What’s an Italian Beef?

At the risk of becoming persona non grata at both Vienna Beef headquarters as well as every Giordano’s in the state, I’m going to just lay it out on the line: the Chicago hot dog and the deep dish pizza have nothing on an Italian beef sandwich. What is this “Italian beef” of which I speak, you out-of-towner? It is not only a Chicago original, it is also one of our most underappreciated assets. What Aasif Mandvi is to The Daily Show and John’s Roast Pork is to the cheesesteak landscape in Philly, our humble “beef” has long been overshadowed by the more media-savvy and well-financed hot dog and pizza cabals. Maybe it’s because when those TV producers and bloggers from New York City invariably show up every few months to tell our story to the rest of the nation (and the world), they don’t have enough time, and figure the pizza and hot dog stories are more colorful (possibly), more universal (probably) and more delicious (definitely not). I know for a fact, when “Food Wars” came to town several years ago for The Travel Channel, they asked me to serve as a kind of local expert on the beef sandwich. When I suggested Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, they said they were aware of it, but since they were staying downtown and didn’t have a car, they were just going to cover Al’s #1 on Taylor St. and Mr. Beef on Orleans. That’s like me going to New York and saying I’m going to find the best soup dumplings, hand-pulled noodles and Szechuan-style dishes, but limit my search to a 5-block radius near Canal and Mott Streets.

Perhaps it’s because the hot dog (and don’t get me wrong, I love a good size six with all seven of the holy condiments in a steamed Rosen’s poppyseed bun) has inertia, history and the mammoth Vienna Beef enterprise behind it. Perhaps it’s because everyone in the world loves pizza, and folks like Giordano’s, Gino’s, Eduardo’s, Burt’s, Pequod’s and Pizano’s have become minor media darlings over the years, thanks to the occasional celebrity endorsement. When your biggest advocates and cheerleaders are Joe Mantegna and Jay Leno, the chances you’re going to break out on the national scene and become a part of someone’s “must-eat” itinerary are fairly slim.

Certainly, there’s nothing slim about the sandwich. Created in the 1920s, as Italian immigrants looked to extend the precious commodity at their so-called “peanut weddings,” enterprising cooks and nonnas would use the odd bits, trimmings and drippings from an entire roast beef, load up a sturdy French roll, then give it a little dunk in the jus to add more heft. In New Orleans, you’d call it a debris po’boy, undressed. Here, it’s just an Italian beef.


Those recent immigrants also added two crucial condiments: sweet peppers and hot peppers (both optional). But here’s the misnomer: the “sweet” you see today on 99% of the sandwiches is simply green bell peppers, typically cut into wedges or thin strips, steamed and draped over the sandwich. The more interesting element is the “hot” option. Called a giardiniera (ZHAR-di-NAIR), this relish typically contains bite-sized pieces of serranos or sport peppers (the same ones you’d see on a hot dog), along with celery, cauliflower, carrots and on rare occasions, olives, all dressed in an oily bath with vinegar, oregano and garlic, and sometimes additional red chili flakes. Some beef stands are minimalists, offering just jalapeños with celery; others go all-out with cauliflower, carrots and chili flakes; most of the better joints make their own, but most just buy it in bulk.

The beef has to made in-house. Usually cut from the inside round or top sirloin, the giant beefy orbs the size of beach balls are rubbed with garlic, oregano and garlic juice (I saw plastic containers of this in several places), then roasted until cooked through, about 2-3 hours depending on their size. They’re then cooled in a refrigerator overnight, and sliced the next day on a sharpened, industrial meat slicer, dialed to one of the thinnest settings, producing nearly paper-thin sheets of roast beef, pink on the inside.

Some stores will keep these slices chilled until an order comes in, dunking them into the rich-yet-thin gravy, or jus, for about a minute, to infuse the beef with its garlicky flavor and aroma, and in some cases, finish cooking it. Some will let the beef bathe in the jus all day long, swimming and soaking up its flavors. The potential pitfall with this technique is if the temperature on the steam table is set too high, it will overcook the beef, rendering it tough and chewy. About three to four ounces (sometimes more, depends on the joint) are lifted into a sturdy French roll (more often than not, it’s Gonnella), then, depending on how you ordered it (dry, spoon o’ juice, dipped, wet, juicy, dunked) the sandwich guy (it’s always a guy) will quickly give each side of the sandwich a baptism in the heady jus. Again, depending on your order – sweet, hot – you’ll also get a spoonful or two of giardiniera and a few bell peppers scattered on top.

The reason I decided to tackle this icon, once and for all, was because of a bad beef I had a few weeks ago at the usually well-regarded Bari, on Grand Ave. I’ve been going there for years, usually getting an Italian sub, and I was well aware of the fact they had stopped using D’Amato’s bread next door, in effect, triggering an all-out sandwich war with its neighbor, the equivalent of a Gaza Strip showdown. The bread, funny enough, had nothing to do with it. My sandwich was not only surprisingly dry and chewy, but the promised sweet and hot (an extra .50 for each) were nothing more than a tablespoon or so of lackluster peppers and a pittance of “giardiniera,” well-hidden beneath that tangle of flavorless beef (you’ll see a picture of it in tomorrow’s post). I suddenly thought – as Doug Sohn did many fateful years ago, after hearing his friend had experienced a really bad hot dog – how is that possible, in Chicago of all places? How do you make a bad beef (or hot dog?) Is it that difficult?

After my post on Facebook, in which I scolded Bari, saying it should be ashamed for charging $7.00 for a beef that weak, the comments poured in. If there’s one thing that gets attention on social media, I’ve learned, it’s negativity, snarkiness and lists (and also getting tossed from restaurants for no reason). The response was swift and thorough. Suggestions were made, experiences shared and my mind started reeling. Why don’t I just visit the 20 most important beef stands in the region, and settle this once-and-for-all?

The premise seemed simple enough: I would make a list based on my own experiences, plus whichever places seemed to come up frequently from the commenters on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I would visit anonymously and pay with cash. I used the hashtag #ChicagoItalianBeefCrawlDay1, Day2, etc. as a way for people to keep track, and as a way to see comments and suggestions. As a control, I would order a “beef, sweet, hot and juicy” (a.k.a wet), and if the deli/restaurant offered various sizes, I would get the smallest one. I would eat it there, unless it was to go only, like Frangella’s or Serrelli’s, in which case I’d eat it on my tailgate or hood. I would take a picture of the whole sandwich, then slice it in half with my 8” serrated knife, giving half to my friend who had agreed to come along with me. In most cases, I’d eat almost the entire half; in a few, I was done after two bites. I ranked as I went, so that the information was always fresh in my mind, and didn’t really settle on my Top 10 overall until the very last day of The Crawl. By the time I was finished, I had spent the better part of 5 days visiting 31 of the Most Important Beef Stands in the region (yes, I hit on average, six stands each day).

Tomorrow I’ll list all of the stands I visited alphabetically, with my notes on each one, so you can get the big picture.  On Wednesday, I’ll reveal my Top 5 Suburban beefs with an accompanying map; on Thursday, my Top 5 City beefs with a map, and on Friday, I’ll rank all of the stands, from #1 to #31, shown on a map of the region so you’ll never have to wonder where I stand on Novi’s vs. Jay’s vs. Tony’s vs. Johnnie’s.

Also, on Friday night, I’ll feature my Top 3 Suburban joints on ABC 7 Eyewitness News at 10 p.m., and on Saturday at 10 p.m., my Top 3 City joints. It’s going to be a filling week, pack the Lipitor.


3 responses to “What’s an Italian Beef?
  1. I will second you on your assessment of what I have coined the term “The Philadelphia Conundrum”… After living and working “back east” out of DC for almost fifteen years, I had on occasion the need to travel to or through Philadelphia. One of my soldiers whom I was deployed with was the typical Philly native and he was most definitely a “Pat’s” guy. Being deployed for a year or more at a time with people you get to know them to a point where you feel like they are family. I did find myself in Philly, and tried Pat’s, then tried Geno’s, and I felt after trying the marquis sandwich of the city… yes that’s cheese wiz… to say I was disappointed would have been an understatement.

    After a few weeks of being back in DC an associate of mine enquired about my trip to Philadelphia, as she also… was a native. We did discuss food and she laughed out loud when I had reported that the grand Philly Beef Sandwich well, just was ok.

    That is when I learned of the sandwich which SHOULD be the signature sandwich of Philadelphia… The Italian roast pork and broccoli rabe sandwich… I did seek out Johns roast pork, But Tony Lukes.. great sandwich I was blown away… How could a city not tout this humble simple sandwich as THE must have when you visit??? The combination of flavors and the textures is what keeps me going back… Sadly I have stepped away from the DC life and the accessibility to quirky local joints… I am in Phoenix now and while there are some good eats here it pales on a whole to places “back east”… I still do crave an AL’s #1 from time to time… Theres a Portillo’s in Tempe… but realistically… its a Portillos in TEMPE!!!

  2. Steve Dolinsky is my Hero. I did the Italian Beef crawl with his master list in my pocket. This story made me cry; god bless The Dolinsky.

    “What is this “Italian beef” of which I speak, you out-of-towner?” *snorting laughter*

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