HIPPO’S HOT DOGS–A LOCAL LEGEND

In 1963, at the four-way stop of Higgins Road and old Route 53/Rohlwing, a popular local restaurant was born.  Sitting next to a vegetable stand on the east side of the road, just north of the  site of a former Shell gas station, the proprietor began selling Italian beef sandwiches and Chicago-style steamed hot dogs from a trailer. 

Without a formal name, they stayed in the same location until 1969, serving their simple menu to the many construction workers who helped build Schaumburg Township.  And, according to one gentleman I talked to, he recalls being able to stop there as late as 11:00 in the evening for a quick hot dog.  They were open that late.

Smack dab in the middle of the Woodfield construction, the operation was forced to relocate and the owners chose a new spot at 720 E. Higgins Road in Schaumburg.  Near the NW corner of the intersection with Plum Grove, a brown, brick building was constructed and Hippo’s Hot Dogs was born.  In an area with few restaurants, Hippo’s immediately attracted a following of local residents. And, with the ready-made crowd from Conant High School, Hippo’s became the go-to hangout for the local teenagers.  Soon the small center where it was located was called the Hippodrome Plaza—a name that has stuck to this day.

The menu expanded as the years went by to include:

  • Chili dogs
  • Cheese dogs
  • Sauerkraut dogs
  • Chili/cheese dogs
  • Italian beef
  • Italian sausage
  • Homemade meatball sandwich
  • Homemade chili and soups
  • Submarines
  • Sloppy hippos
  • Italian steak sandwiches
  • Reuben sandwich
  • Julienne salad and chef salad
  • Tamales
  • Onion rings, French fries and fried mushrooms

They were known for their root beer but they also obtained a liquor license and sold .25 frosted mugs of draft beer.  Wine by the carafe soon became another option.  With a steady stream of students willing to work but unable to serve liquor, the restaurant placed a number of ads in the newspaper requesting a “Man wanted to pour only beer, 3 nites a week.”

While many fondly recall the hot dogs that are part of Hippo’s name, they also considered themselves to be one of the best Italian beef stands around.  In 1980, the Daily Herald ran an article on “Who Has the Best Italian Beef Sandwiches?”  Not having been included in the list, Hippo’s took strong offense and ran an ad in the paper asking their customers to come to the restaurant and sign a petition.  Hippo’s felt they deserved more recognition and even asked other restaurants who had been left off to join them in the protest by adding their name and location to the petition.  The support was obviously there because the restaurant stayed in business for another 14 years.

In 1994, the owners sold their location to a McDonalds franchise who tore down the beloved restaurant to profit from the benefits of a good location.  Undoubtedly there are few in Schaumburg Township who haven’t experienced a McDonalds hamburger.  But, in 2011, how many can say they have had an Italian beef or steamed hot dog with fries and a frosty mug of beer or root beer from Hippo’s?  Or, better yet a sloppy Hippo?  If someone can tell me what that is!

This posting was written with the help of an August 29, 1994 article from the Chicago Tribune, ads from the Daily Herald, and memories from Larry Rowan, a frequent commenter on this blog.    

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18 Responses to “HIPPO’S HOT DOGS–A LOCAL LEGEND”

  1. marisa Says:

    I remember as a child when I first arrived here from Germany coming in for a hot dog. My grandparents always took us which was a fond memory of mine. They are both deceased now but I always looked so forward to coming. I always thought the hot dogs were so much better than in Germany. I wish my kids could have tried them.

  2. DN Says:

    As a little kid my Dad would always take me here on Saturday for a hot dog, after running errands. I remember the place being decked out with hippos of all sorts. Stuffed animal hippos, hand painted glass hippo figurines, and pictures. Loved that they used the bright green relish on the dogs and yes the root beer was the best. I think my Dad always got a grinder sandwich though, if I recall… been a long time… I was about 6 at the time and that was 35 years ago. Was dissapointed when I learned they were going to close up.

  3. Michael Antolak Says:

    Dad used to take the family there on some Sundays on the way home from weekends in Wonder Lake during the early/mid 70’s. I was young but I remember enjoying the dogs!

  4. John M Says:

    I remember that little trailer in that corner lot. It grew over time – first – just a trailer. Soon it became a bigger trailer (I believe the size changed several times??). Then they added a porch-like structure to protect customers from the elements, I guess. Anyone else remember? I was surprised but pleased to see them move into the new location as it was closer to our house in the Highland subdivision, but as a Conant student and open campus for lunch it was great. My first job was at Barnaby’s when it first opened, but I actually spent more time at Hippo’s! I was sad when we moved from the area, then heard it had closed.

  5. bob cox Says:

    By far the Best Hot Dogs I’ve ever had . The combination of the steamed David Berg link, combined 5 or 6 slices of the ripest tomatoe slices ever seen, picallily, (not relish) onion , mustard and the smushiest steamed bun , was the tasiest hot dog ever. Peeps was pretty good but no Hippo’s. Portillos can’t touch it either. They also had top notch beefs and onion rings you could wear on your wrist. What a shame they could’nt have moved to a different location.

  6. Pam Says:

    I live overseas and have eaten all the world’s best cuisines but when you ask about my favorite meal, I still say ‘a Hippo’s hot dog!’ I really miss them.

  7. Joe V. Says:

    To Bob, I actually worked at Hippos during my Conant days in the early 70s. The dogs were Vienna all beef, not David Berg (unless they changed brands after I moved away). But to me, their signature creation was their Italian Beef sandwich, served on slightly crisped fesh Gonella bread. When I visit the Chicago area today, it’s Portillo’s for Italian Beef. It comes close (but not quite) to Hippo’s. In the 25+ years I’ve lived in Houston, I’ve yet to find a single place that offers Italian Beef on their menus. But at least I know how to make it from the original Hippo’s recipe, so it’s an annual thing I do around the Xmas holidays here for my friends and family.

    • Joe V. Says:

      P.S. The other BIG secret to the Hippo hotdog was their ‘secret spice’ sprinkled onto the tomato slices just before they were wrapped up. It was simply half salt + half celery salt.

  8. Judy Walter Says:

    I had my first Italian beef from Hippo’s in 1970 when they delivered sandwiches to the Elk Grove Village industrial park where I worked that summer. What a thrill to bite unexpectedly into a hot pepper that was buried deep in the sandwich! Only Chicago has Italian beef sandwiches and I miss them now that I live on the east coast.

  9. KathyH Says:

    I too was a James B. Conant High School student. We all loved going to Hippos after school. I often have wondered if others have hung onto such great memories. It was fun, great food and a great school. I was nuts about sewing and enjoyed Mrs. Petersons home economic class, but the hot dogs at Hippos could not be beat.

  10. Pam S. Says:

    To Joe V.- I also worked at Hippos during the early 70’s (1970 – 1972) during my junior and senior years at Conant H.S. Wondering whether we may have worked together during that time??? Karen and Jerry were the original owners of Hippos and were responsible for making it a true legend. You are correct that the hotdogs were definitely Vienna all beef AND I also agree that their signature creation was their Italian Beef sandwich. I have lived in many parts of the USA since that time and have never been able to find an Italian Beef sandwich that tasted as good as Hippos Italian Beef. I took a trip back to Schaumburg this past weekend and had actually hoped to stop in at Hippos just for the memories and to have one of their hotdogs. Was very sad to see a McDonalds in their place.
    Karen & Jerry – if you are reading any of these comments, we would love to hear from you! Pam S. (now Pam T.)

  11. Tim Says:

    I grew up right down the street from Hippo’s. I used to eat here at least once a week. Always got a Chicago Dog to eat there, and an Italian Beef to go. Loved this place!

  12. joe Says:

    A bunch of the guys from the Conant wrestling team used to walk over to Hippos after weighing in for a wrestling meet or tournament. Coach Cartright would get mad when he found out, but we still kept on sneaking out after weigh ins. After cutting weight all week, nothing tasted better than a chicao dog and an ice tea ! It was worth the trouble we got into the times we got caught. Years later I got my wife hooked on the place, and we were both sad to see it go.

  13. Gary Cannalte Says:

    The original Hippos wagon was closed during the winters; my father found that out the hard way when he walked to it to try to call for help after being stuck nearby during the Blizzard of 1967. It also was open late on weekend nights. i remember my dad stopping at the wagon for hot dogs on the way back from seeing movies at the Ski-Hi Drive-In Theater in Addison down route 53. When they moved to the permanent building, it was not only a hang-out for Conant students, but it was a great spot for people who worked at Motorola to celebrate birthdays, promotions, or to gather after the “beer-league” softball games at Busse Woods.

    • jrozek Says:

      I, too, have heard that Hippos was a hang-out for Motorola employees. Thanks for the memories and personal details. They’re always intriguing!

      Jane Rozek
      Local History Librarian

  14. Martin Carroll Says:

    We ate there too at Higgins Rd.I worked at Rosatis delivering pizzas for Don and Ron.Worked for Wilson Meat Co selling to Rossatis.Hippos was the best.then came Potillos and Malnatis.We have have a Rosatis in Waco.Italian Beef is still our favorite.We miss Hippos and always will.Marty & Maria Carroll formally from Schaumburg.Now live in Palestine.Texas.Retired

  15. Diane Says:

    We serve the Italian Beef like Hippo’s only not as good none can be that good. But we are in Tn. My dad got the recipe from the Famous Chili Pub in Schamburg and it was as good as Hippos but I remember from a young age my dad helped build Elk Grove Village and we went to Hippos on the corner and then when I start Conant I went there after school.. Miss those days. Still cant find a hot dog as good as Hippo’s anywhere.

    • jrozek Says:

      Hello Diane,

      It seems that hotdogs and Italian beef are the menu items that most people miss when they’re talking about Hippos. I’ve not heard of the Famous Chili Pub. I’ll have to look into that restaurant. How long was it there? With a minimal amount of research, it looks like it was on Nerge Road in Roselle. What did they serve?

      Jane Rozek
      Local History Librarian
      Schaumburg Township District Library
      jrozek@stdl.org

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