collection, Kenton County Public Library)

Cincinnatians take their basketball and their chili seriously. Some of us are UC Bearcats fans (my alma mater), and others are devoted to UK, UofL, Xavier, UD, OSU, etc. Likewise, when it comes to chili, we’re generally fans of at least one of the most popular parlors: Camp Washington, Dixie, Empress, Gold Star (not Greek), Price Hill, Skyline, etc. (I’m no fool — I listed these alphabetically so as not to offend my prized readers). True aficionados of Cincinnati chili, however, don’t merely accept other people’s opinions. Instead, they experiment themselves.

Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Editor of the “Our Rich History” weekly series and Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU). He also serves as Director of the ORVILLE Project (Ohio River Valley Innovation Library and Learning Enrichment). ORVILLE is now recruiting authors for entries on all aspects of innovation in the Ohio River Watershed including: Cincinnati (OH) and Northern Kentucky; Ashland, Lexington, Louisville, Maysville, Owensboro and Paducah (KY); Columbus, Dayton, Marietta, Portsmouth, and Steubenville (OH); Evansville, Madison and Indianapolis (IN), Pittsburgh (PA), Charleston, Huntington, Parkersburg, and Wheeling (WV), Cairo (IL), and Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville (TN). If you would like to be involved in ORVILLE, please contact Paul Tenkotte at tenkottep@nku.edu.

Liberty Chili, Covington, 1966. Owner Alex Tolevich serving firefighters Woody Hensley and Jim Carney (left) Carl S. Gerros, Latonia Chili, Covington (Photos courtesy Kentucky Post Collection, Kenton County Public Library)

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One Comment

  1. David says:

    I miss cincy style chili so much, I am only the next state away, and I got nothing like it here. How could a food be so localized and so popular?

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