Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Chicago Style Italian Beef

A few months back I entered a conversation while working in a Chicago office environment where the debate was about the best beef sandwich. Not who serves the best beef sandwich but what style is best, Chicago style Italian Beef or Philadelphia Cheesesteak sandwiches? I never had an “official” Philly Cheesesteak because I have never been to Philadelphia. On many occasions i have enjoyed the Chicago-style Italian Beef sandwich at the many greasy spoon style corner eateries and Vienna Beef hot dog joints.

Chicago has been called hog butcher of the world and they butchered a fine mess of cattle over the years too. The Italian beef sandwich is a local treaasure that is the heritage of the many legal Italian immigrants who settled on the south side near the Union Stockyards. It was there that Italian immigrants found gainful employment and learned to speak English. If you are not from Chicago you may have never eaten or even heard of this sandwich. It’s that local.

The Philadelphia Cheesesteak sandwich is also a product of the Italian immigrants in Philly who came up with that idea even though there is nothing Italian about Cheeze Whizz and fried beef. But Philly is famous for them and they are imitated nationally as well. I don’t think Chicago-Style Italian beef has the same national reputation. If you try one or even find one in a place such as SanFrancisco it is probably a poor imitation.

What was interesting in the discussion is that two of the five guys involved were from Philadelphia. They were split, one thought the Chicago sandwich was superior and that the Philly Cheesesteak sucked while his brotherly love buddy had an opposite view. Those of us who never had original cheesesteak enjoyed their very animated repartee.

Making a good Chicago Italian Beef sandwich at home is not an easy thing to do. I have tried many times. Never have I tried to make a Philly Cheesesteak. It just does not capture my interest. Even by closely following the recipes for Italian Beef in my many experiments mine always turned out tough and bland, never like the ones I enjoyed at places like Mr. Beef on the corner of Orleans and Huron not far from Carl’s River North condo. As always, click on any photo to enlarge.

Chicago has many Vienna Hot Dog stands and that is where you will always find the best beef sandwich. Jay Leno gave Mr.Beef on Orleans national exposure when he did a segment there while filming the Tonight Show from Chicago long ago. I think he was amused with the name “Mr.Beef”. Not only do they have gratuitous photos of Leno on premise but their delivery truck bears a caricature of Jay with a facsimile of his signature and endorsement. There is only one Mr.Beef outlet, it is not a chain.

SIDEBAR: While attending an advertising award show at the Chicago Conrad Hilton in 1988 I met Jay Leno in person. We were seated at a table in the rear of the grand ballroom and a voice from behind asked why we were not eating the complimentary bags of Doritos placed on the table. It was Jay in person who was the MC of the show and about to be introduced. He shook hands with each of us and wisecracked about awards for ads being silly and his ads for Doritos (at the time) would not be awarded so he joked about that too. He was a friendly guy who did not have to speak with us personally but he did. I have been a big fan of Jay’s just of his because of his engaging friendliness with us that night.

Now back to the beef.

Last week I noticed a new Chicago Style Italian Beef recipe in Cook’s Country magazine. It looked so good I just had to try it but my expectations were rather low due to my past failures. But Cook’s has proven to be such a bible of excellent recipes I had no reservations about trying it. Since I have been posting and documenting some of my favorite recipes here at LITGM this one makes me want to scream…


This one is so good, so tender and flavorful it can be served as a main course roast when entertaining. But the sandwich is what I was after. WOW, what a success it was. This one is going on my list of favorites and so good I want to make it again next weekend since the leftovers are almost gone.

Mix in a bowl:
4t garlic powder
4t dried basil
4t dried oregano
1T pepper

In a large dutch oven or skillet, heat:
1 T vegetable oil
Add: 1 – 4lb top sirloin roast or tri-tip and brown
Brown the roast well on all sides and place in a rack within a roasting pan.

1 large onion chopped, to fat in the skillet and soften for five minutes
Then add to skillet:
4 cloves minced garlic
1 T flour
1 T of the spice mixture and stir until fragrant, about 1 minute

Stir in:
2 C beef broth
2 C chicken broth
1 ½ C water and using wooden spatula scrape off browned beef bits, bring to a boil. Then add all to roasting pan.

In a large cup:
Add 2 T vegetable oil to remaining spice mixture.
Stir and coat the top of the roast with this pasty rub.

Insert meat thermometer into the roast.

Cook the spice coated roast beef in the pan containing liquid in a 300 degree pre-heated oven.

When temperature on thermometer reads 125 degrees remove roast from oven and cover with foil. Let roast rest for 30 minutes.

Now for the sandwich part. I like a toasted sandwich roll but official Chicago Italian beef joints use un-toasted rolls and they have their reason. My method is to slice the roast as thin as possible. Add beef slices to the toasted roll then top with the roasting pan juice and hot "Giardinera" (see below). I like to dip the edge of the sandwich into a cup of the juice as I eat.

Local tradition dictates that places like Mr.Beef must dip the roll into the juice from the roasting pan (see the Mr.Beef photo above and click to enlarge). This is what they refer to as “dipped”. They will dip the roll unless you ask for it dry when ordering. For me there is enough juice from the sliced beef, which sits in a warming tray with the juices. When eating out I order mine dry.

Here's the best part. Mr.Beef will also ask you if you want sweet or hot peppers. I prefer hot. Hot peppers is really hot giardinera, which is also a Chicago concoction consisting of cauliflower, carrots, olives, celery, onions, hot Serrano peppers and other ingredients that are pickled and then bottled in olive oil. My favorite is made by Marconi’s or Scala’s. Marconi’s offers their giardinera on the internets.

If you do not want to go through the trouble of making this from scratch, Scala's sells and ships ready-made Italian beef. Just heat and serve. They also sell their own brand of giardinera over the internets too.

Last weekend I could not get my hands on Marconi’s so I used a brand called DelAlpe. It worked OK but it lacked the authentic crunchy, tart vegetables Marconi’s and Scala's has.

My sliced beef topped my toasted bun and I sprinkled a few peppers on it for the purposes of the above photo (didn't want to hide that beautiful rare beef). Afterward I loaded it with peppers before eating. I served it with a side of garlic roast potatoes but Mr.Beef serves them with fries.

Another Italian beef recipe I have wanted to try but have not yet done so comes from a local Chicago sports talk host named Mike North. Before becoming a local celebrity he owned his own Vienna Beef hot dog stand so he should have a good alternative recipe and most likely closer to the authentic Chicago style. But I like mine so much better that North's might not make it to my oven.

I doubt North's would be as good as what I made. To me, this home made recipe is better than the one served at Mr. Beef. Really! It gets the Gerry From Valpo seal of approval for lusciousness. Guaranteed!


Carl from Chicago said...

Every time I go to Mr. Beef the damn place is closed. I will definitely try it out. Have you tried Al's Italian Beef? Pretty good too. And we have Portillos down the street. A cornucopia of Italian beef choices. Sometime when we aren't on the web ask Dan about the time he taunted the guy making his beef that it wasn't hot enough...

Gerry from Valpo said...

Yep, been to Al's and many, many others. Portillo's serves the same thing because they all get their beef from Scala's or Vienna Beef. None roast their own beef on premise as far as I know, they just heat and serve. Portillo's is way over rated and over priced on just about everything to me.

I forgot to mention the 'combo" option. Any Vienna joint will add a spicy grilled Italian sausage in the middle of the sandwich for $X more and it is definitely worth a try if you never had one.

Carl from Chicago said...

I've had many a'combo.

I do think Portillos is the most efficient fast food place on earth. Plus they have beer in those big chalice things like a pimp

Jonathan said...

A buddy and I visited Mr. Beef once in the '80s. First time I had ever been there. There was one guy working behind the counter. He didn't seem happy. I asked something like, "How's the beef?" and he said, "It's shit." Maybe he didn't like the way I asked. I thought the beef was OK but nothing special, so I never went back. Maybe I caught them on an off day.

mark said...

Heh. There's nothing better than a great Italian beef with hot peppers. A Philly does nothing for me.

Portillo's is decent. There's a a family place near me, Skippy's or something, the kind of joint where all the daughters are cashiers or waitresses and cousins are cooking in the kitchen that has excellent beef sandwiches. They're Greeks so they also have outstanding gyros too.

Gerry from Valpo said...

mmmmm....greek women.....

Anonymous said...

Johnnies Beef hands down is the best. Elmwwod Park IL.

Anonymous said...

I live in Chicago as well and I love a great Italian beef. I've had mind blowing beefs at Johnnies, Als on Taylor St, Tores on Western Ave, but I've also had terribel beefs at these same places. Consistency has to be the toughest thing with a sandwich that consists of thin slices of beef in hot juices. At some point, the beef is going to get tough and dry, so going to a beef joint outside of the busy hours increases your risks of getting a less than stellar sandwich. Portillo's does such huge volumes that it must be a major reason why their beef is always good. I think those who bash Portillo's are just annoyed at its chain status. Fine. But you are kidding yourself if you say they don't do a consistently enjoyable beef sandwich. So far there is only one place that has served me the best Italian beef in Chicago, every time I have visited (about 5 times in the last two months since I started going here). Joe Boston's. Dipped, hot. Hopefully it goes without saying that you don't take a dipped beef to go. Juicy beef to all and to all a tender beef.

Anonymous said...

I've had thousands of Italian Beef in my lifetime. I've tried them all- Al's, Johnnie's, Portillo's and Buona Beef, but the best hands down is the Original Mr Beef in Homer Glen. It's run by Carlos(Carl)who is the grandson of the founder. The Beef is made fresh on site each day and the portion sizes are huge. You would have to pay for "extra beef" at Al's and still wouldn't get the amount of beef that's in a Mr Beef sandwich.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is correct here. Homer's Mr. Beef is the best by far.

agent99 said...

For those on the north side, Mr Beef and Pizza on Harlem also make their beef on site daily and leave your taste buds yearning for more....

Anonymous said...

The link for Scala's is no longer working, here's the correct address;

Scala's Original Italian Beef