What’s the big deal? It’s just a beef sandwich, right?
Chicago’s own Italian beef sandwich is so much more than merely meat and bread; it’s a reflection of the enduring Italian-American influence on the city, a memory of the Union Stockyards that transformed Chicago into the world’s butcher shop, and a reminder of the broad-shouldered men and women who work with their hands and, when the lunch bell rings, grab a hearty sandwich with both of them.
Drizzled or fully drenched in clear, garlicky, oregano-flecked gravy and served on French-type bread, the meat in an Italian beef sandwich is cut very thin. Usually, the sandwich is strewn with sweet peppers, as well as hot peppers and other vegetables mixed into a giardiniera, the popular olive-oil based condiment, another Chicago original.
According to “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia,” the Italian beef sandwich was born in the kitchens of immigrants who wanted to stretch their meat portions as far as they could. The sandwich was popular at weddings because a relatively modest amount of sliced beef, gravy, and bread could feed a multitude.
To order your Italian beef sandwich like an aficionado, confidently tell the man or woman at the counter you want it “Sweet and hot, wet.” You’ll get a mixture of sweet and hot peppers on your beef, and the whole thing will be dipped in the gravy before it’s wrapped in white paper and handed to you.
To eat your Italian beef like a pro, grab your sandwich and belly up to the counter to assume “the Italian stance,” with elbows on the countertop, feet apart, leaning over at about 45 degrees to minimize drips on your shoes … or jogging suit. Eat it quickly and with gusto before it disintegrates in your hands. To keep the sandwich together while you eat, you might fold the white paper down around the sandwich and then grip it tight as you eat, progressively folding down the paper as you munch.
The following seven places are alphabetized but un-ranked, because each has a major following and it’s rare for Chicagoans to agree on which place is best. Each of these places is a major source for Italian beef, a Chicago original that you can find pretty much only in Chicago. Sometimes, as we note below, you can even find other Chicago original foods on the menu at Italian beef vendors.
On Taylor Street, the main drag of Chicago’s “Little Italy,” Al’s Beef, also called Al’s #1, claims to be the originator of the Italian beef sandwich. Al’s has been making their hugely popular beef sandwiches since 1938, and the tender beef and sauce, with a good smack of oregano and garlic, is at the top of many “best of” lists. Featured on the History Channel and “Good Morning America,” and with locations as far north as Evanston and as far south as Tinley Park, Al’s is a classic Chicago institution that seems likely to be around for your grandchildren to enjoy.
Pro tip: When times got tough, as they most certainly did during the Great Depression, people ate a stripped-down variant of the Italian beef sandwich: called “gravy bread” or a “soaker,” it was just bread and gravy (meat not included). Al’s still offers a soaker for $1.95. It’s a Chicago original food, but not one you’ll find many Chicagoans bragging about.
With about two dozen locations all over the Chicagoland area, Buona has become a major name in Chicago’s Italian beef market. Their site proclaims, “The Original Italian Beef,” and though “original” can be a slippery concept, Buona certainly makes a very good version of this classic. The Buona folks are so committed to the iconic sandwich that they instituted National Italian Beef Day in 2018. Buona provides take-away meals for large groups, and they also offer a large menu, enough to please those who prefer to eat something other than an Italian beef (if such people exist).
Pro tip: If, indeed, you do have someone in the group who is not a fan of Italian beef, suggest to them that they get a pepper and egg sandwich, just scrambled eggs with sweet peppers in a roll. The pepper and egg sandwich is also believed to have originated in Chicago during the 19th century, and it was — and remains! — especially popular during Lent and on Fridays.
Less well-known, perhaps, than many of the other Italian beef joints on this list, Jay’s Beef is a good example of the unpretentious, and largely unheralded, beef stands that have sprouted up all around Chicago. Individual beef stands frequently put their own spin on the sandwich, and at the several locations of Jay’s Beef, you can have them add cheese, either provolone or liquid cheddar, which probably offends old line Chicagoans only slightly less than ketchup on a hot dog.
Pro tip: If one beef sandwich doesn’t do it for you, consider filling up any remaining belly real estate with a corn roll tamale, another Chicago original food. Jay’s sources their tamales from Supreme, and their corn roll tamale comes wrapped in a plastic envelope and filled with something like meat (or is it just magenta-tinted corn meal?).
Though it’s outside Chicago in nearby Elmwood Park, Johnnie’s Beef is on every beef aficionado’s short list; many contend that Johnnie’s serves the very best Italian beef sandwich around. Lines at Johnnie’s can be long at lunch and dinner and even late, late at night, and that’s a good thing: high traffic means high turnover, so the meat won’t be sitting in gravy and turning to mushy threads; no one wants that. When Anthony Bourdain came to Chicago in 2012 for a segment of “No Reservations,” he went to Elmwood Park for an Italian beef.
Pro tip: Beef stands rarely offer beverages other than soda, but the best pairing we’ve found for an Italian beef sandwich is an Italian lemonade (also called an “ice”), a frozen slushy flavored with lemon or other fruit juice. The cool sweetness of the ice complements the slightly spicy meat, and on a summer day, it’s what you want.
Located on Orleans in downtown Chicago, Mr. Beef has been around for years. It was popularized by Jay Leno, who ate there as he was coming up in Chicago comedy clubs, and he even brought a bag of Mr. Beef sandwiches on stage when he made a 1989 guest appearance on David Letterman’s show. This is one stripped down Italian beef store, and the beef — along with hot dogs, a few subs, and sausage — is pretty much all they sell. You want a vegetable? Order fries.
Pro tip: At many places where Italian beef is sold, you’ll also find Italian sausage; put the beef and sausage together, and you have a “combo,” one of the regular menu items at Mr. Beef, and another Chicago original.
With locations all over the area, Portillo’s started out as a small roadhouse stand in Villa Park, affectionately termed the Doghouse because that’s what it looked like. They once served only hot dogs. Portillo’s still does a pretty good version of the dragged-through-the-garden Chicago dog, and they also serve an Italian beef. Offering even a Beef-N-Cheddar Croissant, Portillo’s has an immense menu, lots of indoor seating, and all the efficiency and charm of a 1950s diner, only on a much larger scale.
Pro tip: If you’re in the mood for dessert, get a slice of Portillo’s chocolate cake. How does it achieve such rich density? The secret ingredient is mayonnaise.
Serrelli’s Finer Foods
Located about a mile east of Johnnie’s Beef is Serrelli’s Finer Foods, which you will likely not find on any “best of” lists. Unlike Al’s or Johnnie’s, Serrelli’s is a grocery store that just happens to serve beef, but their website homepage features a big picture of an Italian beef sandwich, so you know beef is a key item. Serrelli’s offers some of the finest slices of beef you will find from an Italian beef vendor, all very, very mildly spiced. To fix that, buy some of Serrelli’s signature giardiniera, perhaps the hottest version of this condiment we’ve ever tasted.
Pro tip: If you’re buying beef to take home, you’ll want to get an extra container of sauce; the plastic tubs of beef are so full of meat there’s hardly room for the all-important jus.
There are many, many more notable Italian beef stands in Chicagoland than the seven mentioned here, places like Scatchell’s and Freddy’s Pizza in Cicero, Frannie’s in Schiller Park, and Chickies in Hillside, all serving a devoted clientele who will swear “it’s the best, hands down!”
But is there really any difference between an Italian beef from one vendor versus another?
Yes, there is, because each vendor of Italian beef seasons their gravy differently and they have different ways of making the sandwich. Some places might add a little more oregano or garlic to the gravy, others may use better bread, or perhaps even higher quality meat. In the seven places mentioned above, we found radical differences in the giardiniera that was offered. Such relatively subtle variation is why so many Italian beef places can survive in Chicago and surrounding suburbs: each one is slightly different, and each one has its die-hard fans. And like pizza and sex, even when the Italian beef is not-so-great, it’s still pretty good.
The Italian beef sandwich is so much more than merely meat and bread; it’s a big bite of Chicago.
David Hammond is Dining and Drinking Editor at Newcity and contributes to the Chicago Tribune and other publications. In 2004, he co-founded LTHForum.com, the 15,000 member food chat site; for several years he wrote weekly “Food Detective” columns in the Chicago Sun-Times; he writes weekly food columns for Wednesday Journal. He has written extensively about the culinary traditions of Mexico and Southeast Asia and contributed several chapters to “Street Food Around the World.”
David is a supporter of S.A.C.R.E.D., Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development, an organization founded by Chicagoan Lou Bank and dedicated to increasing awareness of agave distillates and ensuring that the benefits of that awareness flow to the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico. Currently, S.A.C.R.E.D is funding the development of agave farms, a library and water preservation systems for the community of Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca.