There are any number of honorable culinary legacies Italian immigrants have left to our cities (hello, pizza!). But Italian delis—and the sandwiches they create—rank among the top. Chicago, like a few other cities across the country, still has a handful of resolutely old-school spots that make incomparable Italian subs. Not only that, but they actually still sell them at unbelievably fair prices.
Many of the best sandwich spots got their start as Italian groceries and still continue as groceries to this day. You're selling fresh breads, top-flight Italian meat and cheese, imported olive oil and vinegar—it seems stupid not to put those together into a sandwich. Luckily, some of our favorite markets/delis learned to do just that.
The bread. You want super-crisp, soft-middled bread that's sturdy enough to support all these toppings and light enough in the middle to soak up the oil and vinegar. D'Amato's Bakery is Chicago's gold standard.
The filling. Neatly layered, thinly sliced Italian cured meats are the essence of an Italian sub: Think salami, soppressata, prosciutto, capicola. Provolone is the standard cheese; many of the same shops will offer fresh mozzarella, but that gets you a wholly different kind of sandwich. Oil and vinegar bind it all together, and when you're in Chicago, you'd better try giardiniera—an Italian-style spicy-tangy pickled vegetable relish, uniquely essential to Chicago's Italian-American scene.
Where to get it:
Bari. Any list of the top Italian subs in Chicago just has to include Bari and Graziano. Which of the two gets top billing is a matter of opinion, but there's no denying they're both incredible. Bari starts with crusty loaves from D'Amato's Bakery next door and stacks them neatly with whatever meats you're after; the classic Italian gets you capicola, salami, mortadella, provolone and Bari's housemade hot or mild giardiniera. Oh yeah, a 9-inch sub doesn't even cost $5.
J. P. Graziano. Family-owned for generations, Graziano's also builds its sandwiches on Italian bread from D'Amato's and also layers them beautifully. Salami-capicola-mortadella-provolone is also a great bet here, but other options are just as enticing, like the "spicy," with hot capicola, pepperoni and hot sopresatta along with the provolone to cut the heat.
Vinnie's Sub Shop. Just down the street from Bari (and D'Amato's), Vinnie's may not get the same media attention, but its fans are just as loyal, and both the classic Italian (capicola, salami, mortadella, provolone) and the Vinnie's Special (ham, salami, provolone, "Vinnie's Special Oil") are great bets.