What Is An Italian Beef
First we need to nail down what this beast of a sandwich is, because it’s slightly more confusing than it first appears. I’ve always thought of the sandwich as a spruced up roast beef sandwich, but that’s not quite the case. Watch this behind the scenes video at Al’s #1 Italian Beef and you’ll see they start with an enormous hunk of beef roasted with a fair amount of liquid. You’d think that would make this a braised dish, much like a roast beef po’ boy, but that’s not quite true, either. The beef isn’t cooked to the point where it falls apart like a pot roast. Instead, the roast is cut very thin, and these slices maintain some of their integrity.
Though the sandwich is a bit tricky to define, making one looks simple enough: roast a big hunk of meat with water and seasonings, thinly slice the meat, combine the slices with the the flavorful leftover liquid from cooking, and then serve it all on rolls. This is basically what I did a few years ago when I followed the very good recipe from Saveur. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like something was missing from the finished sandwich. While solid, it never quite crossed the line into pure mayhem like the best Italian beefs.
History Of The Italian Beef Sandwich
The sandwichs story starts around the end of World War I with a Chicago street peddler named Anthony Ferreri. He would drive around the city making deliveries of cold sandwiches and other bakery items he made out of the basement of his home. Anthony sold them off the back of his truck at construction sites, hospitals, and other offices just like a modern-day food truck.
One day he attended a local Italian-American “peanut wedding, and the course of Chicago culinary history was changed forever. Italian American immigrants did not have much money back in those days, so wedding receptions would be held in homes and church basements where they served cheap foods like peanuts . At this particular wedding, the family had a beef roast where they were slicing it pretty thick by hand and making sandwiches out of it.
Ferrari, who was always a sandwich guy at heart, had an idea. He could slice that beef roast much thinner on his deli slicer and cook it in its juices, add in some secret spices, and you could feed twice as many people with a first-rate sandwich. Ferrari coined the thinner beef cut the Beef Sandwich and would sell it with his other deliveries or at other Peanut Weddings he would cater across the city.
Als has shared its passion for Italian Beef sandwiches with Chicago and the rest of the world, serving the same great food that it did when it began its original operation over 80 years ago today.
Scatchells Beef & Pizza
The beef at Scatchells is so finely sliced that it looks like its seconds away from breaking down into a mess of shredded beef strands. Yet it manages to stay succulent, with a powerful savoriness in each bite. The hot pepper mix is celery-based, but unlike most in this style, its loaded with red chile flakes. This allows for a terrific balance of beefiness to spiciness. $5.69
4700 W. Cermak Road, Cicero, 708-656-0911, scatchellsbeefstand.com
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How To Make Chicago
When I moved to Chicago, I wasted little time before devouring all of its iconic dishes. I mean, isn’t that what civic pride is all about? My wife and I manhandled a deep dish pizza at Uno’s, waited in line for a Chicago-style hot dog at Hot Doug’s, and bellied up to the counter for our very first Italian beef at Al’s #1 Italian Beef. It didn’t take long to figure out that these dishes had one obvious similar trait. Besides embodying a, how shall I say, generous Chicago spirit, they all were spectacularly messy. Condiments crumbled into our laps, cheese stretched for feet, and shirts inevitably picked up stains.
While none of these iconic dishes are even remotely polite, there’s no doubt which one required the tallest stack of napkins. That honor went to the Italian beef, one of the most unwieldy sandwiches ever created by man. At first glance it looks like the less dignified cousin of the French dip, but instead of coming with a nice little side of jus for you to wet the sandwich’s ends with, this bad boy is saturated from the start. Ask for it “dipped” and the whole sandwich is dunked in meaty juices, soaking the bread to the core. I know this sounds insane, and if you’re talking about the mess, you’re absolutely right. There’s no respectable way to eat one of these. All you can hope to do is contain the chaos.
Whats The Winning Sausage/beef Combo: Als Special Or Johnnies Regular
Italian beef and sausage combos, Als on the left and Johnnies on the right/Photo: David Hammond
Through this coming Saturday, October 17, Als #1 Italian Beef on Taylor will be serving a special combination sandwich of chicken andouille sausage from Erick Williams of Virtue tucked inside a regular Als Italian beef sandwich. This three-day event, produced by the Resy reservation service, was promoted as a remix of Chicago classic flavors.
For years, Williams ran County Barbecue, right down Taylor Street from Als, and he confessed I used to eat Als beef two times a week. I would make a deal with my guys that if theyd go get me a beef for lunch, Id buy a beef for them. Ive eaten Als hundreds of times.
Were a big fan of Als, and on any list of Italian beef joints in Chicago, the first-place position usually goes either to Als or Johnnies Italian Beef in Elmwood Park, which we also visit quite frequently. So, we did back-to-back tastings of combos at both places.
In the photos above, Als special-edition beef sandwich outfitted with Williams sausage is on the left and a standard-issue Johnnies is on the right. The size of both sandwiches is about the same and the buns and actual meat are virtually identical.
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The Original Nanas Hot Dogs
The beef at Nanas arrives utterly drenched in flavorful beef juices and showered in aromatic dried herbs. Needless to say, this version is not for the bashful. The thin cut meat is impressively tender, and backed up by satisfying gravy. $6.40
1102 E. Irving Park Road, Streamwood, 630-289-2226, theoriginalnanashotdogs.com
Pops Italian Beef & Sausage
Pops is another Italian beef chain, with more than a dozen locations in the south suburbs and one in the city. The meat here is sliced very thin, though its also a touch dry. Fortunately, its saved by the top-notch gravy, which amps up the beefiness of every bite. What really sets Pops apart is the hot pepper mix. The shockingly green collection of celery and sliced jalapenos adds a less frantic hit of heat than other giardiniera, but it really works here. $7.65
Multiple locations, this sandwich is from 10337 S. Kedzie Ave., 773-239-1243, popsbeef.com
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The Only Way To Eat An Italian Beef Sandwich
These drip-down-your-hand Italian Beefs are eaten at a counter with The Italian Stance, which is Als unique, trademarked way to eat the Italian Beef Sandwich. There are 4 simple steps to eat an Italian Beef: 1. Place your elbows on the counter. 2. Spread your feet exactly 2 ½ feet apart. 3. Lean into the counter. 4. Mouth wide open & did your face into it . How many places can say they invented a sandwich and a way to eat that sandwich?
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Jays Beef Of Harwood Heights
Its hard not to be impressed by the striking color palette of a beef from the original Jays Beef in Harwood Heights. Instead of drab green bell peppers, this shop uses bright orange and red peppers, which look better and taste sweeter. Im not usually a huge fan of the style of hot peppers that focuses on sliced fresh jalapenos and crunchy celery, but for some reason it all works together here, even if there isnt much heat. Thats probably thanks to the meat, which really latches onto the beefy gravy. Jays has three locations, but the original in Harwood Heights is the one to visit. $7.25
4418 N. Narragansett Ave., Harwood Heights, 708-867-6733, jaysbeef.com