Like most locally-specific foods around the US, whether it’s the first coney island style hot dog, or the first pizzeria in America, the origins of Chicago’s iconic sandwich – the Italian Beef – are difficult to sort out. One story has it that Italian immigrant workers in Chicago’s stockyards brought home tougher cuts of meat, slow roasted them, and then slow marinated / simmered them in a broth chock-a-block full of herbs and spices. The roast was then thin sliced and served on a durable Italian roll. According to one purveyor of the product, Scala meats, the sandwich was originally introduced at weddings and festivals as a way of extending the food supply for larger crowds.
One early vendor, Al’s #1 Beef, opened its first Chicago stand in 1938. While the sandwiches are widely available in Chicago, Northern Illinois and NW Indiana, relocated Chicagoans have started to open their own versions of Italian beef stands around the country, and some of the larger players, like Al’s, and Portillo’s, are expanding through adding corporate outlets or franchising. Portillo’s has just been sold to a private equity group which has national ambitions. Chicago’s Vienna Beef, supplier of hot dogs to the nation, also has a beef product for restaurants and consumers, which is available through its own distributors, Sysco, and shipped directly to consumers.
There are a number of ways to order your beef sandwich:
- Dry – meat is pulled from the broth and allowed to drip prior to placing it on the roll.
- Wet – meat is not allowed to drip the juices, and the bread has the meat with some broth soaking in the bread
- Dipped – meat is placed on the sandwich and the entire roll is dipped in the broth
Sandwiches can be dressed with giardiniera (diced, pickled vegetables) or sport peppers; some outlets offer the “cheesy beef”, a sandwich prepared in one of the above manners with the addition of melted mozzarella or provolone.
Here’s a slow cooker version of a Portillo’s style Italian beef recipe.
Here are pix of these delicious sandwiches that I have enjoyed.