Italian Beef – Dripping with Chicago goodness

italian beef sandwich

You may have noticed by now that there are two very different Chicago’s — equally awesome, yet unique in personality; there’s the old school working man’s town and there’s the cutting edge Midwest icon of what’s modern, urban and hip. These two Chicagos are like split personalities. The old Chicago watches da Bears, respects their crooked Aldermen, reserves their parking spaces with lawn chairs and doesn’t look twice when the L rattles their apartment. The modern Chicago is beyond its blue class roots, it’s the NY or LA of the Midwest as it births trends and sets the Midwestern tone for what’s chic. The two Chicagos eat differently too. Old Chicago eats deep dish pizza with mountains of cheese, drowns their french fries in canned spreadable cheddar and has an entire street devoted to steak houses. The modern Chicago has tasting menus and farmers markets and consumes more Sushi than sausage. Together, they make up the city as we know it today, but if you want to be a true Chicagoan then you must start with the Old Chicago, where meat is king and a clogged artery is a small price to pay for amazing food. The Italian Beef Sandwich is the poster boy of this philosophy, perhaps even more so then the Chicago dog or the deep dish pie. It’s the Philly Cheese Steak’s juicy cousin and just as iconic, as it harps back to our meat packing days. If you haven’t had an Italian Beef yet then it’s time to review the rules, survey the field, lean forward and chow down.

“Gimme a Beef”. Like any food of tradition there are very specific rules on how it’s prepared, how it’s eaten and a short but proud list of who makes it. The Beef is a French bread roll sandwich with shaved strips of beef that have been slow roasted in a vat of Italian spiced “juice”. When you order your Beef you better figure out quick how you like it because nobody’s gonna hold your hand through the process. First thing to decide is if you want it dry, wet or dipped. When ordered dry they shake the juice off the beef lightly, when wet it goes straight from juice to roll, and when dipped they take the whole fricken sammy and dunk it’s thick bread into the vat of deliciousness. Dipped is the true hardcore way, soaked in juice and deteriorating rapidly, it’s rolled in a mountain of butcher paper and destined for immediate consumption. Next decision is sweet or hot peppers, the sweet being roasted green peppers and the hot being a giardiniera (mixture of peppers, veggies and spices). Some places then offer a cheese with your beef, usually mozzarella. I find this nontraditional to the pure Chicago beef. You want cheese? Go get a cheese steak. You order all this with confidence and then find yourself a spot at the counter between two husky union contractors and get ready for the “lean”.

I admit, the Italian Beef “lean” sounds hokey, more of a practical requirement on how to eat such a messy sandwich that some Food Network host played up as a cultural phenomenon. Hokey or not it’s a necessity, and if you don’t know how to do it you’ll end up having to throw away your shirt. Plant your elbows on the long counters most of these places have setup, lean forward and prop that big boy so its drippings hits the paper and not your shirt, unraveling its drenched wrapping as you go. This might sound like more trouble then it’s worth on paper…errr computer screen, but there isn’t a food out there as worthy of its sloppiness than this delicacy.

As with any food this holy, there’s an ongoing debate on where to get the best Beef. I’m an Al’s man myself — Al’s Italian Beef claims to be the inventor of this sandwich at it’s original location on Taylor Street in Little Italy in 1938. Al’s even offers a “combo” for the truly meat twisted individual, slipping an Italian Sausage in with your beef sandwich. Growing up as a city kid, the other choice was always Mr. Beef on Orleans, a fierce competitor with plenty of history and divey charm. West-siders swear by Johnny’s in Elmwood Park or Portillo’s, which I’ve always known more as a hot dog joint then a place for the Beef. No matter where you get your Beef, Pasquale Scala Packing Company probably supplies them with their strips of goodness as they too claim to have invented it and have been selling their meat to Italian Beef joints since the turn of the century…last century, that is.

Important to note: don’t be fooled by imitators. There’s a lot of places in Chicago who specialize in other foods and will offer up some impostor beef in a hamburger bun or shave their meat off a skewer with no tub of juice in site. Follow the rules of the Italian Beef and expect no substitute, you’re a Chicagoan damn it!

David Frankel McLean

About David Frankel McLean

I’ve been thinking philosophically about Chicago since I was jaywalking the streets at the age of 10. I don’t root for both baseball teams and I don’t put Ketchup on my hot dogs. When someone says they’re a Chicagoan they are speaking of a heritage and a doctrine, not just a location. What that doctrine is I’m not entirely sure, it’s constantly changing with the growth of the city and I’ll spend my entire life trying to figure it out.

One Comment

  • KMH
    July 20, 2010 | Permalink |

    I second Al’s as being my favorite beef place. I am a wet beef eater and despise portillo’s beef. Portillo’s always seems to be overdone. The beef is never as tender or flavorful as the old small beef joints of the city. Furthermore, Al’s has buffalo fries. Fresh fries drenched in buffalo sauce served with blue cheese. I am salivating just thinking about them.