After Berkley, Chicago is my favorite food town. I always try to hit the Billy Goat Tavern. I thought it would be touristy, but it was everything I wanted it to be – authentic, fun, and good food. It was much more than a Saturday Night Live skit – it was a true taste of Chicago on a day when I needed to have a good meal (I had a double cheeseburger as my hobbit style second breakfast for the day).((Traveling Tip – there is a Billy Goat Tavern Outlet at O’Hare Airport, near Gate C 19, – the burger is almost as good and the Italian Beef is worth a bite.)) A meal that was runner up for best spot of the trip was an insider tip from my friend Josh, a Chicago transplant. We had a great lunch at Heaven on Seven, a diner with some cajun undertones, hidden on the seventh floor of an office building.
Another bonus for Chicago style hot dog lovers – there is a Superdawg at Midway airport!
Here is a Chicago food primer for Windy City greenhorns.
To begin – some information on Chicago pizza:
And now on to the Italian Beef –
Pat Bruno is the authority on Chicago Food – here his Beef overview –
And Chicago Hot Dogs
In 2005, I was researching the fabulous Italian Beef Sandwich in the Windy City – this is what I learned.
Chicago is a food lover’s town featuring three homegrown culinary inventions – Deep Dish Pizza, Chicago Style Hot Dogs and the Italian Beef Sandwich (the third and least traveled of the triumvirate). Few people have heard of this Chicago cultural icon outside of the Windy City metro area, – but once you get a big, wet, messy bite of this sandwich – you’re hooked.The history of the sandwich is about as clear as the juice the beef swims in. You won’t find this sandwich in Italy; most people agree the sandwich evolved in the Italian neighborhoods of Chicago in the 1930’s. A place called Al’s on Taylor Street has been around since 1938. Other local lore implies the origin of Italian Beef at a place called Maxwell’s.
The popular sandwich rapidly populated Chicago’s neighborhoods with beef stands in the late 1940’s. Today the signature sandwich is served up at hundreds of places from old mom and pop stands to new fangled franchises.
The building blocks of the Italian Beef are: Bun – a Chicago style French roll – crusty on the outside – soft on the inside; the beef – thinly sliced and cut against the grain; the juice/sauce – a highly seasoned au jus with slight variations depending on the recipe used but usually including some combination of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, basil, red pepper flakes, and other herbs and spices; and the toppings – typically sweet peppers or Giardiniera (Jar Din Era). You can get cheese at a few places but for most Chicagoans that is like putting ketchup on a Chicago dog – you just don’t do it.
Before ordering a beef – you need to know what to ask for. Each choice is critical and needs to be made before you approach the counter.
First decision – dry or wet. A wet sandwich will have the roll dipped in the juice as well. A dry sandwich will have what escapes the meat or a little extra juice the sandwich maker ladles in by chance.
Second decision – sweet or hot. Sweet will get you roasted green bell peppers. Hot means Hot (Spicy) Giardiniera relish – the typical combination includes cut up cauliflower, celery, jalapeno and/or sport peppers, carrots, and spices (the recipe for this relish varies from place to place).
Third decision – can you get a combo? The Combo sandwich adds Italian sausage to the Italian beef – can you say coronary disease!!!
Fourth decision – can you get “red Gravy/sauce? A few places offer a red sauce for the beef – this is basically spaghetti sauce – but this is rare and not favored by most Italian Beef aficionados.
Fifth decision – “ya want fries with that?”
Pat Bruno and Dennis Foley, famed food writers and known Beef eaters describe the Chicago Lean. An Italian Beef veteran will often eat this sandwich standing up with the torso leaning forward or at least maneuvering the tail end of the sandwich to a strategic angle to avoid the drippings of the sandwich. Any strategy that avoids loosing the slightest bit of sandwich while protecting ones clothing is preferred. Some of the better beef stands invest a little extra in a thicker grade of wax paper to wrap the sandwich in – but even this will not guarantee keeping the sauce off your shirt.
Many of the places get their beef from Scala Beef – which has a great reputation in town. Most of the rolls are from Gonnella Baking Company or Turano Baking Company – also highly regarded bakers. It is not uncommon to see giardiniera served out of a large glass jar from one of several local purveyors. Considering all these commonalities it might seem that all Beefs are created and served equal – such is not the case. True Italian Beef fans will scrutinize every detail such as how the sirloin is cut – too thin or too thick and how each place cuts and handles their beef. Seasoning in the juice and quality of toppings are critical too and always noticed by anyone that has been to more than a couple beef stands. Even small touches such as how the rolls are stored and whether or not the Giardiniera is self serve can be crucial factors.
If you have a large group in tow and you need more seating and variety than the typical beef stand has to offer keep an eye out for these two chains – Portillos and Buona Beef. Both places serve a good beef and offer other Chicago style treats as well as catering. Mr. Beef is a famous place inside the Chicago Loop. It is just across the street from the Scala Beef plant downtown and has been a celebrity favorite for decades – the wall across from the counter is plastered with glossies of actors and local notables.
My Chicago beef guide – who I will call Mac the Knife to protect his identify– said this after visiting one well-known place – “they say you can’t screw up an Italian Beef – well you can and _______ did!!” The better beefs are often off the beaten path. To make sure your first experience is a good one – here is a sample of places that consistently do everything right.
1801 S. Wolf Road,
Any second or third generation Italian Beef eater will probably pause for a minute and smile when you mention Carm’s. Many years ago, there were four locations. The original and favorite was on Cicero Avenue. Today, just the Hillside location remains. Joe Mantenga seems to love the place – he has two autographed photos inside. This Carm’s serves much more than Italian Beef but it keeps the family recipes and legend alive with the most appealing looking Italian Beef sandwich in town.
Carm’s Italian Beef
1057 W. Polk St.
The Little Italy Carm’s is no relation to the Hillside Carm’s. This location opened in 1926 as a grocery store called Fontano’s. In the 1960’s the store moved across the street and this location started specializing in sandwiches and Italian Ices. The DeVille family knows many of their customers – people from the neighborhood and nearby University of Illinois at Chicago students. The lady at the counter asked me “who would want to read about Italian Beefs?” (Ok – the book died – but this did make it on the blog).
2932 W Chicago Ave (Corner of Grand and Chicago)
312 486 9536
Boston’s started out as a bar in 1949 but switched over to a Beef place as their sandwiches gained more renown. This place is a little out of the way in an industrial section of Chicago but is worth the trip – at least in the daytime. Over the years, Boston’s has been consistently listed as a top place when Chicagoans rave about the best Beefs in town. This beef stand is also highly frequented by the Chicago police and other public servants, which is a solid endorsement for any type of food. Beef eaters will also find a Godfather movie poster hanging on the wall – although not scientifically proven, this type of décor typically has a high correlation with good Italian Beef. If you have not had a combo sandwich – this is one the best places to do so.
2839 S Pulaski Rd
312 762 2333 (BEEF)
Chickie’s is a classic Chicago Italian Beef Stand that blends into its working class neighborhood. The inside is standing room only but there are two picnic tables outside. The beef is strongly seasoned. The Giardiniera is homemade with a lot of large slices of celery mixed in with the spicy blend. The place has been around since 1962 and is a lunchtime favorite for nearby office and factory workers.
Duke’s Drive In
8115 S Harlem Ave
Oak Lawn, IL
Duke’s is kind of the new kid of the Italian Beef block. This south side establishment has been serving Italian Beef sandwiches since 1975. Duke’s is a quintessential drive-in, which makes it a favorite of truckers and classic car enthusiasts. Although some places have received higher rating for sandwiches – for the Chicago gull population Duke’s is the hands down favorite. Not even the multiple signs posted that state feeding the bird is against city statutes will keep these feathered French Fry eaters way.
7500 W North Ave
Elmwood Park, IL
708 452 6000
Second location –
1935 S ARLINGTON HEIGHTS RD
ARLINGTON HTS, IL 60005-4017
Really good beef can be found outside the Chicago Loop and Johnnie’s Beef is worth the trip to the burbs to prove it. Expect to find a line of customers when you pull in this drive in’s driveway. Don’t let the sight of people queued up outside the door deter you – this place moves people through quickly because the guys at the counter are efficient order takers – much like the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld. If you forget to order your fries or the type of peppers you want because you panicked then you can drown your sorrows in one of the best Italian Ices this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Max’s Italian Beef
5754 N Western Ave (near Hollywood Ave.)
Chicago, IL 60659-5114
The Estes family takes their business seriously – they post their home and work phone numbers on the wall so you can call them if something is not to your satisfaction. The stand has been around since 1957 and you can see a leftover wooden sign from the day that Beefs were well under a dollar. Today, the place has four tables and counter seating that rings the inside with plenty of TV’s for watching local sporting events. Max’s offers self-serve, spicy Giardiniera and a giant menu including their famous Ghetto Fries (BBQ sauce or gravy, Onions, Giardiniera, and a lot of melted cheese). When they dip a Beef at Max’s it comes out really wet – so be ready.
1503 W. Taylor St.
Chicago, IL 60607
312 829 0454
The Patio has been around for over 50 years with the last 23 at this location in the heart of Little Italy (http://www.littleitalychicago.com). There is no patio at the Patio (that was at the original location) but there is one of the least expensive Italian Beef sandwiches in town. As a bonus they wrap their sandwich a high-grade wax paper (extra protection for beef greenhorns) that is more resilient than what other places use. The friendly counter staff will make you feel at home in this cozy spot that seats about ten.
Pop’s Italian Beef & Sausage
7153 W 127th St.
Palos Heights, IL
14279 Wolf Rd.
Orland Park, IL 60467-1932
10337 S. Kedzie Ave.,
18328 Governors Highway
Even though Pop’s family of restaurants has grown – the friendly service helps retain the feel of a Mom and Pop establishment. Pop’s has one of the best cost to beef ratios of any Italian beef purveyor, they do not hold back on the beef in their sandwiches. As for toppings, this small chain has the best self-serve hot giardiniera in town. This is a good place to come if you need a place to sit down since there is some seating available.
Looking for beefs around Chicago – you will hear the name Al mentioned more than once. The problem is there is more than one Al’s, so where do you go first – this will help sort out A Tale of Two Al’s.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef
Most convenient location:
169 West. Ontario
(312) 943-3222The Franchise started in 2001. But the Ontario Al’s does have common ancestry with the Taylor St. Al’s.The Ontario location is within a baseball toss of Ed Debevic’s, Carson’s Ribs, Gino’s East Pizza and a Portillos – so you can cover all of your Chicago food needs on foot. You can take the Brown Line to Chicago or Merchandise Mart.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef
1079 West Taylor St
Born in 1938.
As an added bonus, Mario’s Italian Ice shop, which is among the best in Chicago, is across the street. This Al’s has been listed in nearly every article written about Italian Beef. Little Italy is a great neighborhood for food lovers to stroll around.
Subway access on the Blue Line to UIC-Halsted, and then a bit of a walk.