The History Behind 10 of Wisconsin’s Most Recognizable Brands and Products

From pizza and brats to sweets and fruit, these Wisconsin products shine, not only locally, but nationally.

WISCONSIN HAS MOSTLY been known for our beer and cheese – and for good reason. But along with beer and cheese, we are so much more! For the last century, this great state has had the pleasure of hosting businesses that would eventually reach national recognition. 

1. Palermo Pizza

Jack and Zina Fallucca immigrated to the U.S. and settled in our very own Milwaukee in 1954. Shortly after, they opened an Italian bakery on the east side. Their homemade Italian bread, cookies, soups and sandwiches were in such demand, that they opened a pizzeria next door. At one point, Palermo’s was considered “Milwaukee’s Best Pizza” by an article in the Milwaukee Journal. With their pizzas being so famous in Milwaukee, Jack and Zina had the idea of going in to the rapidly expanding frozen food business. Since then, Palermo’s came up with the first frozen pizza with rising crust in 1989, the first frozen ultra-thin crust pizza in 2003 and domestic hearth-baked crust frozen pizza in 2007. Palermo’s is also known for their other unique frozen pizzas, Screamin’ Sicillian, Connies and Urban Pie. The company continues to grow and innovate, sharing their Italian tradition of connecting food and family with the community.

frozen pepperoni pizza
Photo by Getty Images

2. Johnsonville Brats

Back in 1945, Ralph and Alice Stayer joined with another family and opened a butcher shop, naming it after their hometown, Johnsonville. Between the premium cuts of pork, the seasoning concoctions and the way the family ground their meat, this made for a recipe of success. Like wild fire, the word spread from the locals to nearby communities until all of Wisconsin was selling Johnsonville brats. Because of such high demand, a second plant was built and interest grew to expand. In the mid 1980’s, Johnsonville Brats had hit the dinner tables in 47 states and now it’s America’s number one selling brat brand. Their meat products are also currently being distributed to over 45 countries around the world.

The dolled-up brat pack from left to right: Johnsonville, Usinger’s, Klement’s. Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.

3. Usinger’s Brats

Another nationally recognized family-owned sausage company, Usinger’s, started over 130 years ago in Milwaukee. Over the last century, the Usinger wurstmachers have always used the original family recipes from back in 1880 when it all started on Old World Third Street. The butcher shop sold many meats and was a gem for the German settlers. By the 1900’s they were distributing products across the U.S. and became one of the first members of the Better Business Bureau. It is Usinger’s commitment to keeping their heritage alive through recipes that make it so easy to say they are “America’s Finest Sausage.”

Usinger’s sausages. Photo by Tom Grimm.

4. Sargento’s Cheese

Photo via Sargento’s Facebook

Yes, Wisconsin is considered the Dairy State, but some are surprised to learn that the famous and commonly bought Sargento cheese originated in Plymouth. It was in the 1950’s when the company provided consumers with convenience by offering the first packaged pre-cut, sliced and shredded cheeses. This consumer pleasing innovation helped Sargento become a leader in the cheese business nationwide. Years later, the company also introduced resealable packaging and created various cheese blends and mixtures. As of today, Sargento products are sold all around the U.S.

5. Cranberries

We love to take pride in our cheese, beer and brats in Wisconsin, but let’s not forget about the cranberries! There are about 20 counties in northern and central Wisconsin that grow cranberries. These 21,000 acres of cranberries ultimately generates $1 billion toward Wisconsin’s economy. Wisconsin is our nation’s leading producer of cranberries, producing nearly 60 percent of the nation’s total output last year. We also produce more than half of the world’s supply of cranberries, selling 5 percent as fresh fruit while the majority of it is frozen and preserved for later use or distribution. So let’s not overlook this sweet yet tart and tiny fruit.

A sea of red berries floating in the field of a Wisconsin cranberry marsh farm. Photo by Getty Images

6. Cream Puffs

State fairs across the nation offer a wide variety of fried food, food-on-a-stick and state products, like Wisconsin’s Original Cream Puff for instance. This state staple has been a fairgoers favorite since 1924, selling an average of 400,000 Cream Puffs each year in the matter of 11 days. Did you know that in 2011, the Original Cream Puff set a world record and baked the largest Cream Puff, weighing in at 125.6 pounds? Cream puffs are light, baked airy dough, then split and filled with sweet whipping cream; one of these will set you back a whopping 550 calories – but many say it is so worth it. 

Wisconsin State Fair Original Cream Puffs. Photo by Kenny Yoo

7. Kringle

Kringle pastries are a Danish delicacy that was introduced to America back in the 1800s when immigrants settled in Racine. Kringles in the U.S. are made oval shaped (unlike the pretzel shape in Denmark), with many layers of flaky dough and filled with fruits, nuts or cheese and typically drizzled with icing. Racine is home to the best bakeries to enjoy this delightful treat that is officially named Wisconsin’s State Pastry. Tis’ the season, too! Racine Danish Kringle’s ship across the U.S. and have been a favorite recommendation for food gifts during the holiday season by Food Network Magazine. Kringles are also recognized as a Something Special from Wisconsin™ product, which is a great way to support local businesses.

Photo courtesy of O&H Danish Bakery

8. Sprecher Brewing

Milwaukee’s first craft brewery since prohibition, Sprecher Brewing opened its doors in 1985. Sprecher sells an array of beers, soda and malt beverages. Their award-winning beers, Black Bavarian and Special Amber, are no comparison to their famous Root beer which Sprecher brews more of than all of its alcoholic beverages combined. Founder Randy Sprecher had a passion for creating great German beer. This led him to building the first gas-fired brew kettle which uses a caramelization process, creating the beverages’ big, bold flavors. As of 2020, Sprecher is now distributing to 20 states and Randy Sprecher has achieved his dreams, thus selling to a small team of Milwaukee investors. 

Photo courtesy Spercher Brewing Co.

9. Miller Brewing Company

Brewing has been Milwaukee’s main industry since the mid 1900s, being the host of one of the industry’s leading giants – Miller – as well as other well known, popular brands. Miller Brewing Company was established back in 1855 as Fredrick J. Miller’s Plank Road Brewery. Throughout the years, Miller and his team were nationally strategic and became pioneers in advertising. To start, he opened saloons and beer halls which increased the consumption of his product, the company expanded and updated operations during slower times of prohibition and developed national ad campaigns in print, radio and television. 

We also have Miller Brewing Company to thank for being a huge influence in bringing Major League Baseball to Milwaukee in 1953. Years later, Miller purchased the naming rights to the Milwaukee Brewer’s new stadium which opened in 2001 as Miller Park. In the last 20 years, this stadium has generated over $2.5 billion in economic impact for Wisconsin.

Photo by Kaitlyn Baker via Unsplash

10. Leinenkugel’s

Leinie's 150th anniversary bottle
Photo courtesy of Olson Engage

Jacob Leinenkugel was a German immigrant who settled in Chippewa Falls where he started his brewery in 1867. Leinenkugel’s survived prohibition while many breweries did not; by the end of this period, they were the largest bottler of soda water in the area. Once a brewmaster was hired, the brewery was modernized, started giving brewery tours, and new opportunities arose.  

Through continuous expansions and determination in the six generations of the Leinenkugel family, this company has thrived. The partnership with Miller Brewing Company in 1988 allowed Leinenkugel’s beer to achieve a nationwide reach. Because of the increase in demand, the company added its 10th Street Brewery to downtown Milwaukee in 1995 and opened the Leinie Lodge in 2003, which has over 350,000 members today. 

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