The Ultimate Guide to Chicago Italian Beef

Finally, the Italian beef has a moment. While Chicago-style deep dishes and hot dogs have long gained national fame, Italian beef was one such dish with limited appeal outside of Chicagoland. But now publications like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times suddenly care about our beloved soggy sandwich.

We have “The Bear” to thank for that, the FX show that follows a fictional young chef who unexpectedly leaves the world of fine dining to take over his family’s classic Italian beef stand. Fellow Tribune food critic Louisa Chu was able to chat with the star, Jeremy Allen White, a few months ago about the performance.

While glad to see the interest coming from the coasts, no one knows beef like the people of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune has been covering this messy, meaty sandwich for years — here’s everything you need to know.

At its core, Italian beef is a thinly sliced ​​roast beef sandwich served with juices derived from the roasting process. (Depending on the stand, this liquid is called juice, jus, or sauce.) That makes it the rare sandwich where a liquid plays a vital role in the finished product, and also explains why words like “spongy,” “moist,” and ” soggy” are often used to describe Italian beef.

In this way, the Italian beef shares many similarities with the French dip, but unlike this LA creation, the jus isn’t served neatly on the side in a small cup for you to dip as you please. Instead, the bread is often briefly dipped or emphatically soaked in the juice.

The so-called French bread is mainly used. Typically this is done by Turano Baking Company, a large bakery based in the suburb of Berwyn.

Of course, that still doesn’t quite reflect what people love so much about the sandwich. As I once wrote, “this is a sandwich that begins with a bunch of humble ingredients, which are transformed, by sheer engineering skill, into one of the meatiest, messiest sandwiches around.” on earth”.

Customers enjoy sandwiches at the Taylor Street restaurant.

It’s controversial. In a 2014 Tribune article by Kevin Pang, food historian Bruce Kraig explained that the origin of the dish is “fuzzy at best”. But three stories come up often. The first is that Pasquale Scala invented the sandwich in the 1920s as a cheap option to serve at weddings. Shaving the beef and serving it with the roasting liquid helped “stretch the limited meat” that people could afford at the time. Scala then founded the Scala Packing Company, which sold Italian beef to many restaurants until very recently closing its doors.

The second story is almost identical, except it was Tony Ferreri. His grandson, Chris Pacelli Jr., told Pang, “He roasted the beef and cut it into paper thin slices so you could see through it and put it in sandwiches. So now 15 pounds of beef would serve 50 people instead of 20.” Ferrari’s son Albert Ferreri eventually opened Al’s Bar-BQ in 1938, which later changed its name to Al’s #1 Italian Beef.

The third option comes from the late Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno, who thought it was only invented in 1948 or 1949 and was directly inspired by the French dip. But one cook, who is only called Tony, thought the French dip recipe was too boring, so he added more garlic and herbs.

Italian Beef at Al's #1 Beef $6.49

In the middle of 2020, I visited 50 Italian beef spots to find my top 20. Personally, I love the spice profile of the original Al’s #1 Italian Beef on Taylor Street. Rounding out my top five are Johnnie’s Beef, Bob-O’s Hot Dogs, Portillo’s, and Jay’s Beef of Harwood Heights.

Italian beef special at Tempesta $12

Excellent question. Many of the best Italian beef stalls have been around for decades. But that doesn’t mean chefs aren’t experimenting with the concept. As I discovered a few years ago, chefs at restaurants like Gibsons Italia and Tempesta Market have tried using different cuts of beef and very untraditional types of bread, although these are generally only available occasionally.

Marciella Sichique prepares an Italian beef sandwich at Portillo's 100 W. Ontario, Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Like most beloved regional sandwiches, an ordering shortcut has developed over time to speed up the transaction. Don’t stress about it. You will not be expelled if you make a mistake or ask a question. It’s not like trying to get ketchup on your hot dog at Jimmy’s Red Hots. But the jargon is useful because it helps you easily customize the sandwich. Start by simply calling it “an ox.” There is no American beef or Norwegian beef vying for your attention.

As explained above, the jus, or cooking liquid, is an integral part of the sandwich. The amount of beef juice that comes with the ride depends on how your order. (Although there is a general consensus on these terms, some stands use their own language.)

Dry: The meat is transferred to the bread with very little juice. If you hate clutter, this is the way to go. Of course, you also miss most of the excitement. One way to solve this problem is to order a cup of juice on the side, although you often have to pay extra to do so.

Italian Beef Sandwich at Portillo's 100 W. Ontario on Wednesday, July 9, 2014.

Wet: This is the lightly soaked option, with just enough liquid to soak the bread, but not to saturation point. Some places, like Portillo’s, pour in some of the juice to achieve the desired effect. A few places politely dip the cut side or one end of the bread in the juice before adding the meat. It’s a great compromise, especially if you’ve never tried the sandwich before.

Tempered: The beef is added to the bread, then part – or all – of the sandwich is dipped in the juice. It’s, frankly, a bit gratuitous and very messy, because there’s no way to eat this without smearing your hands in beef juice. That said, this is my favorite style because you get all the flavor of the beef jus as it saturates the bread. Just be sure to eat immediately, otherwise everything will turn to mush. Sometimes this style is referred to as “baptizing” your beef, although some believe that “dipped” refers to a slightly tighter dunk, while “baptized” indicates a more forceful dip.

Hot giardiniera at JP Graziano in Chicago, Wednesday, May 17, 2017.

It’s not like Subway or Chipotle, where you can load up a dozen different toppings. Honestly, if you find lettuce or tomato on Italian beef, I’ll ask you to refund me. Most places limit additions to sweet peppers, hot peppers, which you can label as mild and hot (or get both). But there are a few other toppings you might come across.

Sweet pepper: Luckily, these are mild peppers, not sweet. Sauteed or roasted green peppers are by far the most common choice, although sometimes places like Jay’s Beef of Harwood Heights use roasted red or yellow peppers (but not always). It’s common for places to cut the peppers into wide strips, although Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park cuts them into small pieces, a move I think more places should adopt. They don’t add heat or flavor, but they never get in the way either.

Peppers: Also known as giardiniera, Chicago’s quintessential condiment, it’s made with lots of hot peppers and a few chopped vegetables like cauliflower, celery, and carrots. This mixture is marinated, drained and then immersed in oil. Spices range from pleasantly pungent to downright pungent. The Giardiniera is essential, helping to cut through the heaviness with a shock of heat and acid, and I refuse to eat one without it.

Cheese: Cheese is becoming an increasingly common Italian beef topping. Standard options include mozzarella, provolone, cheddar, and cheese sauce. A good argument can be made that the gooey, melted cheese overwhelms the flavor of the beef, but if you love it, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Marinara: It’s even rarer, but a few stands allow you to add a thick, well-seasoned tomato sauce to your Italian beef. Having never experienced this variation, I tried Buona’s beef in sauce (formerly known as “the Rizzo way”, for Anthony Rizzo), which includes tomato sauce and mozzarella. It works surprisingly well, although it looks more like a meatball sub.

Combined : Most Italian beef stalls also sell grilled Italian sausage sandwiches, which are delicious on their own. Of course, this inevitably led to the combo, where you’ll get sausage and beef in the same sandwich. The result is obviously overdone, but if you’re in a good mood, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Johnnie’s Beef is the defending champion of this specialty.

Sauce bread: You can also ask for no toppings and no beef, which leaves you with a piece of bread soaked in jus. I doubt anyone would prefer this one over the one with beef, but it’s also much, much cheaper.

Plant-based Italian beef: What if you replaced the meat with a vegetable substitute? This is a relatively new addition to the scene, but this Italian “beefless” or plant-based beef can be found at Buona Beef and Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat.

Kind of. Finding the right kind of bread and toppings, especially in the Chicago area, is a breeze. You can also easily roast beef, and the Tribune has published a few recipes over the years. But the problem comes when you try to slice the meat. Italian beef shops use an electric deli slicer, which allows them to get those incredibly thin slices. Not many people have one at home, which means you’ll have to make do with a very sharp knife. I have tried this many times and am never able to maintain consistently thin slices. That doesn’t mean people don’t serve Italian beef at home, but why not leave the pros at a local Italian grocery store. The real pleasure is to eat.

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