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Posts Tagged ‘Italian Beef’

Buona Beef Meatballs Review – In Chicago Area Grocers


Buona Beef Meatballs Review

Buona Beef Meatballs Review

Store Packaging

Buona Beef is a local Chicago restaurant chain, started about thirty years ago. They have been on an expansion tear recently, and it seems like they are popping up on a regular basis. As well, they have a few of their products in the grocery stores now. The chain specializes in “Chicago foods,” Italian beef sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, subs. I’ve previously written about having the beef sandwich in one of their restaurants, as well as having the same product from the grocer. Quality stuff.

They own their own manufacturing facility, where they not only make their products, but also do private label business. Not sure if that’s for restaurants or groceries.

I spotted their meatballs in sauce, recently, and picked up a package to take home. It was around $7. The packages are hard frozen, so it’s best (IMHO) to let them thaw completely in the refrigerator before heating (they are pre-cooked).

The package weight is two pounds, and contains eight fairly good sized meatballs and the marinara sauce. I did not weight the individual balls. There own description of the product is: Authentic hand-rolled meatballs, seasoned with garlic, parsley, and Italian spices in a rich Marinara.

The ingredients listed on the package are thus: Marinara with Meatballs (Marinara Sauce {Fresh Vine-Ripened California Tomatoes, Sugar, Sea Salt, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Sunflower Oil, Modified Food Starch, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Spices, Natural Flavor, Naturally Derived Citric Acid], Meatballs [Beef, Pork, Water, Romano Cheese (Cultured Cow’s Milk, Enzymes, Salt), Textured Soy Flour, Bread Crumbs (Bleached Wheat Flour, Salt, Dextrose, Yeast), Seasoning (Salt, Dried Garlic, Spice, Dried Parsley, Brown Sugar, Cottonseed Oil, Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate, Citric Acid, BHA, BHT), Ricotta Cheese (Whey, Milk, Cream, Vinegar, Salt, Stabilizers), Caramel Color]).

I was quite happy with the meatballs, they have the density, texture that I like, and great flavor. The sauce is good, but leans towards a little too much “sweet” for my personal taste, for red gravy I’m more in the heavy garlic/fennel camp.

My only real “beef” is I yearn for — say — a 24 pack of balls with no sauce. I’d be a regular.  More than regular.  I see their fresh (not frozen) Italian sausage in stores, as well. Haven’t tried it, but will. I go through a lot of Italian sausage in my kitchen, both link and bulk ground.

If you can’t find their products in your grocer, some of them are available for shipping on their website.

Buona Beef Meatballs Review

Company marketing photo


Buona Beef Meatballs Review

Thawed product at my house! 


Buona Beef Meatballs Review



Buona Beef Meatballs Review

Cross section

Buona Beef Meatballs Review
Buona Beef Meatballs Review
Buona Beef Restaurant Review
Buona Beef Italian Beef Review


Buona Beef Grocery Review


Buona Beef Grocery ReviewI’ve written a lot about Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwich. The easiest way to explain it to those not familiar is to say it’s a highly seasoned French Dip, but the “Dip” part is not on the side but involves dunking the entire sandwich in au jus (only if desired).  You can read my explanation of the origin if you like.

There are myriad restaurants that sell these marvels, many supplied by Chicago’s Vienna Beef Company, some shops that make their own. Used to be another big supplier, Scala, but I don’t see their product anymore, so don’t know if they are around or not. Devanco is another one, each of these probably does private label as well, and there are undoubtedly a number I don’t know about.

Many of these companies package for retail sale, you can find them at Chicago area grocery stores. I’ve tried and written about a lot of them, including Vienna and Mike Ditka’s for instance.

Enter Buona Beef, a mini-chain of Chicagoland restaurants specializing in Chicago foods – Beef, hot dogs, burgers, pizza.  I visited one for the first time a few weeks ago, and it’s quality, good food, efficient (counter) service.  They are supplied by a commissary/factory that they own, and they are also in the private label business, but lately, I’m seeing product in the stores under their own label. Italian Beef, Meatballs, and a couple other things in their line.

The product comes frozen solid in different weights. It is priced competitively, (but I think they are all too high, actually, I’d buy more if it cost less). I can tell you from experience (and the instructions on the package)  THAW FIRST. On an analog basis!  (Meaning in the frig overnight or on the counter for a few hours – not in the microwave!).  Then eat on a very gentle basis in a saucepan, select your bun/rol (in Chicago, Turano’s seems to be the preference).

Tong the meat into the bun if you want it “dry,”  add some jus to the bun if you want it “wet” or dunk the entire bun in jus for “wet.” Chicagoans often have the sandwich dressed with “giardiniera” a mixture of finely diced pickled vegetables, which can be hot or mild.  Melted mozzarella on top? That’s called a “cheezy beef.”  Wanna feel like a real insider?  Ask for a “Combo” which is an Italian Beef sandwich with an Italian sausage nestled in the beef (pictured).

Buona’s grocery product is good, very flavorful, nice slices of pure muscle beef, not a chopped, pressed, formed product like some companies. The ingredients list (pictured below) is straightforward and free of additives.  Up to this point in my life, as far as grocery store Italian Beef goes, Ditka’s was my favorite.  But now it’s a tie. So I’ll buy by price from here on out.

Haven’t tried Buona’s meatballs, will get around to that soon, I hope.  Buona does ship product, if you have a craving.

Buona Beef Grocery Review

Buona Ingredient List

Buona Beef Grocery Review

Into the pan, prior to heating

Buona Beef Grocery Review

Italian Beef “Combo” “Dry”



Buona Beef Grocery Review

Buona Beef Grocery Review



Buona Beef Restaurants Review – Chicago area


Buona Beef Restaurants ReviewAbout thirty years ago, Chicagoan Joe Buonavolanto Senior had a notion to open a restaurant serving Chicago specialties – Italian beef and sausages, hot dogs, ribs, sandwiches and pizza.

He took a 2nd mortgage out on his house to finance it, and did some of the initial construction with his own hands.

Today, the third generation is overseeing a company with nearly 20 Buona Beef restaurants, several full-service restaurants, two catering facilities, and a custom food manufacturer,  Authentic Brands, which makes a line of products that includes Italian beef and sausages for their own restaurants and private label, meatballs, sauces and other products.

Italian beef is a Chicago thing, lots of stories on the origin, but the main one seems to be families made the dish for weddings and reunions, it was a way of extending a little food for a large crowd.  A beef roast is marinated, slow cooked, and then simmered in its own sauce, thinly sliced and put on an Italian roll. Hot or sweet peppers are added as a personal preference.

Old hands know to order their Italian beef dry, wet or dipped, which are references to how wet you want the bun to end up from the beef’s gravy.  You can order your beef as one of three different sizes (5,7, or 10 inch) – call for a “combo” and they’ll nestle a hot Italian sausage right there on a bed of beef.  Getting fancy?  Have some mozz melted on top. In a no bread mood? Order it by the bowl, instead of as a sandwich. It’s allowed!

So wandering into one of their Buona’s newer locations, in Algonquin, IL, I ambled up to the counter and ordered my beef wet, with a side of house-made parmesan chips. The beef was ultra flavorful and tender, the chips ultra flavorful and crispy. Dinner hour on a weeknight and the joint was jammed as was the drive-through.

I have no idea how many places there are in Chicago that serve Italian beef – a thousand or more? Each claiming theirs is the best recipe. Count Buona’s claim as deserved.  I’ll be back.

Buona is set up to do party, office, or family catering and you can even place your catering orders online.  Find the nearest location of a restaurant, groceries where the products is available or order online at the restaurant’s website.

Buona Beef Restaurants Review

Italian Beef w/ Cheese

Buona Beef Restaurants Review

House-made Parmesan chips

Buona Beef Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Buona Beef Restaurants Review

Buona Beef Restaurants Review


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


Click to add a blog post for Kojak's on Zomato
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

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