Top 5 Italian Beefs in Chicago (Suburbs)

1. Johnnie’s

7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park; 708-452-6000 (second location at 1935 S. Arlington Heights Rd, Arlington Heights; 847-357-8100)

$4.32 for sandwich + .37 for sweet peppers + .37 for hot peppers

Total: $5.06

Bread: Gonnella

Opened in 1961, the legendary store in Elmwood Park typically has a line snaking out the side, especially in the summertime. On a chilly weekday, I walked right in and got the usual, with a small lemon ice (a must). The thing Johnnie’s does that no one else bothers to is to beautifully space the mixture of sweet – finely-chopped green bell peppers and onions sprinkled with oregano – evenly, throughout the sandwich; a hot giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers and cauliflower is arranged over a messy, juicy, thinly-sliced, perfectly seasoned beef sandwich, containing that perfect ratio of bread to beef to peppers. You know you’re in for a pleasurable experience when you unwrap your meaty gift on the counter, and the fat/grease soaks through the paper (see picture, above). But that’s what the Italian lemonade (ice) is for – the sweet creaminess against the fatty richness and mild heat is one of life’s great culinary combos.

 

2. The Original Mr. Beef

12320 W. 143rd Street, Homer Glen; 708-645-0456

Mr. Beef Homer Glen

$6.50 for sandwich + .40 for sweet peppers + .40 for hot peppers

Total: $7.30

Bread: Liborio Bread (River Grove)

In a way, the Mr. Beef saga in Chicago is like the bizarre twists and turns of the Mueller clan in Austin. According the owner Carl Bonavolanto III, Mr. Beef on Orleans opens in 1963 by his dad, Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and Tony Ozzauto. Years pass, they sell out in 1980, but then success ensues and a cult following is born. Things change on Orleans, and Carl Bonavolanto III ends up in Will County of all places, planting his flag with the (alleged) original recipe. A great story is one thing, but all I care about is taste, and The Original Mr. Beef delivers on all fronts: paper-thin beef – trimmed of all fat and gristle – suffused with the richness of its own fat from the drippings that are loaded with garlic; an amalgam of serrano peppers, crunchy celery and black pepper in a giardiniera that offers the slightest amount of heat, pairing extremely well with the surprising addition of red or yellow bell peppers that are actually sweet. Stuffed into sturdy, flavorful Liborio loaves that no one else in the region seems to use, it’s a juicy, hot, beefy mess that I couldn’t put down, even after I had already nibbled on three beefs previously that day. For the record, the difference between my #1 and #2 here is slim. UPDATE: Christopher Zucchero, the owner of Mr. Beef on Orleans, wrote to me yesterday, setting the record straight: “The Carl you mentioned, who owns the one in Homer Glen, used to work here when my father purchased it from his uncle, Tony Ouzzato.  It was actually called the Cozy Kitchen and it really was owned by the Scala family of the famed Scala Meat Packing Co.  The Scala’s are cousins to Carl B. and Tony O. When my father purchased it, he chucked their recipe, began using his own, and changed the name. That was in 1977 not 1980. Once again no familial connection.  Mr Beef on Orleans was founded by my father, Joe Zucchero.  It’s a completely different restaurant.”

UPDATE #2, AS OF 3/13, 4 p.m.: Earlier today, Nancy Gonzalez, a manager who has worked at the Original Mr. Beef for 18 years, sent me this note, in response to accusations made by Mr. Zucchero previously: “It is mind boggling to me that Christopher Zucchero spews such lies or was somehow grossly misinformed! Carl worked there with his father and uncle from age 9, that’s 49 years ago…1966, 3 years after they opened. & it was called Mr. Beef, not Cozy Kitchen…..never heard of Cozy Kitchen.” 

 

3. Frangella

11925 S. 80th Avenue, Palos Park; 708-448-2598

Frangella

$5.99 for sandwich, includes peppers

Bread: D’Amato’s

This to-go only deli is stocked with a great selection of Italian groceries and a nice amount of homemade dishes in the case, such as arancini, sauces and pasta dishes. It’s easy to pick up dinner from here. The long deli case features the usual Boar’s Head products, but they also do Italian beef everyday. The D’Amato’s bread (among my favorites in town) holds up really well to the jus, and the giardiniera is fantastic: crunchy knobs of cauliflower and jalapeños mixed with habaneros and olives, swimming in oil and oregano; a few “sweet” green peppers are tucked into one side of the sandwich, ensuring a small taste with each bite. The beef is roasted about two hours in garlic and oregano, then cooled overnight. Sliced to-order, it’s reddish-pink inside, weighed to about a third of a pound, then bathed in the extra hot jus for only about a minute, which finishes cooking it. Their theory is by not letting the beef sit in the jus all day, it doesn’t get overcooked. I couldn’t figure out how it was possible that it would retain so much flavor, but I guess if you cook the right piece of meat the proper way, slice it the proper thickness and make a jus that has the requisite seasoning, a brief bath in that richness (combined with the flavors absorbed into the bread) beats a long steep in mediocrity.

 

4. Freddy’s Pizza

1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero; 708-863-9289

Freddy's

$5.99 for sandwich + .50 for sweet peppers + .35 for hot peppers

Total: $6.84

Bread: Turano

Old. School. Freddy’s is one of those places that feels frozen in time. Not far from where Capone used to have a house in Cicero, the neighborhood has turned more Hispanic than Italian, but Freddy’s endures. The daily selection in the front case is tempting beyond belief. The day I went, they were trying out a new baked pasta dish called Timballo di Pasta, which we couldn’t stop raving about. The beef here is delicious. Covered with two strips of green pepper and two strips of red (that are actually sweet) their giardiniera is the best in Chicago: homemade each day with olives (!), carrots, sport peppers and celery, it adds just the right note of crunch and heat to this juicy, wet creation. While we thought it was juicy on the outside, it wasn’t totally soggy on the inside, which made it possible to pick up and set down without it falling apart. Frankly, I was surprised, because I’m not a huge Turano fan.

 

5. Scatchell’s Beef & Pizza

4700 W. Cermak Rd., Cicero; 708-656-0911

Scatchell's

$5.35 for sandwich + .50 for sweet and hot peppers

Total: $5.85

Bread: Gonnella

Stubby and Eddie Scatchell opened their eponymous joint in Cicero in 1953. The neighborhood has changed quite a bit – there are a lot more taquerias and Mexican grocery stores today – but the basic sandwich hasn’t changed much. First off, it’s huge; mine was stuffed with finely shredded/shaved beef that was easy to chew, along with three green peppers and a nice hot mix of celery and red chili flakes to give each bite some crunch. The bread was thoroughly soaked, and my friend remarked that once you pick this sandwich up, you’re committed, because once you set it down, it will disintegrate. We thought the beef lacked the umami-like savoriness of a Buona, but this baby, consumed at the counter facing Cermak, was a joy to eat. (Side note: the lemon ice is smooth and creamy, like Johnnie’s, but not quite as good).

 

Honorable Mention:

Portillo’s

33 locations in Illinois

Portillo's

Menu they hand you while waiting in line and online lists sandwich as $5.45, but they’ve raised the price to $5.69 for a sandwich, probably as a result of their being sold to an investment group recently +.60 sweet peppers + .60 hot peppers

Total: $6.89

Bread: Turano

With 38 locations – 33 of which are in Illinois – Portillo’s has become more of a theme park than a true “joint.” Each location has a theme, such as “30s Prohibition” or “50s and 60s Retro” and I couldn’t help but feel, as I waited in a snaking line, that I was in a sort of Disneyland for people who wanted to eat Chicago-style food, but didn’t actually want to travel anywhere in Chicago that wasn’t more than 10 minutes from their hotel. They use one of my least favorite breads, but they certainly know how to make beef. The texture was nice and soft, and the “juicy” lived up to its billing – my sandwich was totally wet, allowing me to taste the oregano in every soggy bite. There were two huge slices of green pepper, steamed like most and not worth the .60 upcharge, but the giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers, celery and cauliflower saved it. If you don’t have a car and it’s the most convenient to you in Batavia, Bolingbrook, Crystal Lake, etc., then this is a fine sandwich, but not in my top 10 overall. (Side note: don’t waste the calories on the overrated chocolate cake; better to get it mixed into a shake).

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