The Ice Cream Power RankingsChicago has lots of ice cream shops. These are the 18 best.
Chicago happens to be stacked with incredible ice cream shops, so there’s no excuse to be stuck on your couch next to an expired pint of bad grocery store ice cream. Which is why, after extensive scientific analysis (eating a bunch of it all at once), we’ve compiled a list of our 18 favorite spots. From classic 100-year-old institutions to vegan soft serve shops, here are all the places you need to be eating ice cream (or gelato, or custard, or paletas), ranked.
Shawn Michelle’s in Bronzeville makes fantastic ice cream, with creative flavors that are interesting without seeming like they’re trying too hard—like honey-cinnamon graham cracker (which has a perfect balance of crackers and honey), the creamy banana pudding, or the Jamaican rum raisin. And though handmade ice cream can sometimes have an issue with ice crystals, you won’t find that here—it’s all smooth and rich.
A cone of pineapple creamsicle gelato with a little paper umbrella at Ciao Ciao perfectly encapsulates what summer feels like. While all of the silky gelato at this Italian cafe doesn't necessarily taste like a Slip N’ Slide feels, each flavor will be rich and intense in a good way. Nothing is artificial or too sweet, like apple pie which is lightly cinnamony and not cloying. Be prepared for some decision paralysis—the Portage Park shop offers 46 flavors from a stable of 120, rotating them every Tuesday and Thursday.
As your coworker who went to Italy five years ago constantly reminds you, gelato is wonderful and “way better than ice cream.” That person is annoying, but occasionally right, and Paulo in West Town proves their theory. The gelato here has an unbelievably velvety texture, and a variety of flavors like pistachio brimming with intense nuttiness, sweet and salty dulce de leche, and cookies and cream that makes us weep tears of joy. It’s a small, narrow shop with zero space to eat inside, but there’s a quiet sidewalk patio for you to sit in peace while the tears stream down your face.
Scooter’s serves frozen custard that’s made fresh daily. It’s usually a lot busier than the other custard shop on this list, and the interior isn’t quite as cute—but they have a convenient walk-up window, and the custard is thick and delicious. Get the PB&J concrete: vanilla custard blended with liquid peanut butter and black raspberry topping. Then plan to make room in your kitchen for all the “liquid peanut butter” you’ll be ordering from Amazon.
Jeni’s is originally from Ohio and there are a lot of locations in Chicago. We’re glad, since the ice cream here is outstanding. It’s rich and creamy, plus everything is made from scratch. And while you can buy pints of Jeni’s all over the place nowadays, the scoop shops are where you can find their homemade waffle bowls. The staple flavors (like brambleberry crisp) are very good, but we like the limited edition ones best, like the churro, with cinnamon ice cream and actual churro pieces blended in.
Does vegan soft serve taste just like cow’s milk soft serve? No, and we’re not going to pretend it does. But it can still be rich and delicious, as proven by Vaca’s Creamery in Bucktown. This vegan ice cream shop’s oat milk-based soft serve is smooth, creamy, and a perfect base for their plant-friendly sundaes—like the s’mores sundae topped with cinnamon cookie crumble, toasted marshmallows, and fudge sauce. But one of the best things here is their housemade gluten-free waffle cone. It has a light cinnamon flavor, and manages to stay magically crispy no matter how much soft serve is dripping over the sides and onto your hands.
Black Dog has some of our favorite gelato in Chicago. It’s incredibly smooth, and there are a variety of interesting flavors, like strawberry balsamic and sesame cookie dough (our absolute favorite is the goat cheese cashew caramel). Just keep in mind that since everything is made fresh daily, they might run out of what you’re looking for.
There are a few La Michoacanas in Chicago, but the location we really like is in Pilsen. It has a drive-thru, the staff is friendly, and they have great paletas and regular ice cream. The treats here are very sweet, perfect for when you want a dessert that tastes like dessert because not everyone wants their treats to taste like goat cheese or earl grey tea. Our favorite is the cajeta ice cream, which tastes like frozen condensed milk in the best way, and the rice pudding cream paleta, which is milky and sweet with little bits of rice in it that we really enjoy.
Located on Michigan Avenue across from the Art Institute, it’s tempting to write off Amorino as yet another tourist trap. Partly because it is—it’s constantly mobbed with tourists stopping in the doorway to take pictures. Plus it’s an international chain. But in fact, the beautifully-presented gelato (in the shape of a rose) is very good. Maybe it’s the allure of unusual options like bergamot or mandarin orange and cherry, or the fact that you can get an unlimited number of flavors piled into a single scoop. But it’s mostly just because the gelato is rich and velvety.
Lickity Split is a retro-style sweets and ice cream shop in Edgewater that makes its own frozen custard fresh every day. There are only three flavors (chocolate, vanilla, and a specialty flavor that rotates every few weeks), all of which are fine on their own. But you need to order one of the concretes. There’s a long list of mix-ins to choose from (like cheesecake pieces and pretzels), along with pre-designed combinations like the perfectly-reasonable Scarlet’s Last Fall, which involves an entire red velvet cupcake mixed in with the custard.
This spot in University Village (there's also a location in Wicker Park) has incredibly creamy soft serve, ice cream, melon pan ice cream sandwiches, and boba tea. The flavors change, but you’ll find not-too-sweet varieties like lychee pearl, black sesame, and sweet corn. And one of our favorite things here is the messy boba—your choice of soft serve topped with boba in a cup.
A little walk-up stand in Little Italy with fantastic Italian ice, which we understand is not ice cream. But this is your summer power move when you need a break from the richness of creamier sweets (or just a palate cleanser between two other ice cream stops). All the flavors are good, but the go-to here is the lemon. It’s the perfect mix of tart and sweet, with little chunks of lemon rind adding freshness.
Kilwin’s is an old-fashioned sweets “shoppe,” but where it really excels is ice cream. Yes, at $10 for a single scoop it’s on the pricier side, but you’re paying for a very large single scoop of creamy, sugary goodness in fun flavors like marshmallow s’mores. Flavors and general old-timey charm vary a bit at each Kilwins location—we suggest an ice cream crawl to decide which is your favorite.
When Pretty Cool originally opened, we were skeptical of the mysterious-looking prepackaged popsicles with flavors like peanut butter potato chip, Chicago mix, and blueberry icicle pie. What was inside? What if we ordered the wrong thing? Should we order three kinds just in case? Yes, but only because every flavor is always delicious. Like the Chicago mix: creamy caramel ice cream with crunchy popcorn bits and a cheese-flavored coating. It’s sweet, salty, and f*cking perfect. In other words, this place has really grown on us—because we keep coming back.
Carnivals can be fun and terrifying, and they tend to involve both lines and funnel cake. The same could be said of the funnel cake sundae at Sugar Shack in Bridgeport, which is exactly what it sounds like, i.e. an ice cream sundae piled on top of some funnel cake that you’re going to have to wait in line for. It’s delicious, and although you may briefly wonder what it will do to your body, you also won’t care.
This classic Beverly ice cream shop opened in 1926. It definitely gets points for nostalgia, but at the end of the day, you come here for one thing: the rainbow cone. It’s made with layers of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with walnuts and cherries), and pistachio ice creams, plus orange sherbet. While this may not be the combination you’d go for on your own, somehow all the flavors work perfectly together. Also cool? They debuted an ice cream truck.
Annette’s is a takeout window in Lincoln Park that does both Italian ice and ice cream. We prefer the Italian ice at Mario’s, but we like that you can also get ice cream at Annette’s, even if it tastes like the grocery store kind. Get it in the form of a hot fudge brownie sundae and it won’t even matter. Annette’s is a perfect neighborhood spot—the kind of place you might stroll by while walking your dog.
Margie’s has been around since 1921 and looks like it. And does Margie’s Candies have the best ice cream in Chicago? No (although the handmade ice cream is still really good). What it does have is the best ice cream experience. Including the terrapin sundae that comes with 15 scoops of ice cream, or the normal-sized ones in an old-school clamshell bowl with literal gravy boats of homemade hot fudge and caramel on the side. And if you don’t want to eat inside the shop, you can still get your sundae to go. Except maybe the terrapin—unless you bring a wheelbarrow.