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Posts Tagged ‘Italian Beef’

Kojaks Review – Cary, IL


One of hundreds (thousands) of independent “hot dog” (for lack of a better description) stands, Kojaks, in the Chicago NW suburb of Cary, serves satisfying Chicago staples, cooked to order, at value pricing.  Dogs, sausage, burgers, gyros with the proper side dishes, and an expanded menu that includes items beyond what most of its competitors offer.

Located right across the street from the Cary Metra station, Kojaks is apparently a big supported of local youth sports, too, which is a good thing.   Kojaks is similar to Mr. Beefy’s, just down the street, but I think Kojak’s has a leg up (or two) on them.

Open Monday through Saturday, 11 AM – 9 PM, closed on Sundays.

Restaurant menu.  Catering menu.

Kojaks Review Cary

Cheeseburger and Fries


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Kojaks Review


Pastrami Dip Recipe


johnny2pngI first heard of, and experienced the “pastrami dip” at a West Los Angeles icon, Johnnie’s Pastrami, on Sepulveda near the Culver City border.  It’s a favorite corner of mine, also home to “Cinco de Mayo” (formerly Lucy’s #2)  a Los Angeles style Mexican fast food stand open all night.  I used to sit there in the middle of the night and write. Behind it is Tito’s Tacos, another local joint you’re bound to have to stand in line for. There’s a pretty fair pizza in the next block, as well. I like this corner so much, I have been known to hole up in a crappy  motel across Sepulveda for a weekend and indulge myself….on several planes.

There are a couple of different Los Angeles places that claim to have invented the “French Dip” a couple thousand years ago, and surely the pastrami dip is an off-shoot. You can sort out that whole “origin” thing at that online bastion of misinformation, Wikipedia, if you want, at their article on the French Dip.

Making the sandwich at home isn’t particularly challenging. Buy some high quality pastrami (high quality = at least $12 and up a pound), stuff it in a French roll, and prepare a dip.

Cheat on the dip by buying a packet of dry mix at the grocery, or beef bullion and adding (at least ) 5 cloves of garlic and simmering for an hour. Or the better way, deglaze a pan from a beef roast and make au jus from “scratch.’  My favorite way.

The Chicago version of the French Dip is called “Italian Beef” which is a marvel in itself. I’ve written a lot of posts on Italian Beef.

Johnnie's Pastrami

The Pastrami Dip

Pastrami Dip Recipe


Vienna Beef Italian Beef Kit


Vienna Beef Italian BeefI’ve written a ton about Chicago’s iconic specialty, the Italian Beef sandwich.  I’ve looked at different brands to prepare at home, as well as a number of restaurant offerings.  Check all those posts out here.  Today we tried Vienna Beef’s home version of the preparation, beef and gravy frozen in a tub.  Spoiler.  Any of these brands will disappoint you if you don’t COMPLETELY thaw prior to heating, and when heating GENTLE rules.  Boil any frozen Italian Beef and you’ll hate it, I promise.  Packaging says you can thaw in the microwave, but I personally would not.  I thaw in frig and the in pan.  24 hours +.  The beef in the au jus appears to be whole muscle meat, not pressed, chopped and formed.  I did inquire of Vienna as to the composition of the beef, but they did not reply.

The product is available in different weights, with just meat and gravy in a tub in your grocer’s freezer section, or as “sandwich kits” which include authentic Chicago rolls and the pickled vegetable relish known as giardiniera.  Several manufacturers of Italian beef in this style, also sell a “French dip” style.  Same stuff, I imagine, without Italian seasonings.

Nestle a hot Italian sausage within your beef, and you have a “Combo.”  I prefer Klement’s from Milwaukee.  I have no ‘beef’ with Vienna’s Italian Beef product.  I love all their products. They tie at #1 on my preference list with one other brand.  Vienna’s beef is mild but very flavorful.  Some other brands are spicier, like Mike Ditka’s (which I believe is also made at the Vienna factory, but with a different recipe).

Have some Italian Beef shipped to your house, just heat, eat, and enjoy.   You’ll be happier if your store leftovers – separate (beef and gravy). We can also hook you up with some great Klement’s Italian sausage.

Klement’s Sausage

Frozen Italian Beef

Thawed, Ready to Heat


Vienna Beef Italian Beef

Assembled Sandwich, Prior to Dipping!



Vienna Beef Italian Beef Kit


Chicago’s Iconic Sandwich – The Italian Beef


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.

Outside of Chicago, there’s a directory that can help you find an Italian beef near you.  One enthusiast has memorialized sandwiches at various locations around Chicagoland.

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.

Italian Beef Review

Cheesy Beef – Mr. Beefy, Fox River Grove, IL

Italian beef review

Michael’s – Portland, OR








Italian Beef



Italian Beef Sandwich – A Chicago Icon


Luke's Italian Beef ChicagoIf 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.

Luke's Beef, Chicago Review

Michael's Italian Beef Portland

Michael’s Italian Beef Portland




Italian beef sandwich


Mike Ditkas Italian Beef Review


Mike Ditka Italian Beef ReviewMike Ditka, ex professional football player, ex NFL coach, has been on a licensing spree lately; in addition to his restaurants, Ditka is now rivaling Donald Trump (including questionable hair) for an expanding product line:  wine, steaks, cigars, and now Chicago style foods.

I don’t know shit about football; the closest I ever came to the sport was working a grade school carnival with Mike Singletary and Walter Payton, also former Chicago Bears;  our kids all attended the same school.  Oh, and I went to the annual NFL game in London one year, for work purposes.

In any case,  Ditka’s “Chicago foods” are a recent addition to his line up.   Ditka has two different sausage varieties, a hot beef polish, and a tomato/cheese chicken.  It’s not likely I’d ever try the poultry one, just not my thing, but I did try the polish when it was launched, and liked it.  It’s a big one, too, a third pound,and requires a substantial bun for cradling.

Ditka has now joined the several Italian Beef kits sold in Chicago grocers; after all, it is the official sandwich of Chicagoans.  All come with beef and seasonings frozen in a block or tub of au jus, and merely require gentle heating before strategically placing the meat in your choice of roll and dressing it as you are so inclined.

Here’s the important part.  I’ve often heard from people how they are disappointed in the frozen Italian beef, and almost universally, upon questioning, I have found out that often the source of their disappointment is that they did not follow the instructions on the package.  For this product to turn out like anything resembling the restaurant version, two things must occur:  1) you have to thoroughly and completely THAW the product before heating, in the frig or on the counter top, and 2) GENTLE heating is all that required.  Bring it to a boil and you’ll hate the result.  So, repeat after me:  THAW. GENTLE.  Ok, we’re good to go.

Ditka’s ingredients are pretty straight forward,  the beef portion contains seasonings, oregano and flavorings.  The gravy ingredient list is a little lengthier, and does contain a number of different salts as well as MSG, if you’re a pussy about that kind of stuff.  In the pic below of the unprepared product, you’ll note the red color, I’m not sure where that comes from.

The package is 2.25 pounds for five servings, and costs around $9, which is right around the same price point as its competitors.

Heated it for awhile, and ready to consume, I chose a short French roll, for its durability, as an Italian beef can get messy. There’s three ways to order Italian beef in Chicago, dry, wet, or dipped.  Dry means they tong the beef out of the au jus and let most of it run off the meat before placing it in the bun.  Wet means no dripping, and perhaps a little gravy ladled on the sandwich.  Dipped?  Beef in the roll, no drip, and dipping the entire sandwich in the au jus.  Soggy and delicious.  It’s an acquired taste.

You should also specify whether or not you want giardiniera on it, a pickled relish of diced garden vegetables (celery, cauliflower, carrots, jalapenos, oregano, and garlic) preferred by locals.  Top or not with peppers, sweet or hot. Feeling bold? Ask for a “beef combo” and that will get you the delicious beef sandwich with a full Italian sausage nestled in the beef!

So back at home, I loaded my bun with a little too much meat, and plated it along side some home made potato chips (I was kitchen-motivated today).

Of the half dozen frozen Italian beef products I am aware of,  I’ve got to say, this is my favorite.  The gravy is very flavorful, and the beef is a quality cut.  Good job, coach.


Mike Ditka Italian Beef Review

In the tub


Mike Ditka Italian Beef Review



Mike Ditka's Italian Beef Review


Mike Ditkas Italian Beef Review


Barrington, IL – Couple of Stops


As my daughter approached grade school age, we looked around the spacious San Fernando Valley for a facility adequately challenging for her – having found none, and with daily smog alerts that made it nearly impossible for children to play outside, we packed up the house and went in search of Norman Rockwell-ville.

After a brief stop in Dallas for biz, we settled in Barrington, IL, one of the posher zip codes in the US of A, approximately 40 miles NW of downtown Chicago.  Why Barrington?  I had been in Chicago once for business, and had gotten ‘lost’ on a drive, ended up winding my way around Barrington and thought it looked lovely, with it’s hoity toity shops, ritzy restaurants, and mini manses on rolling hills.  It was, and remains so.

Moving there was about 85% successful for us.   The downside isn’t worth discussing, all in all, it’s a great town to raise a family, close to one of the greatest cities in the world, but far enough away that a family can do their best to try and protect their hatchlings from the world’s evils.

I passed through again recently, and not much has changed, though one would not expect much change to occur.  The names on some of the shops have changed, and there has been a modest amount of new construction – the wheels of change grind slowly in places like this.

One of the ‘new’ spots, is the first out of state branch of an Ohio supermarket chain, called “Heinen’s”, named for the founder’s family, which opened the doors in 1929 in Cleveland.

And what a perfect addition it is to Barrington, as fresh and lovely a grocery offering as you will ever see, equal to Whole Foods, not quite as spendy, and shelves and coolers stuffed full of the hoity-toity fixin’s Barrington families would clamor for.  The woman ahead of me in the check out purchased eight (8) seemingly nondescript items, less than one bag full, and “ker-ching!”  it rang up north of $160!   (I might have to take back that comment about being less pricey than Whole Foods).

Anyway, nice place.  If you’re around Cleveland, or Barrington, IL, and feel the need to buy some pretty groceries, check out Heinen’s.  Even the website is above par, with great recipes, and how-to videos.

At the “opposite end of the spectrum” as it were, on the way out of Barrington on US Highway 14,  which makes a mad dash for the even more distant burbs and eventually, Wisconsin, one first comes to the burg of Fox River Grove, home to, for as long as I can remember or have knowledge of, “Mr. Beefy’s”, a typical Chicago burger and hot dog joint.

Mr. Beefy’s manages to fine some pretty fine grub at very reasonable prices.  In addition to the “American fare”, one can also grab a gyro, or that Chicagoland favorite, an Italian beef.

As for the burgers?  Frozen 1/3 burgers are started on the flattop and finished on the char-broiler, and are pretty ample and tasty.  The bun was ultra fresh.  The cheese fries?  Guilty pleasure.  I don’t think that “cheese” has never been near a cow, but as it coursed (sloshed?  oozed?) through my veins, it was delicious!

Mr Beefy of FRG

Double Cheeseburger w/ Cheesy Fries


Mr Beefy's on Urbanspoon


Algonquin, IL – Fradillio’s


Fradillio’s is another locally owned “hot dog centric” food establishment in the far northwestern ‘burbs of Chicago.  Featuring the best in local suppliers, Fradillio’s offers hot dogs and polish sausage from Vienna Beef, and Italian Beef from local favorite supplier Devanco.

I went with a bacon cheeseburger, cooked on the charbroiler, with a great bun, and it was delish.  Crinkle cut fries are on tap, served with just the right crispiness and lightly salted.

Fradillio’s offers a complete catering service, where you can feed a family or a crowd;  fill up about 30 persons with 5 pounds of Italian beef, a pan of mostaccioli, a pan of Italian sausage, a large bowl of house salad, and 10 loaves of French bread for $175.  Many other options and sizes available, including wings, ribs, hot dogs, and the like.

Fradillio’s is located at the corner of Highway 62 (Algonquin Road) and Randall Road, at the north end of the Randall Road shopping ‘mecca’.

Fradillio's Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon


Cary, IL – Bambino’s Beef


Just like in the Pacific Northwest where you’ll see innumerable small restaurants with the word “Teriyaki” on them, in Chicagoland, you’re apt to see countless outlets with the word “Beef”, which is a reference to “Italian Beef”,  thin sliced, slow-simmered, seasoned roast beef served on a roll.   Make it a “combo” and they add an Italian sausage.   Usually dressed with your choice of sweet or hot peppers, and the roll is slightly wet from the au jus.   If you want it ‘wet’, ask them to dip it.

Bambino’s Beef is one such place in the Northwest suburban community of Cary, an hour plus on the Metra train from downtown.

Bambino’s features all the Chicago favorites, Chicago style hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, and gyros.  The suppliers of the latter in local Devanco foods, which manufacturers gyros, sausage, beef, and burger patties for the trade and retail.

Hot dogs come from Red Hot Chicago, started in 1986 by a grandson of the founder of legendary Chicago hot dog giant “Vienna Beef”.

Bambino’s uses an all beef skinless dog from Red Hot, which is fairly indistinguishable in taste in texture, in my opinion.  I always personally prefer a natural casing dog, with stronger flavoring.

But the beef by Devanco really stands out.   It’s very flavorful and tender, tho one must acknowledge that although this product generally comes to restaurants pre-cooked, requiring only a warm-up, it’s easy to goof up that process, and many establishments do.

If you’re heading out of Chicago on highway 14, bound for Wisconsin, and feeling a might puckish, stop in Bambino’s for a beef.   The 10” size will give you enough for a meal and more.

Bambino's Beef Cary Illinois


Bambino's Beef Cary Illinois


Algonquin, IL – Nero’s Pizza and Pub Review


(2nd contribution from our Chicagoland reporter, thanks!)

In the far Northwestern suburbs of Chicago, Algonquin is a sleepy burg, with its share of housing divisions and strip malls. In one such mall, on Algonquin Road, you’ll find Nero’s Pizza and Pub, a full menu restaurant and bar, open from 11AM daily.

On the Monday nite following Superbowl, we expected to find the joint deserted, but the bar was busy with the local regulars, and the restaurant had several tables taken as well.

Our waitress was friendly and helpful.

My guest went with an Italian Beef/Sausage combo (2nd foto below), accompanied by fries and slaw.   It was excellent.   I went with the thin crust pizza, sausage and pepperoni, also excellent.   There was a slight char on the crust, which didn’t put me off.

The tomato sauce was a bit sweeter than East Side Joey’s, down the road,  but nice nevertheless.

While I would say I preferred Joey’s toppings,  either pie is worth going to if you are in the NW burbs.

Nero's Pizza and Pub, Algonquin, IL

Nero's Pizza and Pub, Algonquin, IL

Nero's Pizza & Pub on Urbanspoon\

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