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The Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich (Sandwich Week)

Posted by cmh gourmand on August 7, 2017

Italian Beef

(Disclaimer: This was written in 2005 and 2006 so some site info many no longer be accurate)

Chicago is a food lover’s town offering three homegrown culinary inventions – Deep Dish Pizza, Chicago Style Dogs and the third (and least traveled) of the triumvirate – the Italian Beef Sandwich. 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 are 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 establishment 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 with the meat.

Second decision – Sweet or Hot? Sweet will get you roasted green bell peppers. Hot will typically give you 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 many 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 Co. or Turano Baking Company – also highly thought of companies. It is not uncommon to see giardiniera served out of a large glass jar from one of several local purveyors. Considering all these commonalities – what separates one beef from another – quite a bit. Beef fans will scrutinize every detail such as how the sirloin is cut – too thin or too thick and how each place handles their beef from first cut to the last. Seasoning and 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.

My Chicago beef guide – who I will call Mac the Knife for safety purposes – said this after one place – “they say you can’t screw up an Italian Beef – well you can and _______ did!!” So to make sure your first experience is a good one – here are some places that consistently do everything right.


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 – I will help you sort out A Tale of Two Al’s.

Al’s #1 Italian Beef
What does the phone book say: Al’s #1 Italian Beef

Locations: Over 10
Most convenient location:
169 West. Ontario
(312) 943-3222

Open since:
The Franchise started in 2001. But the Ontario Al’s does have common ancestry with the Taylor St. Al’s. This location has been around for several years.

Beef is cut and cooked in house: Yes

What you need to know. 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.

Getting there on the EL / Subway:
Brown Line to Chicago or Merchandise Mart

Can you get a beef on Sunday:
Yes

Inside seating:
Yes


or you could go to…..

Al’s #1 Italian Beef

What the phone book says: Al’s Bar-B-Q

Location(s): one
1079 West Taylor St
(312) 226-4017

Open since:
1938

Beef is cut and cooked in house:
Yes

What you need to know:
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.

Getting there on the EL (subway):
Blue Line to UIC-Halsted

Can you get a beef on a Sunday:
No

Inside Seating:
No – but there is room to do a Chicago lean inside and a few picnic tables outside.


more places to try:

Carm’s Beef
1801 S. Wolf Road,
Hillside, IL
708 449-0125

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.
312-738-1046

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. I lady at the counter asked me “who would want to read about Italian Beefs?” This book is the answer.

Boston’s Bar-B-Q
2932 W Chicago Ave (Corner of Grand and Chicago)
Chicago, IL
312 486 9536
(Closed Sunday)
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.

Chickies
2839 S Pulaski Rd
Chicago, IL
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
708 599-0576
http://www.dukesitalianbeef.com/

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.

Johnnie’s Beef
7500 W North Ave
Elmwood Park, IL
708 452 6000
(Second location –
1935 S ARLINGTON HEIGHTS RD
ARLINGTON HTS, IL 60005-4017
847-357-8100
(Closed Sunday)

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  
(773) 989-8200
(Closed Sunday)

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.

Patio
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
773 239 1243

14279 Wolf Rd.
Orland Park, IL 60467-1932
708 403-9070
10337 S. Kedzie Ave.,
Chicago, IL
773 239-1243
18328 Governors Highway
Homewood, IL
708 647-9999

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.

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2 Responses to “The Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich (Sandwich Week)”

  1. Elizabeth said

    I moved from Columbus last year and now live about 12 blocks from Chicago and Grand – sadly Boston’s is closed. #RIP

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