Italian Beef - A Chicago Tradition
Anyone from Chicago can tell you that we're serious about a few things - our sports, our music, and most definitely our food. Chicago has a lot of great dishes and every ethnicity is accounted for when it comes to tickling the taste buds. Beef sandwiches, in particular, evoke a great deal of Chicago pride. We all know that the best pizza and hot dogs are found in Chicago (we don't care what you think, New York. Anyone who uses ketchup on a dog can't be trusted). But Italian beefs are special because they're ours - they were invented here and to this day are not available everywhere.
The Origins of the Beef Sandwich
The history of this culinary masterpiece can be debated forever. It's not like the guy who invented it commemorated his accomplishment with a statue or plaque, though we really think he should have. There are a number of different stories but what most people agree on is that the first beef sandwich was a dish served at Italian wedding parties. This was probably back during the depression when beef was hard to come by. The Italian immigrant population came up with a great way to enjoy a wonderful dish, while managing to make a small amount serve a large crowd. They sliced it thin and served it on fresh baked bread.
Regardless of when the beef sandwich was invented, it's become a staple of pure Chicago cuisine. Most any adult today who grew up in the city limits has a story that starts at their favorite beef stand - from the kids who pooled their change to split a gravy bread to blue collar guy sharing a lunch break with his buddies. From retirees to yuppies, there isn't a segment of the Chicago population that doesn't have a favorite place or memory attached.
So, Where's the Best Beef?
That answer's as varied as the history. Some people judge by their taste buds or by the beef stands highlighted in the Tribune. Some people love the appeal of their favorite neighborhood joint because it's as much about the people as it is about the food. Here are some of the names you'll hear when Chicagoans talk about beef sandwiches:
Buona Beef. Buona was one of the first restaurants to serve Italian beef outside of Chicago. Their original location is in Berwyn on Roosevelt Rd. It's still there today for those who want the ambiance of where it all started. They currently have 15 locations so it's not hard to find a great beef sandwich near wherever you are. Predictably, Buona uses Turano bread, which is located just down the block and adds to the appeal of using local, homegrown businesses rather than some mass produced product. The beef itself is top quality, excellently seasoned with salt, garlic and oregano. For those who like peppers, Buona chars their green peppers and offers a fantastic giardiniera. You really can't talk about a great local beef without mentioning Buona.
Portillo's Hot Dogs. Of course, Portillo's is best known for its hot dog, but they do have a notable beef sandwich. They also use Turano bread and the beef is well seasoned, though their peppers are steamed rather than seared which doesn't add as much to the flavor. The nice thing about Portillo's is that they have a bevy of locations in the far out suburbs, so they're convenient to people who don't get into the city as much.
Al's #1 Beef. Al's Beef on Taylor Street is one of the true originals and is often noted as the first establishment to serve beef sandwiches. They use Gonnella bread. Their beef is shredded and well-seasoned. For those who like peppers, they don't use the traditional giardiniera you might be familiar with - theirs is mostly celery and pepper flakes without the carrots and peppers you might be used to. Overall, though, it's a good beef and one that you're likely to hear about if you're looking for recommends in the city.