The Great Chicago Italian Beef Hunt

The final phase of my transformation into a full-fledged Chicagoan involves appreciating the Italian beef sandwich. Until now, I have neglected to give it my full appreciation.

When I moved to Chicago 10 years ago, I had never even heard of the Italian beef. Unlike other regional sandwiches, the Chicago Italian beef likely wouldn't pass the "Sue from Topeka" test; that is, mention the sandwich to Sue from Topeka and she might look at you askance. On the beef sandwich familiarity scale, Italian beef resides beneath the French dip/pastrami/Philly cheesesteak top tier, on the next level down with the Buffalo beef on weck and Baltimore pit beef.

So for Sue from Topeka, a brief explanation: The Italian beef begins with roasted beef shaved wafer thin, soaked in its pan juices, and transferred wet onto an open Italian roll. It's topped with slivers of sweet peppers or a slurry of spicy and chopped pickled vegetable called giardiniera. This sandwich is dunked in beef pan jus, like a French dip, so sogginess is a welcome trait.

Italian beef probably ranks a distant third — after deep dish pizza and hot dogs — when you ask an out-of-towner to name a Chicago-born food. But one can argue the Italian beef is the one local dish most dyed in Chicago's neighborhood wool. Deep dish pizza becomes less prevalent outside River North, while gyros and hot dogs at corner grills everywhere else are more heat-and-assemble jobs. But there is a process to making Italian beefs, and finer purveyors will still prepare from proprietary recipes, roasting and slicing whole sirloins and top rounds daily, and using a giardiniera blend passed down from their Nonna. And so in communities such as Dunning, Cicero and Morgan Park — places lacking the buzz of ambitious, chef-y restaurants, neighborhoods without artisan cupcake or ramen shops — the Italian beef stands remain the one wholly Chicago restaurant genre that requires the most cooking and originality.

That the Italian beef has no definitive story of origin doesn't help the sandwich advance its reputation. When I brought this up with Bruce Kraig, founding president of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, he agreed that its history is fuzzy at best.

He said the most widely accepted story traces back to the 1920s and Pasquale Scala, an Italian immigrant and sausage maker who delivered meats from a horse-drawn wagon. During the Depression, Scala served the sandwich at weddings, shaving beef thin to stretch the limited meat and dipping it in pan juices to add bulk.

There's another claimant to Italian beef's origin, and this story is remarkably similar. Chris Pacelli Jr., owner of Al's #1 Italian Beef, said it was his grandfather, Tony Ferreri, who invented the sandwich. Pacelli said how his grandfather would cook at weddings, serving spaghetti and roast beef for guests. "But a 15-pound roast beef would only feed 20 people, so he got this idea," Pacelli said. "He'd roast the beef and slice it paper thin so you can see through it and put it in sandwiches. So now 15 pounds of beef would serve 50 people instead of 20."

Undisputed is the fact that in 1938, Ferreri's son Al opened a sidewalk stand at Harrison and Laflin streets to sell beef sandwiches. Thus began Al's #1 Italian Beef. Pacelli said many of Al Ferreri's friends were gamblers who saw the good money in beef sandwiches and decided to follow suit, opening up competing restaurants throughout Little Italy.

Murkier theories exist, enhancing scant evidence with a fun factor. The late Sun-Times food critic Pat Bruno offered this on how Italian beef began: "The year is 1948 or 1949. An Italian cook working in a Greek coffee shop near the corner of Harlem and Irving thought the French dip sandwich was too bland, so he zipped it up with garlic and herbs. Everybody liked it except the owner, who fired the cook. The cook (his first name is Tony, and that's as much as we know) then opened an Italian beef stand down the street, which was an instant success."

Said Kraig: "Pat Bruno's comment is to the point: Italian beef may have begun in Little Italy but it is a post-World War II phenomenon, like deep dish pizza and the fully loaded garden-on-a-bun hot dog."

Whoever holds the true back story, all can agree that the sandwich — like so many great immigrant foods — was born from scarcity. It used the least amount of ingredients to create the densest, most filling sandwich possible.


FOUR OBSERVATIONS

To fully appreciate the Italian beef, a deep dive was in order. Five days and 16 sandwiches later, my pores dripped beef jus, my tongue permanently slicked with hot pepper oil. The expedition yielded a number of observations.

1. Very quickly you pick up on the nomenclature. Beef buffs place their orders with as little as three words. After stating “beef,” you specify either "sweet" or "hot" peppers. "Sweet" refers to bell peppers that are boiled or sometimes grilled. "Hot" is a spicy mix of chopped pickled vegetable in oil. Then, you decide whether you want the entire sandwich dipped in beef pan juices or not. If yes, you ask for "dipped," or you request "dry." For consistency, at every location I asked for the sandwich: "Beef-hot-dipped."

2. Of sensory traits, texture ranks low, especially if the sandwich is dipped in jus. You're getting the sandwich equivalent of a sloppy kiss, the trade-off being the punch-up in gravy flavor. The thickness of bread and the deft hands of your sandwich dipper figure into the final product. If the roll is too thick (too much interior white bread), you'll get unwanted chew. The opposite is true: If the bread is too thin, and if your sandwich dipper gets cozy with the jus, your sandwich will collapse in a wet, broken mound. The July 1980 Chicago magazine cover story on Italian beefs described it best: "(Good bread) possesses what paper towel makers call wet strength: It stays resilient despite moisture, and it holds together even when stuffed." Ideally, you can pick it up with two hands and the sandwich stays intact. Wherever on the moisture spectrum you prefer, textural contrast becomes crucial. I like the beef retaining some toothiness and for the giardiniera to be crunchy. A good sign is seeing celery and carrots in the hot pepper mix.

3. Very generally speaking, Italian beefs are one case where the chains often do as good a job, if not better, than mom 'n' pop independents. I have no explanation for this. Perhaps it goes back to the process, and having stringent standards, that helps in achieving taste consistency. Portillo's (38 locations nationwide), Buona Beef (14 locations) and Al's Beef (16 locations) all belong in my first tier of Italian beef sandwiches.

4. Speaking of Al's, I've always been confused about the differences between its original Taylor Street location and the 15 franchised Al's Italian Beefs everywhere else. Every guidebook recommends you only visit the original store, and you'll find beef enthusiasts who insist the product tastes different there. Outward appearances suggest there might be a difference between original and franchises: The logos aren't the same and the menus differ (Al's in Wicker Park serves Caesar salads and gorgonzola burgers). Owner Chris Pacelli Jr. cleared it up for me. The beef recipe, he said, are the same everywhere. For the franchises, the beef is roasted in a central commissary kitchen and delivered to the restaurants whole, where it's trimmed of fat and sliced. At the Taylor Street store, the beef is roasted and shaved in-house. Does shipping cooked beef affect taste? It's negligible, but Pacelli insists: "Same stuff, same recipe."

 


HOT OR SWEET 16: TASTING NOTES

Please be advised: Before you write in and complain "how could you have missed..." yes, you are correct, I missed your favorite Italian beef stand. But I did the best I could, for my health.