Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches
The concept of the “Italian sandwich” is one that is fiercely guarded at various state borders. Some people claim the Italian sandwich is a type of cold cut consisting of Italian deli meats like capicola ham and genoa salami. To others, it is breaded veal and marinara sauce in a bun. In New Orleans, the Muffaletta is the Italian sandwich of legend. A “Maine Italian” uses a soft white bun, ham, American cheese and a ton of vegetables doused with oil and vinegar. But in Chicago, the Italian is a dripping pleasure of beef, sauce and bun.
Thinly shaved roast beef, dunked in beef-based broth, and slapped into a chewy Italian bun with fried peppers. This sandwich is similar to a French Dip but it is much more flavourful and messy. Whereas a French Dip is served au jus for dipping, a Chicago Italian is ladled with the jus. Sometimes the whole sandwich is dunked in it! Aside from fried peppers, a Chicago Italian often comes with giardiniera, a hot pickled mixture of carrots, cauliflower, serrano peppers, celery, olives and herbs.
My first time in Chicago, I went searching for this delicacy in Wrigleyville, and ended up at a random place that served the typical hotdogs, gyros, and hamburgers.
It was an act of desperation, since I had been looking everywhere for Italian Beefs and couldn’t find them, even though they were probably right under my nose.
It was really spicy as it included giardiniera and sport peppers but it wasn’t particularly juicy. The meat looked kinda flappy and was overpowered by the heat. I started thinking maybe this wasn’t the real deal.
On my second trip to Chicago I made sure to follow my research and dine at Al’s #1 Beef, which came highly recommended by local friends, Yelpers and Chowhounds. This time I made sure to request the full baptism of my sandwich and whimsically added provolone. I was confused when I was asked if I wanted spicy and/or sweet peppers, but I waved my hands frantically indicating “Yes, yes, give me everything!” The home-made giardiniera (the spicy), was more complex in flavour than the store-brand version I tried on my last trip, and it benefited from the absence of obnoxious cauliflower chunks. It was well balanced by the “home-made sweet peppers” which were noticeably sweet. The beef was really tender, and the Italian bread held up really well to the juice, which was delightfully greasy.
I actually ordered a “combo” which includes the addition of an Italian sausage. I have to tell the world: this was a life-altering sandwich! The integrity of the broth-soaked bread, the tenderness of the beef, the spicy snap of the sausage, the spicy sweetness of the giardiniera and peppers, and a greasy finish. This is perfection.
You will need to wash your hands and probably go for a jog after you eat this, but definitely eat this! Do not hold back! There are three sizes of Italian Beef available at Al’s #1, ranging from $4.50-$7.50, and the combo is $6.75. Each additional topping (sweet peppers, cheese, giardiniera) is 50 cents each, which I didn’t realize until my ecstasy had subsided. There is little, if any, seating area, cash only, and this particular location lacked any sort of ventilation, so it was ridiculously hot and smoky. I was at the Jackson Street location, but I hear the best sandwich is made at Al’s on Taylor Street, by the University. Hot dogs and sausages are also available, and some locations have a more extensive menu than others.
Al’s #1 Beef
Various locations in Chicago and surrounding areas.
For more information on Italian Beef, here is a whole web site dedicated to it:
Official Tourism Site