BRANDON — Dick Portillo will tell you he never envisioned that his hot dog shack would one day morph into a castle.
Standing in front of a 6-by-12-foot replica trailer he dubbed "The Dog House" when he opened his first hot dog stand in Chicago in 1963, Portillo reminisced about how a man without any formal education and just $1,100 in savings became king of the frankfurters.
More than 53 years later, Portillo's launched its first Florida location on the corner of Brandon Boulevard and Lakewood Drive Tuesday. The chain now boasts 42 sites in six states.
Portillo, who has a home in Naples, said demographics indicated Chicagoland south was right here in the Tampa Bay area — something Lightning fans have known for years with Blackhawks sweaters filling Amalie Arena whenever the team comes to town.
For years, Portillo's has shipped its beef, dogs, ribs, tamales to Tampa Bay. Now the Chi-town faithful don't have to wait on deliveries.
"It's really nostalgic eating here after so many years," said Lenny Shuster, who frequented Portillo's in Illinois before moving to Brandon in 2003. "If you want a real Chicago dog, Portillo's is where it's at. You don't put ketchup on your dog."
Shuster complimented Portillo's on its customer service, quick delivery and quality food — all standards that Portillo said helps the restaurant thrive.
The 9,000 square-foot building at 1748 W Brandon Blvd. boasts 30-foot high ceilings, a patio and seating for nearly 250 diners who can choose from more than 40 menu items cooked to order.
The beef and bread are shipped from Chicago. Portillo, who sold the chain in 2014 but remains as a consultant, recommends trying the Italian beef and his favorite beef-n-sausage sandwiches. Portillo's cooks 2,500 pounds of beef at a time in seven large ovens.
"We cook our Italian beef like grandma used to do, only our ovens are a lot bigger," Portillo said.
Inside, customers also can enjoy chicken sandwiches, char-broiled burgers, soups, salads and desserts. Portillo said he has garnered such a stronghold on customers that his average restaurant sells more hamburgers in a day than the typical Burger King.
"I built a moat around Portillo's," he said, referring to the hard-to-copy complexity of the operation. "It keeps the enemies (competition) from getting to the castle."
Visit portillos.com to see a full menu or to order food, gift cards and merchandise.
Contact Eric Vician at [email protected]