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During the first few months of the quarantine, when my attention darted between work, homeschooling a first grader and mindlessly scrolling through memes of a disapproving Mayor Lori Lightfoot, outrageous cravings for an Italian beef began to flood my mind.
Perhaps I was comforted by the idea of a quintessential Chicago sandwich during such a stressful time. Or maybe I was just immeasurably hungry and tired of cooking at home. Regardless, the Italian beef started to represent what I loved so much about a city from which I suddenly felt so isolated. After all, this is a sandwich that starts with a heap of humble ingredients, which are transformed, by pure engineering skill, into one of the meatiest and messiest sandwiches on earth.
As soon as Illinois moved into phase four of its COVID-19 reopening plan, I couldn’t wait any longer. I drew up a list of more than 50 restaurants, and then set off to find the ultimate Italian beef in the Chicago area. Considering the times, I wore a mask wherever I went, and ate all the sandwiches in my car, placing a half-sheet pan on the passenger seat as a sort of countertop. My poor car will forever smell of beef and giardiniera, but what a small price to pay.
For those unfamiliar with Chicago’s Italian beef sandwich, it initially can sound like an enigma. It’s sort of a roast beef sandwich, albeit one where beef broth plays an integral role. This makes it similar in spirit to a French dip, but it’s both more extravagant and less polite. No one would ever confuse the two.
It’s made by roasting a relatively lean and tough cut of beef, usually round or top sirloin, that’s loaded with herbs and spices in liquid (usually water and beef bouillon). When cooled, the meat is cut into paper-thin slices, and mixed with the pan juices, also called gravy or au jus around Chicago. This leads to meltingly tender meat that is intricately seasoned and disproportionately beefy considering its origins. From there the meat is loaded onto a squishy roll, usually made by Turano Baking Co., so that some of the liquid soaks into the bread. But the real metamorphosis happens if you ask for the sandwich to be dipped. That’s when the whole sandwich gets dunked into the container of beefy juices, leaving the roll with the custardy texture of a Yorkshire pudding.
Toppings are usually limited to what are called sweet or hot peppers (though shredded cheese and tomato sauce have become increasingly popular). Sweet peppers are usually just green bell peppers, which have zero heat and a somewhat grassy flavor, though occasionally places use red bell peppers or Melrose peppers (which have their own fascinating Chicago history). I can never decide if an Italian beef needs sweet peppers. I ordered them for every Italian beef I tried on this quest, but I’ll probably skip them in the future.
That’s not the case with the hot peppers, which is a condiment most people in Chicago know as giardiniera. (Why it’s almost always listed on Italian beef menus as hot peppers and not giardiniera has always confused me.) This pickled mix of vegetables and chiles submerged in oil lends an emphatic hit of heat, crunch and fat to a sandwich that’s mostly savory, soft and lean. It’s essential.
How did such an unhinged sandwich come to be? Like most beloved local dishes, the history of the Italian beef contains conflicting origin stories. Was it Al Ferreri (grandfather of current Al’s #1 Italian Beef owner, Chris Pacelli Jr.), who opened a restaurant in 1938 mostly to act as a front for a gambling operation? Or was it Pasquale Scala, founder of Scala Packing Co., who claimed he served the dish at Italian American weddings in the 1920s?
What is clear is that the sandwich was born of thrift. Nearly every historical account mentions that the dish caught on because the cooking method helped to stretch beef to feed more people.
Meathead Goldwyn, local cookbook author and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, explains that the sandwich often appears more bountiful than it truly is. “One of the secrets is that by slicing the meat thin, it has the appearance of a fat sandwich,” says Goldwyn, “but it’s only like a quarter pound of meat. But it looks like so much more.”
Sometimes I gaze upon a freshly made Italian beef and I can’t help but fawn over its sensuous beauty. The glistening bun looks like it can barely contain the beef. Other times, I think that most beefs have a face only a mother could love. Ask for it dipped, and the sandwich often comes out looking like a waterlogged roll of paper towels. It’s nearly impossible to pick one up without getting juices all over your hands.
“It’s just a stinking mess,” admits Goldwyn. “The bread falls apart, the meat is overcooked, it’s sloppy, the peppers are swimming in oil. But all combined it is an interesting flavor, and it’s a taste of Chicago. It’s like rooting for the Cubs.”
Goldwyn is right about its reach. While ubiquitous around the Chicago area, its popularity fizzles shortly after crossing state lines. The Italian beef certainly doesn’t have the national recognition of dishes like Philadelphia’s cheesesteak or Florida’s Cuban sandwich. This used to bug me, but not anymore.
Eating an Italian beef away from Chicago almost feels wrong. For some inexplicable reason, we’ve all fallen for a stupendously weird sandwich, one that feels too rough around the edges to survive in polite company. And when you’re pining for a city before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on daily life, the Italian beef still manages to connect you to what makes Chicago so great.
Some notes before we dig into the list.
How to order
Much has been written about Italian beef ordering procedure. When I first moved to Chicago, I did extensive research to make sure I didn’t accidentally do something that would embarrass me for the rest of my life. Briefly, you don’t order an Italian beef, you order a “beef.” Then you need to specify if you want the sandwich dry (little to no beef juices get on the bun), wet (the bread gets slightly damp with beef juices) or dipped (the whole sandwich is dunked in the juices). Finally, decide if you want sweet peppers, hot peppers or both. My standard order would sound like this: beef dipped hot.
Thing is, these days no one cares. At half of the places, I intentionally didn’t follow any of the ordering advice, casually detailing that I’d like my beef dipped and topped with sweet and hot peppers, and no one seemed to care that I used too many words. Do whatever you’d like.
Adding cheese to an Italian beef is becoming extremely popular. Numerous restaurants automatically asked if I wanted to add cheese. And hey, what’s not to love about beef and gooey, melted cheese? But it does cover up the seasonings of the roasted beef, so I almost always decline. Say yes if you’re in the mood.
Most Italian beef joints also sell grilled Italian sausages, which has led to the creation of the combo — an Italian beef with an Italian sausage slipped inside. I decided early on to avoid this undoubtedly delicious, if gut-busting, option for this project because I wanted to focus all my attention on the beef. Plus, there was just no way I’d be able to eat 50 Italian beefs and 50 combos and survive.
Roasted in house
Most restaurants in Chicago don’t roast the beef in-house. Instead, they purchase sliced meat, along with the gravy, from a purveyor. While this can lead to an acceptable sandwich, the best places still do the hard work in-house. The only exceptions are chains, which cook the meat in a commissary kitchen, before distributing it to the different locations.
Italian deli paradox
Chicago is blessed with dozens of incredible Italian delis, where you can get imported goods and freshly made sandwiches. Most of these places serve Italian beefs, too, but only a few made my list. This is confusing, because they undoubtedly use higher quality ingredients, roast the meat in the store, and oftentimes slice it to order. But too often those individual components failed to coalesce into a satisfying sandwich.
Some acclaimed restaurants in Chicago, like Tempesta and Giant, have been serving great Italian beefs lately. But I decided against including them here because they were specials, which you can’t get every day. Plus, I have delved into them in another story. See that report here.
That’s enough preamble, let’s get to the results. Here are my favorites, in reverse order.
The top 20
Beef Shack is an outlier. While most beef stands have been open for years, this chain is “only” about eight years old. That said, it’s signature sandwich is “the cheezy beef,” which adds a mountain of gooey cheese. While I certainly get the appeal, I wouldn’t overlook the regular beef. The thinly sliced meat has a strong garlic base, and comes topped with extra crunchy giardiniera. $7.05
Multiple locations; for this feature I visited 3145 Highway 20 #201, Elgin, 224-535-8348, beefshack.com
I’d never been to this stand in suburban Countryside, but I took one look at the beef and knew I was in for a treat. The thinly sliced beef is complemented by a rich gravy and is capped with a hot pepper mix that’s mostly celery, though there’s just enough heat to help cut through the saltiness. $5.90
20 E. Plainfield Road, Countryside, 708-352-9696, littlejoesbeef.net
I’m conflicted about Bari. As you can tell by the photo, the meat is fully shredded, like it’s been stewing with the gravy for a long time. This gives it a similar taste and texture as a New Orleans roast beef debris po’ boy, not an Italian beef. But then again, what’s wrong with an extra beefy po’ boy? Essentially, you can spend a long time debating whether or not this is even an Italian beef, but it’s also impossible to dislike this delectable offering. $9.50
1120 W. Grand Ave., 312-666-0730, bariitaliansubs.com
Pop’s Italian Beef & Sausage
Pop’s is another Italian beef chain, with more than a dozen locations in the south suburbs and one in the city. The meat here is sliced very thin, though it’s also a touch dry. Fortunately, it’s saved by the top-notch gravy, which amps up the beefiness of every bite. What really sets Pop’s apart is the hot pepper mix. The shockingly green collection of celery and sliced jalapenos adds a less frantic hit of heat than other giardiniera, but it really works here. $7.65
Multiple locations, this sandwich is from 10337 S. Kedzie Ave., 773-239-1243, popsbeef.com
Tony’s Italian Beef
Tony’s is for the ravenous. This is easily the biggest beef I tried during my quest. The beef slices are thicker than others, yet still stay tender. I was also intrigued by the hot pepper mix, which contains whole chickpeas. $6.35
7007 S. Pulaski Road, 773-284-6787, tonysbeef.com
Luke’s Italian Beef
If you’re looking for a beef in the Loop, this is it. During normal (nonpandemic) times, Luke’s was nearly always packed at lunch with hungry office workers. Fortunately, it’s still open, and worth visiting. The meat misses the savory wallop of some places, and the sweet peppers are extremely soft, but you can’t argue with the beefy gravy, which dutifully soaks into the bun. $7.50
215 W. Jackson Blvd., 312-939-4204, lukeschicago.com
Mr. Beef on Orleans
If you’re looking for a beef stripped down to the fundamentals, Mr. Beef on Orleans is the place to go. The meat has almost no discernible spice profile, but it’s savory, juicy and tender. The hot pepper mix is mostly sliced celery, with only the slightest amount of chile heat. Personally, I prefer my beef with a little more embellishment, but I can’t deny that Mr. Beef nails this spare style. $7
666 N. Orleans St., 312-337-8500, facebook.com/mrbeefonorleans
This was a surprise. Paradise Pup is renowned for its char-grilled burgers, which I included in my best burgers in Chicago list. But I had no idea it even had an Italian beef until a number of people recommended it. Turns out, the shop makes it from scratch, and the care shows. Each bite is super beefy, with an underlying base of garlic. I also appreciate how the sweet peppers are cut into slices, so you can get a taste in each bite. $6.59
1724 S. River Road, Des Plaines, 847-699-8590, facebook.com/Paradise-Pup
The beef at Patio Restaurant is sliced thicker than most, which usually means you’re in for dry and tough meat. But each slice turns out to be impressively tender, and the meatiness is amped up thanks to the extra savory gravy. The hot pepper mix is dominated by crunchy celery, with only a little heat coming from red pepper flakes. $7.25
1503 W. Taylor St., 312-829-0454, facebook.com/PatioRestaurant
Frangella Italian Market
Most Italian beefs from Italian delis look better than they taste. But Frangella Italian Market in Palos Park manages to pair its gorgeous freshly sliced beef with an emphatically meaty and seasoned broth. Oh, and if you’re wondering, they placed the giardiniera underneath the meat. Figuring they forgot to add it, I took a huge bite, only to realize it was easily the most ferociously spicy version of the quest. $7.49
11925 S. 80th Ave., Palos Park, 708-448-2598, frangellaitalianmarket.com
The Original Nana’s Hot Dogs
The beef at Nana’s arrives utterly drenched in flavorful beef juices and showered in aromatic dried herbs. Needless to say, this version is not for the bashful. The thin cut meat is impressively tender, and backed up by satisfying gravy. $6.40
1102 E. Irving Park Road, Streamwood, 630-289-2226, theoriginalnanashotdogs.com
This chain makes a rock solid Italian beef. Don’t expect any surprises here, just the basics done to the T. The very thinly sliced beef is packed with garlic and laced with black pepper. The sweet and hot peppers are perfectly fine, but it’s the deeply meaty gravy that really impressed me. It’s thin, but the liquid dutifully soaks into the bun without causing structural collapse. $6.49
Multiple locations; this sandwich is from 2352 W. Higgins Road, Hoffman Estates, 847-490-4449, buona.com
Mr. D’s Shish Kabobs
Another real surprise. I already knew Mr. D’s had a fantastic steak sandwich, along with the best fries in Chicago under $5. Turns out, it serves an incredible Italian beef, too. The most interesting aspect is probably the roll, which has a slightly crusty exterior that gives way to a soft interior that expertly soaks up the juices. The beef itself has a strong black pepper kick, with a slight aroma of dried Italian herbs. $7.25
6656 W. Diversey Ave., 773-637-0042, facebook.com/Mr-Ds-Shish-Kabobs
Scatchell’s Beef & Pizza
The beef at Scatchell’s is so finely sliced that it looks like it’s seconds away from breaking down into a mess of shredded beef strands. Yet it manages to stay succulent, with a powerful savoriness in each bite. The hot pepper mix is celery-based, but unlike most in this style, it’s loaded with red chile flakes. This allows for a terrific balance of beefiness to spiciness. $5.69
4700 W. Cermak Road, Cicero, 708-656-0911, scatchellsbeefstand.com
The best Italian beef from an Italian deli can be found at this Cicero gem. You can tell the shop thought about every detail, because while the monster sandwich looks like it’s big enough for a crowd, it’s extremely hard to stop eating. The meat is exceptionally juicy and tender, and the extra savory gravy makes sure each bite is overwhelming beefy. As mentioned before, I love the use of red peppers over green. Just make sure to also pick up some of the shop’s excellent Italian ice for dessert. $7.99
1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero, 708-863-9289, freddyspizza.com
Jay’s Beef of Harwood Heights
It’s hard not to be impressed by the striking color palette of a beef from the original Jay’s Beef in Harwood Heights. Instead of drab green bell peppers, this shop uses bright orange and red peppers, which look better and taste sweeter. I’m not usually a huge fan of the style of hot peppers that focuses on sliced fresh jalapenos and crunchy celery, but for some reason it all works together here, even if there isn’t much heat. That’s probably thanks to the meat, which really latches onto the beefy gravy. Jay’s has three locations, but the original in Harwood Heights is the one to visit. $7.25
4418 N. Narragansett Ave., Harwood Heights, 708-867-6733, jaysbeef.com
Portillo’s is the largest restaurant chain on this list, but don’t let that scare you off. Every millimeter of the beef is imbued with an intense meatiness from the gravy. I couldn’t detect many spices or herbs beyond garlic and black pepper, just a no-holds-barred assault of beefy goodness. Of course, it helps that the meat is tender and luscious, despite being on the thicker side. Everything is contained on a bun that manages to soak up juices, yet not collapse into a pile of goo. I’m also a big fan of the giardiniera with its large chunks of pickled chiles, carrots and cauliflower. $6.29
Multiple locations, this sandwich is from 7308 W. Lawrence Ave., Harwood Heights, 872-484-1919, portillos.com
Bob-O’s Hot Dogs
It’s hard to figure out how such thinly sliced meat can be packed with so much beefy flavor, yet Bob-O’s Hot Dogs in Irving Woods manages to accomplish this feat each time I visit. There’s also an impressive roasted garlic aroma that rushes to my nose after each bite. The beef is topped with some of the best giardiniera I tried on the quest, with nice crunchy chunks of celery, carrots, cauliflower and chiles. Only the sweet peppers are unwieldy, though I did appreciate they were at least seasoned, unlike at most shops. $5.75
8258 Irving Park Road, 773-625-9840, boboshotdogs.com
If you’re looking for a textbook version of an Italian beef, one that hits every note every single visit, Johnnie’s beef is the place. Each moderately thin slice of beef is packed with more meatiness than seems right or possible. No spices or seasonings fight for attention, though you might be able to detect some garlic and black pepper. But for the most part, it’s all about appreciating the unadulterated flavor of beef.
You can tell Johnnie’s cares about the details. Unlike most places, the sweet peppers are sliced, making them much easier to eat, and the giardiniera is loaded with crunchy carrots, celery and chiles. Ask for the beef dipped, and it’ll never come out so soaked the bread collapses after a few bites.
Over the years, Johnnie’s has emerged as the Italian beef favorite for most critics. I certainly understand the enthusiasm, though another classic spot has my heart. $4.86
7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park, 708-452-6000, facebook.com/Johnnies-Beef
Al’s #1 Beef
No beef in town tastes like Al’s #1 on Taylor Street. While most stands season their meat with little more than garlic, oregano and black pepper, Al’s luxuriates its roast in a complex mix of aromatic spices. Although the exact blend is a closely guarded secret, I always think of warm spices like clove, coriander and maybe cinnamon. These hover around the edges of each bite, teasing you in a dozen directions at once.
The meat itself is cut as thin as it possibly could be, so your teeth chomp into the sandwich with almost no resistance. While it’s intricately seasoned, an intense beefiness still manages to fight through.
I don’t particularly care about the sweet peppers, but the hot pepper mix stands out. It avoids both the kind of heavily pickled giardiniera you find in most places and the fresh celery style. Sure, Al’s uses a lot of celery, but it’s not super crunchy. Instead, it’s salty, almost sour, and enveloped in a thick red oil.
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It’s easy to admire all of the elements individually, but something uncanny happens when the heat of the hot peppers strikes the complexly seasoned beef and the rich gravy. Each bite hits with an unduly meaty base, before the heat and spices take flight. Honestly, the flavor profile isn’t that far off from Taiwanese beef noodle soup. (Considering that is one of my favorite dishes, my preference for Al’s makes a little more sense.)
Yet, my mind can’t help but flood with images of Chicago, like hot summer days on the lakeshore with friends or that time I introduced my father-in-law to the specialty, which then became a mandatory stop when he visits.
Al’s #1 is a chain, but I’ve never been truly happy with the beefs I’ve gotten from any location but the original on Taylor Street. Having tasted them back to back, I can tell the chain locations miss the wild excitement of the spice blend that you can taste with the in-house roasting. If you’ve never made a pilgrimage to the original location, now is the perfect time. $6.49
1079 W. Taylor St., 312-226-4017, alsbeef.com
This article has been updated to removed the line that the original Al’s #1 is the only location of the business that roasts its meat for Italian beefs in-house. Some of the other locations also roast in-house.