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Celebrating the Springfield Icon… The Horseshoe Sandwich

The horseshoe sandwich (or simply a horseshoe or a shoe as locals know it) is more than just a meal; it's a cultural institution with deep roots in Springfield. The origins of the sandwich have taken on somewhat of a mythic component over time. And some Springfield restaurant owners will tell you, it’s a dish that could make or break their business.  Let’s take a deeper dive into this Springfield icon of gastronomy.

                                                                                                                     Plaque marking the Site of the Leland Hotel at the Corner of 6th Street & Capitol Avenue
Origin Story (What we know)

When researching the origins of the horseshoe there are three prominent names that get mentioned… Chef Joseph Schweska, Elizabeth Schweska his wife, & Steve Tomko.  The story is that in 1928, Joseph who was a chef at the Leland Hotel and originally from Hungary, went to his wife Elizabeth for help coming up with new lunch item to serve at the hotel.  Elizabeth suggested making an open-faced sandwich dish that included a Welsh rarebit sauce.  Joseph was inspired to make the horseshoe with the plate and toast representing an anvil, the cuts of ham (horseshoe shaped) as a horseshoe, the French fries as nails, and the cheese sauce as the glue holding it all together. 

Steve Tomko, a co-worker of Joseph Schweska at the hotel, worked in several Springfield restaurants after his time at the Leland Hotel and helped spread the popularity of the dish throughout the city by adding it to menus. He definitely played a role in making the dish the institution it is today.

The dish persisted in Springfield throughout the city in restaurants through the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and on.  Establishments of years past, like the Red Coach Inn & The Mansion View Restaurant and Lounge, proudly advertised their horseshoe sandwiches. And today many restaurants carry the torch of these establishments, offering the horseshoe in both traditional and non-traditional ways.

                                                                                                                                              Joe Schweska (on the far right) at the Leland Hotel's Kitchen

Deconstructing the Horseshoe

The Foundation – Every building needs a solid, reliable foundation and the horseshoe is no different. This foundation starts with toast, preferably thick Texas-style toast. Some breakfast-inspired shoes will use things like English muffins as their base but the consensus among fans of the horseshoe is you need to have thick toast as your base. 

The Protein – After your foundation of toast, the protein you add is where the architecture of the sandwich begins to wildly sway in many different directions.  While Schweska’s original recipe called for ham, the protein choices today are plentiful.  Sometime around the middle of the 20th century, restaurants began to offer a variety meats to their horseshoe menu.  You could get not only ham but chicken, beef, & even seafood option for Lent. While today, the reliable hamburger patty is what most residents imagine when when you say “horseshoe”, the variety continues to grow.  Today you can find an ever expanding list of meats on menus including Buffalo chicken, pulled pork, turkey, & pastrami to name a few.

The Potato –Schweska’s original recipe used potato wedges but today most horseshoe’s you find are served with either regular or crinkle cut fries.  That’s not to say you can’t find some variation for this component.  At some restaurants you can find seasoned fries, steak fries, tater tots and sometimes even onion rings (not from a potato but still delicious).  It’s really a matter of preference of how you like your spuds.

The Sauce – If you ask people what the most important ingredient of a pizza is, you’ll probably get some debate.  Is it the sauce?  Is the crust?  Is it the toppings?  With the horseshoe, there is NO debate.  The cheese sauce is the most important part.  It’s the most crucial component of the whole dish.  Just like the glue it represents, it holds everything together.  Many restaurants keep their cheese sauce recipe a closely guarded secret. The only debate you’ll find with the cheese sauce is "should it be yellow cheese sauce or white cheese sauce...or pepperjack sauce... or gravy?"

A Little Extra (optional) – While not part of the original creation, you can find many horseshoes today with a little extra added on top. Diced tomatoes? Grilled onions & peppers? Jalapenos?  Many different option to give the dish a little extra pizzazz.

Dessert??? – While the horseshoe is not light eating and the last thing you’ll probably want is something sweet after, there is a dessert option for the horseshoe.  Scoop du Jour makes dessert shoe with a donut as the base, a scoop of ice cream, cake “fries”, and a marshmallow sauce on top.

The Future 
As the horseshoe nears its 100th birthday, it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down in popularity.  The dish will always hold a place in the hearts of local residents and visitors alike.  Chefs across the city are finding new ways to innovate the dish, experimenting with new ingredients and new preparations.  If you’re not a fan of these new recipes, don’t worry, the classic horseshoe you know and love, will still be offered on menus as well. 

Now it’s your turn to be part of the history of this dish.  Download our Horseshoe Trail digital pass and explore several of the restaurants in town that offer horseshoes.   Earn points for your visits that you can redeem for prizes.  Also check out our Signature Horseshoe page for the original cheese sauce recipe, videos from Food Network & America's Best Restaurants.