When most folks think of Chicago specialties, it’s deep-dish pizza or condiment-stuffed hot dogs that come to mind. But the Italian beef sandwich is just as worthy of acclaim.
Don’t expect any fancy meat here; the key to a great Italian beef is the way all its ingredients come together. The beef itself is soaked in gravy and thinly sliced. The seasonings. The spicy giardiniera. And, of course, dipping the whole damn thing in extra broth. Forget napkins at your own peril.
What separates a truly great Italian beef sandwich from a merely enjoyable one? We asked local expert Mike Gebert, a Chicago–based food writer and the author of the award-winning site Sky Full of Bacon, about what makes the best Italian beef.
The bread. Expect a soft white roll, generally from Gonnella Baking Co., according to Gebert. “I think if you don’t get it dipped—which means you have a short time to eat it before it falls apart—you’re a wimp,” he says.
The filling. The beef isn’t anything premium. “It’s nothing special, that’s part of the point.” But it should thoroughly soak in the gravy. And that gravy should have vivid seasonings, including garlic, oregano and basil; it should not “taste like the giant food-service jar of spices that has been on the shelf for five years.”
Should you opt for a combo—which includes a link of sausage—it’s best when it’s grilled over charcoal. “It’s a pain, in a little building in the city. But if they care enough to do that, good for them.” And giardiniera is key, whether or not the condiment’s made onsite.
Where to get one:
Johnnie’s Beef. The gold standard, according to Gebert. “The gravy is complexly spicy, they grill the sausage over charcoal, they just do everything right.”
Joe Boston’s. The sort of stripped-down spot where the Italian beef was born. “This is the heritage Italian beef comes from, a below no-frills joint that feels like a factory cafeteria. And that’s basically what it was.”
Al’s #1 Italian Beef. The original location, on West Taylor Street, is the one to hit. Their sandwich is a bit small and a bit greasy, and with a unique spice blend that includes cinnamon, a bit unorthodox. But Gebert says it’s still among the greats. “Going to the original in the summer, followed by an Italian ice at Mario’s across the street, is one of the great authentic Chicago experiences.”