This Chicagoan explains why true Italian beef is so hard for other cities to get right

·8 min read
The divinely delicious, distinctly Chicagoan and oft-misunderstood Italian beef sandwich.
The divinely delicious, distinctly Chicagoan and oft-misunderstood Italian beef sandwich. (Jennifer Hines / For The Times)

I rarely feel an obligation to weigh in on a particular dish, restaurant or food trend. But I am from Chicago. And there is this popular FX on Hulu show called “The Bear” that is set in Chicago and is about a particular dish that is from Chicago. And so, I feel duty-bound to say a few words about the divinely delicious, distinctly Chicagoan and oft-misunderstood Italian beef sandwich. (I won’t say too much about the actual show — we have a TV critic for that.)

First, this is what an Italian beef should be: a 6- to 8-inch long sandwich filled with thin-sliced marinated meat on a French roll drenched in juice and swaddled tightly in waxed paper or insulated foil wrap. When you pick it up, it should feel heavier than expected; sodden like a wet diaper. Sorry to be gross, but it’s the best analogy that comes to mind for a sandwich that is soaking not only with jus but also the olive oil from a spicy giardiniera that belongs on top — or sweet peppers if you can’t handle spice (or both).

It’s sloppy and unwieldy, and best eaten immediately while standing up. If seated, it’s best enjoyed on a bench outdoors or at your kitchen table. Fries are a good accompaniment, as is a cup of Italian ice served with a plastic straw that has a spoon on one end.

But for those who have never had a real Italian beef, negative space might be the easiest way to understand it, i.e., what it isn’t, as opposed to what it is. It is definitely not your classic Italian sub sandwich with a variety of cured meats. Nor is it a roast beef sandwich, with relatively thick-cut meat slices that still have some pink in the middle.

The meat in an Italian beef is probably, ironically, the least important part of the sandwich. It’s not chopped, like you’d find in a cheesesteak, but shaved so thin as to be best described as ribbons, rather than slices. (Imagine it as thin as you possibly can. Now imagine it 50% thinner. Can’t get it that thin? Try chilling it first.) The quality of the beef, while not immaterial, is less important when it’s shaved and being cooked to hell in its own juices than if you were eating, like, a prime rib dinner.

The bread is essential. It can’t be too soft, lest it disintegrate from the juice. The ideal texture for an Italian beef roll is therefore something akin to a yoga mat — chewy and firm; able to withstand being dunked in liquid while mostly staying intact. The juice, a thin, broth-like gravy reminiscent of oregano and bouillon cubes, softens the bread and aids in consumption. You know how the pros in those hot dog eating contests always douse their hot dog buns in water? It’s the same idea. Beef sandwiches are usually ordered “wet” or “juicy.” You can also order it “dry” but I’m not sure why you’d do that.

The hot pickle mix giardiniera is the final piece of the puzzle. It can contain, among other things, cauliflower florets, hot peppers, celery, carrots and green olives (make sure the pits are out). Giardiniera happens to go pretty well with everything, but incidentally, it goes particularly well on a beef. Cheese is optional as a topping at some beef stands but is not, in my opinion, ever acceptable.

I won’t insult the sandwich and romanticize it unnecessarily by calling it “humble,” though its origins are indeed relatively modest — it was created by Italian immigrants as a way to stretch a cut of meat as far as possible. “It was designed to do that, and it was designed to make a less expensive cut of meat a little more palatable,” said Dan Bartlett, curator of exhibits at the Elmhurst History Museum.

As for the timing of the origins of the sandwich, “It seems to be bubbling up in the 1920s, and into the 1930s it starts to become more and more popular,” said Bartlett.

The Chicago-based chain Al’s Beef claims to have invented the sandwich in the context of Italian American “peanut weddings” — where peanuts were served to guests when money was tight. Al’s claims that Anthony Ferreri (Al’s father) created the sandwich as a way to feed a large group of people cheaply.

Bartlett concurs the sandwich was likely born of the financial realities of the era, but that the true origin is hard to pinpoint. “The reality is likely that this is lost or buried under the sands of time,” he said.

For whatever reason, Italian beef is one of those hyper-local foods, like Skyline Chili or Taylor Ham, that has never quite translated outside its home. But you can certainly find Italian beef outside of Chicago and, believe me, I’ve looked everywhere for a good one. I’ve eaten them in New York, Boulder, Colo., Los Angeles, even in Anchorage at a place called Johnny Chicago’s. But over the years, I’ve slowed down in my pursuit of a truly great one. Fairly or not, it’s tough to compete with memory.

In L.A., there have only ever existed a handful of places to get a true Chicago-style Italian beef. I’d like to offer one possible explanation for this conspicuous dearth: the French dip.

The early 20th century sandwich, its invention claimed by both Cole’s and Philippe’s restaurants, is one of L.A.’s most famous contributions to the food world. Cole’s says it created the jus-dipped creation in response to a tender-gummed customer who found the crusty French roll difficult to bite into. Philippe’s claims to have invented the sandwich by happenstance when its founder dropped a roll into a pan of drippings. As with D.B. Cooper or the Black Dahlia, we will likely never know the complete truth.

This could explain the lack of Italian beef here — what city has room in its heart to embrace two separate juice-intensive beef sandwiches? Maybe, hopefully, that could change one day.

But it’s just as well, as Chicagoans are fanatically protective of their foods. Chicago-style dogs with nearly every vegetable under the sun piled on top of them? Cheese and caramel popcorn eaten together? Deep-dish pizza derided by none other than Anthony Bourdain himself? We Chicagoans hear what you say about us and our food. We hear every little gibe and good-natured insult. And in true Midwest fashion, we squish all of it into a tight little ball and push it way down inside, to be released later at an inappropriate time.

(A note on saying you’re "from Chicago": I lived for five years in the city proper but spent most of my childhood in Oak Park, a suburb on the western border of the city. It’s easier to just say “Chicago,” as most people haven’t heard of Oak Park, but it is not Chicago, as every Chicagoan will constantly remind you. They will look at you like you’ve befouled the carpet if you claim Chicago while being from one of the suburbs. It may as well be Iowa.)

For me, the greatest of all Italian beef stands is Johnnie’s Beef, about six minutes from where I grew up, where I’ve eaten countless sandwiches. It’s a long, one-story shack with a wall of big windows facing the street; they light up at night, making it look like a small ship out on the water. Note that it is a beef stand, not a beef restaurant. It is a stand because there is no place to sit. (There are some picnic tables outside.)

There’s almost always a line, even in subfreezing temperatures, and it moves quickly. The atmosphere is not unfriendly, but it is succinct. It helps to know what you want by the time you reach the cashier, who accepts your cash and repeats the order in a nasal drone to the group of young men in light blue shirts behind him. It’s easy enough, because the menu is simple: Italian beef. Italian sausage. Beef and sausage combo. Hot dog. Pepper and egg sandwich (Fridays only). And something called “2 Dogs 1 Bun,” which I’ve never ordered but can hazard a guess at what that involves.

Get yourself a juicy beef with hot giardiniera — or a juicy beef and sausage combo if you’re playing on advanced mode — and a small Italian ice. Unswaddle and devour. The whisper-thin beef shavings are made even better by the spicy pickle mixture. The bread, dripping with olive oil and beef fat, somehow maintains structural integrity barely long enough for you to finish the sandwich.

This is the part of Chicago that never leaves me. It is my madeleine dipped in tea. And while future sandwiches may never live up to the remembrances of beefs past, I’m not sure they have to. They’re always waiting back at home, and I can always dream about them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.