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« Friday Foodpic: Top Notch Beef Burger A Glossary of Common Menu Adjectives »

Feature Wed Aug 26 2015

A Historical Glimpse into the Italian Beef Sandwich

ItalianBeef.jpgPhilly has its Cheesesteak, Miami has the Cubano, and even Iowa has the Loose Meat Sandwich. Just about every American city boasts its own iconic sandwich, but there may not be one shrouded in such historical mystery and worthy of such passionate controversy (Which is best: Al's? Buona? Mr. Beef? Johnnie's?) as the Italian Beef.

Never had one? That's crazy! Are you a real Chicagoan? Let me describe it to you.

In its best and most basic incarnations, the Italian Beef layers thinly sliced roast beef with Italian seasonings on a chewy white Italian bread, which is then topped with peppers (pickled giardinara or roasted green bell -- hot or sweet, respectively) and dipped in jus. You can get it dipped on one end, both ends or completely bathed in the gravy ("baptized" according to Buona Beef; also known as "soakers" or "juice-ons"). Additional toppings include cheese such as mozzarella, cheddar or American*. (See glossary below for the names and definitions of the variations)

The origins of this iconic sandwich are as hotly contested as people's personal favorites. What we do know is this: poor Italian immigrant families who worked in the Chicago Stockyards in the early 1900s were often allowed to bring home cheaper, tougher cuts of meat from work. These pieces would be slow-roasted with Italian spices to soften and deepen the flavors of the meat, and then layered onto Italian bread.

In 1925, Pasquale Scala popularized the recipe and set up shop as Scala's Original Beef and Sausage Company. The story goes that this sandwich gained in popularity around this time. Families purchased the meat from Scala to serve at Italian weddings and family gatherings because it was less expensive to serve a sandwich with thinly sliced beef than a more expensive dinner cut. It is also rumored that around this time, the sandwiches began to be dipped -- to even further bulk it up, add flavor and make it more filling.

From this, the popularity spread and two shops (each claiming to be the original) opened in the same year in 1938 -- Al's on Taylor Street and Mr. Beef on Orleans. Among the Mr. Beef alums was Carl Buonavolanto Jr., the founder of the Buona Beef dynasty.

However controversial, the Italian Beef remains a Chicago favorite and tracking the locations of its purveyors in 2015 is almost like creating a map of Italian immigration for Chicagoland. A perennial summer favorite (try one with an Italian lemonade), its ubiquity in our fine city makes it a natural to taste-test and find your favorite.


Please note, this map is far from completist; apologies if we've left out one of your favorites.


Hot dipped: Italian beef on gravy-wetted bread and giardiniera.
Hot dipped combo: Italian beef and sausage on gravy-wetted bread with giardiniera.
Sweet dry: Italian beef placed on dry bread, topped with sweet peppers.
Gravy bread: meatless Italian bread soaked in the juice of Italian beef, often served with peppers or giardiniera. Also known in some places as "Soakers" or "Juice-ons."
Cheesy beef: Italian beef with cheese (provolone, mozzarella or, rarely, cheddar) Sometimes known as a "cheef." Not all stands offer this.
Cheesy beef on garlic: Italian beef with cheese (provolone, mozzarella or, rarely, cheddar) on bread pre-cooked and seasoned like traditional garlic bread; not all stands offer this.

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Susan / August 26, 2015 12:50 PM

It's spelled "Johnnie's" and the sweet dipped combo is the best. With a side of lemon Italian ice.

Fred / August 26, 2015 4:36 PM

You forgot those of us who put red sauce on them- SO delish!

Jeanne NewmanAuthor Profile Page / August 26, 2015 4:42 PM

Thanks for the spelling note, Susan! I fixed it. I'm going to have to try sandwich that next time, despite not being a huge sweet bell pepper fan!

Jeanne NewmanAuthor Profile Page / August 26, 2015 4:43 PM

Like marinara, Fred? I've never seen that! Sounds really good, if a little less traditional...

Al Cervik / August 27, 2015 7:04 PM

No love for Portillos?
What gives?
That's a serious offense, and a rookie ass mistake!

Jeanne NewmanAuthor Profile Page / August 31, 2015 10:46 AM

Hey Al! Thanks for your comment...I do actually have mad love for Portillo's--that's why all of the Chicagoland Portillo's franchises are on that Italian Beef Map...

But to address your concern--Portillo's did not open until 1963, so including them in a history of Italian Beef wouldn't be appropriate as they were not among the original purveyors. And to be honest, I love their Chicago dogs more than their Italian Beef. But if you love their sandwiches, you can use my map to find the closest location to you!

Don Kosin / August 31, 2015 7:13 PM

As a lifelong Chicagoan living in D.C. since 1984, I fondly remember Mr. Beef's sandwiches with HOT PEPPERS and DIPPED and even on my Jenny Craig Diet I still have one every year during my annual trip to the greatest baseball park in the world WRIGLY FIELD!!!

Christopher / December 8, 2015 5:48 AM

I stumbled across this article whilst doing research on new sandwich recipes i can try. This post has given me a whole new view and ideas on sandwiches. As i am a traditional uk sandwich lover, this type of sandwich is a great inspiration and what a great history to go with it.

Many Thanks

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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