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Restaurant Mon May 19 2014
Chicago's Little Italy 1938. A small neighborhood food stand begins serving what will become a unique and ultimately iconic dish -- Italian beef. Top round roasted beef seasoned with 21 ingredients, sliced thin enough to read through, served on Italian bread dipped in beef jus, then topped with roasted green peppers and/or spicy giardiniera. Opting for a "combo" by adding a charcoal-grilled Italian sausage is optional but recommended. As are the fries.
Food can be regional. Philly has cheese steaks, biscuits and gravy hail from the South, and New England is famous for clam chowder and lobster rolls. Besides Italian Beef, Chicago has gifted us culinarily with Chicken Vesuvio, Vienna hot dogs, Shrimp d'Jonghe, jibaritos, deep dish pizza, rib tips, and the elusive "big baby" and the "mother-in-law" -- South Side sandwiches known to but a few.
Cut to today, where absurd amounts of noise vie for our cyberattention and little if anything gets noticed, let alone acted upon. No helping you build a farm, or giving a shit about which character you'd be on "Game of Thrones." With chaos filter on full tilt, through the cacophony of the internet this fact managed to resonate: The chef of Al's Beef will be doing a promo demo followed by a press conference, and would someone from Gapers Block like to attend?
Al's chef? Who'da thunk? It's not by magic that the beef, sausage, gravy, fries and giardiniera have had the exact same taste profile for nearly 80 years. That takes mad skills -- so a chance for a hands on tasteful behind the scenes encounter with the keeper of the carne? Sign me up.
As an un-official Gapers Block elder, I will go on record saying there's no one better suited to cover this story than me. I've got a degree in Al's. My father first took us around 1963. We'd eat al trunko atop our green and white '57 Pontiac, with the ghosts of french fries past permeating the paint. A beef cost 35 cents, a combo, 50. Giardiniera was self serve from hinge-topped glass containers placed on a counter that had seating as well, where the prep kitchen is now. Italian women from the neighborhood worked there. Winnie and Toni and one we called "Steve's mom" because, well, you can guess why.
"A combo, dipped, hot and sweet, with fries, thanks," is a sentence I've uttered hundreds of times. A last meal request. To me, Al's is the definitive Italian beef that leaves a legion of pretenders in its wake. Taste and smell are amongst our most primitive neurological responses. Right there in the old id. With the fondest of childhood memories, it's no wonder that Al's transports me. For me, it's soul food.
Around the time my father discovered Al's, they'd just moved from a small stand on Laflin and Harrison to the Taylor Street location. Plans for building the university were being pushed down the throats of a thriving, tight knit neighborhood that for the most part didn't want it. A struggle to preserve the community ensued but in the end, in a shocking last minute about face, Hull House rolled over and went along with the Machine (not their proudest moment).
A few well-placed opportunists prospered and "if you gotta problem widdit" your home just might end up on the receiving end of a firebomb, as legendary Taylor Street activist Florence Scala's did for her efforts in opposing the campus. A way of life sold out, and then delivered to the powers that be.
To the sound of a few wallets filling, an historically vital neighborhood was replaced with the sprawl of a college campus.
It should be noted that there were other viable locations in the city that wouldn't have uprooted thousands and cause a mass exodus to the suburbs. But a Chicago style fix was in, so goodbye Taylor Street and Maxwell Street? Fuck you too.
To those of us who lived through that, the fact that Jamba Juice resides on the hallowed corner of Halsted and Maxwell where Polish sausages and pork chops should be perfuming the air is blasphemy!
Enough with the history lesson.
Al's has had a remarkable run, and in 1999 began franchising. Of that I'm suspect, and the first to say there's only one Al's -- the original on Taylor Street. In my opinon, Al's should not have a salad bar or valet parking. A bathroom, maybe. The demo takes place at a spanking new location downtown... so this will be interesting.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, here's what I learned during my peek behind the curtain of the great Oz– I mean Al's.
Chatting with Al's owner Chris Pacelli (aka "Bones"), he throws a few one-liners worthy of a member in good standing of the Taylor Street good old boys club. The best, in response to my question "What makes Al's so distinctive?", was "Our cows snort oregano."
The sandwich as we know it was developed by Chris' uncle, Al Ferreri, along with Chris' parents Frances and Chris Pacelli Sr., Ferreri's sister and brother-in-law. As legend has it, Italian beef became the food of choice at what was then known as "peanut" weddings -- inexpensive gatherings most often held in the homes of the recently arrived immigrants. By thinly slicing the slow roasted, well seasoned meat and making a sandwich of it, it was a delicious way to feed the guests. That was four generations of Pacellis ago.
Franchisees undergo a 12 week training course that gives them a combination of classroom and in-store experience, allowing them practical applications in which they must execute and reproduce the product consistently -- key to the success of any restaurant.
All recipes are proprietary and are cooked and packaged by a commercial food contractor for delivery to the franchises. The original Taylor Street location cooks their own, though, which explains the taste variations between the mothership and her minions.
Fire codes regarding the use of charcoal (for the sausages in my beloved combo) are another reason for the slight difference in taste. When new regulations came to be, Al's original was grandfathered in, allowing them to continue grilling their sausages over charcoal as they always had. The franchises use gas, which lends a subtle but noticeable difference. The giardiniera seems to be a bit less bright in flavor profile as well.
It will never be the same coming from a contracted co-packer cooking huge commercial batches out of a factory kitchen. Fact of life. And while the franchises are well done, they reside in the shadow of the original.
Because of this, for purists like me it's Taylor Street only -- but I'm in the vast minority. Deal breakers? For most, I'd doubt it. Al's lite? Perhaps, but still close enough to scratch the itch for all but the most ardent fans.
Finally, in an inspired pairing of two Chicago icons, Mike Ditka is the new spokesperson. Kudos to Dave Howey, president of the franchise division for pulling that one off. It's sure to help raise the profile.
The coach was in the house and offered some wisdom: "You don't stay in business for 76 years if you're not good."
Pretty sure it's best not to argue with the coach.
Alan Lake has been a professional chef for nearly three decades and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He's also been a professional musician most of his life and coined the term "Jazzfood" to describe his "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational abilities" and views his food as he does his music.