If you’ve walked around Manhattan, you’ve surely seen a pizzeria with some variation of the word “Ray’s” on the sign. The first Ray’s Pizza opened in Greenwich Village in the 50s, the owner eventually opened a second location which he later sold. The new owner retained the name, and subsequent sales and openings have created dozens of variations on the name across the city: Ray’s, Original Ray’s, Original Ray’s Too, Ray’s Original, and so on. There’s even a pizzeria called “Not Ray’s.” Most of the stores are not affiliated with each other in any way.
Similar is the case with a group of unaffiliated restaurants in the Chicago area called “Luke’s.” Luke’s is a purveyor of typical Chicago fare like hot dogs, sausages, and Italian Beef sandwiches.
As with many local iconic foods around the world, many claim to be the originator of the Italian Beef, but the claims are not verifiable. They are thought to have popped up in the 30s and 40s in homes of Italian immigrants; workers at the Chicago stockyards would bring home tough cuts of meat, slow roast them and then slow simmer them for hours in a beef broth heavy with garlic and herbs. The beef was then sliced very thin to feed as many people as possible, particularly at large family events. The sandwich is usually served on a long sturdy Italian-style roll, and the seasoned beef, dripping wet from the broth is tonged out onto the bun. Some people prefer to let the juices run off the meat prior to putting it in the bread, some prefer extra juice, and there’s an enthusiastic crowd for ordering the sandwich “wet”, in which after the meat is placed on the bun, the entire sandwich is dipped in the au jus, making a soaking wet mess of deliciousness on the plate. De rigueur condiments included a combination of pickled, diced vegetables called giardiniera ; some people prefer their beef adorned with sweet or hot sport peppers.
Which brings us to the tale of the original Luke’s, not affillated at all with any place named Ray’s. Frank Del Principe, Jr. (Luke) opened his first restaurant in the Chicago area in 1965, using the beef recipe his mother developed in the 1940s. Luke prospered an opened more restaurants, all serving the same Chicago fare. Eventually, like most Midwesterners Frank yearned for a warmer clime, and relocated to Tuscon. He sold the Chicago restaurants to family members and employees, and opened “Little Luke’s” in Arizona. So today there are Luke’s around Chicagoland, similar logos, menus, but not affiliated. Some relatives of the Del Principes have also opened beef restaurants under different names.
I love Italian Beef sandwiches, and since I live by the credo of “excess is not enough”, I order the combo, which includes a spicy grilled Italian sausage plopped in the middle of the gravy-laden beef.
Winging my way to O’Hare last night to evacuate to my own warmer climes, I zipped past a Luke’s and stopped in for a light repast. Daring to be boldly different, I went to the Italian meatball sandwich, with a side of fries. It was over the top in ample. I was only able to eat about a third of the sandwich before putting the rest of it away to take out later and annoy somebody on the plane. The shoestring fries were hot, crispy, and nicely seasoned. A bite of a burger proved that to be a winner too, a nice sized hand-formed patty cooked on a charco-grill. Not sure the guy at the next table appreciated my helping myself to taste his burger, but hey, that’s how I roll.
That was my recent experience at a Luke’s. Since they are all independently owned, your results may vary. Below is a pic of the meatball sub, and a fake Italian Beef I had in Portland, OR a couple years ago.
Italian beef sandwich