The convenient fast food snack known as the Pizza Puff may be known to millions of hungry football fans, convenience store shoppers and itinerant snackers throughout the U.S., but few people know this self-contained, personal-sized panzerotti was created in Chicago in the 1970s.
Having grown up in Minnesota, I thought I knew what a Pizza Puff was, because I’m quite familiar with Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which were named for a Minneapolis pizzeria. But Totino’s owes its origins to Jeno’s Pizza Rolls, created in 1951. These Matchbox car-sized frozen snacks changed their name from Jeno’s to Totino’s after the company was bought by Pillsbury in the 1980s. In 1993, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls were re-branded Totino’s.
But the Pizza Puff is an altogether different creation, invented by a Chicago family with roots in the Middle East. After arriving in America in 1898 at the age of 14, an Iranian Assyrian named Elisha Shabaz ended up settling in Chicago in the early part of the 20th Century. He began working with a tamale guy, rolling them each morning then selling them from a pushcart for a penny each. He went on to eventually buy the pushcarts, creating the Illinois Tamale Company in 1927. Ten years later, his only real local competitor, Tom Tom Tamale Company, opened for business on the South Side, selling a similar coarse cornmeal-based tamale stuffed with ground beef, rather than the traditionally shredded beef in Mexico.
In 1964, Elisha’s grandson, Warren, took over the management of the company, incorporating the business and condensing the name to Iltaco Foods Company (IL-Ta-Co). He helped move the headquarters to its current location in West Town in 1973. It’s important to note that in the early 1970s, a number of important pizzerias were launching in the Chicago area – Lou Malnati’s, Pequod’s, My Pi, Nancy’s and Giordano’s among them. Some were making deep-dish, others stuffed. It was the dawn of Chicago’s second major pizza wave.
“They were delivering tamales to all of these hot dog stands. But pizza places were becoming more prominent,” said Andrew Shabaz, Warren’s son and the Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Iltaco Foods. “The hot dog stands wanted to compete, so they asked my dad if they could make something similar.” Warren had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago, and loved calzones. All of their customers had deep fryers, so with an outer wrapping similar to a tortilla dough, they could hand-stuff them with local sausage, mozzarella and tomato sauce, then let the restaurants fry them to-order, resulting a phyllo dough-like consistency and texture. The Pizza Puff was born in 1976.
First there was sausage, then a “Deluxe” with peppers. Eventually a beef flavor, because “not everyone eats pork,” said Shabaz. “Although as we’ve expanded to 42 states, it’s amazing how popular pepperoni is outside of Chicago.” It’s catching up to the original sausage in sales,” he said.
Shabaz says when they developed the Pizza Puff, they wanted to make sure it could be baked as well as fried. But he admits the wrapping does get a little flakier when deep-fried. His employees are split down the middle on how they prefer cooking them.
Sold primarily to hot dog joints, snack shops and grocery stores, at six ounces they’re quite a bit larger than the typical one-ounce pizza roll. They’re also assembled by hand rather than machine.
“All of them are hand-folded,” said Shabaz, who is the fourth generation now involved in running the business. “Machines will never take that part over. There’s a whole level of quality that goes into it. The filling is made from scratch in our kitchen every day.”
While baking is acceptable, microwaving will render the outer layer – a flour tortilla wrapping – just too flaccid and lacking in textural contrast to the filling. Better yet, fry them in some vegetable oil at around 360 degrees in a cast iron skillet. “Sales in convenience stores and restaurants are good,” said Shabaz. “But I think the pandemic has increased awareness.”
Over the years, they’ve expanded well beyond the original sausage and pepperoni, adding flavors like Four Cheese, Spinach & Cheese, Gyro and Breakfast Sausage. More recently, Buffalo Chicken and Reuben have been added to the lineup to broaden their appeal, no doubt because in a category with brands like Hot Pockets, competition is fierce. A Pepperoni Pizza Puff has 450 calories and 24 grams of fat, so while it’s great stoner food or maybe an occasional after school snack, it’s something to consider before making them a regular meal replacement.
The business is now being run by the fourth generation, and Shabaz says the fifth generation is already on deck. As iconic pizzerias like My Pi and Lou Malnati’s gear up for their 50th anniversaries this year, remember there’s a little tamale company that’s still making pizza puffs, heading full-steam into its 94th year in business.
Excerpted from “The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide: A History of Squares & Slices in the Windy City” (Northwestern University Press), coming out in September