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Best Italian Beef in Chicago? - Chowhounds speak (very long)

  • d

I guess as many of the votes are in as we will get for now, but this is an ongoing process, so if you would like to vote, let me know and I will provide you with socresheets and some guidelines.

Background: On November 18 a group of Chowhounds went out to sample as many Italian Beefs as we could stomach in a day. We tasted each of the components and then entire sandwiches. Places were scored on each of the components (beef, bread, gravy, dipped sandwich, "dry" sandwich, french fries, giardinera, sweet peppers, and atmosphere).

We started with about 10 people, added one or two en route, then lost people. Only 3 people made it thru all 9 places which were (in order of sampling): Al's, Carm's, Patio, Mr. Beef, Boston Bar-b-q, Chickie's, Freddy's, Scatchell's, and Johnnies.

There have been a number of postings, including some from folks who never provided scores. I will revise the rankings if they provide their scores and based on any other ratings I get.

Is this perfect? Of course not. For a start, we have barely scratched the surface and should really do at least 2 more tastings (south and north). Then there is the whole process issue - some places do not have enough scores to really represent much and what about Beef fatigue? Did Johnnies fare worse than Al's because it came at the end? Lastly, there is the issue of bias. At least one taster admitted to comparing all the sandwiches to his memory of Johnnies perfection. Hardly an open minded approach.

But it's a start.

d

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  1. Part 2 - The condiments and sides.

    I think that it is safe to say I will never pay for sweet peppers on my sandwich again. Al's had the best, real steamed peppers with a good pepper flavor, followed closely by Chickies and Johnnies, and then a bit further back by Mr. Beef. Patio and Boston had terrible peppers. But these are, at best, steamed peppers that sit around waiting to be dished up. It just is not any way to treat a sweet pepper, and let's not even talk about the places serving canned peppers.

    Giardinera was more interesting with some good, some indifferent and some bad. Freddy's was the best with the highest score in any category, but with only two raters it is mildly suspect. Chickies and Al's were close behind, so we know who takes their peppers seriously. Then Boston and Johnnies, but with a fair drop off in ratings. The others were not good.

    If you want Fries with your beef, try Carm's, Al's, Johnnies, Patio or Chickies. All respectable; none were wonderful. This category was right up down with Sweet peppers as the lowest rankings. Perhaps there just is not enough time to make wonderful beef and wonderful fries, though they seem to be trying at a number of the places.

    For atmosphere with your beef, try Chickies or Patio, but all the places, except Scatchells, had decent ratings and were close together.

    Almost every place uses Gonella bread, except for Freddys and Johnnies which seem to use Turano. Gonnella seems a better, crisper, fuller roll to me and most others, tho Dave and George R seemed to love Johnnies Turano roll, for reasons that escaped the rest of us.

    d

    11 Replies
    1. re: dickson d

      Okay, let's not get annoyed - this is the post you want to read.

      There were three styles of beef - thin sliced, thick sliced, and shredded (Al's). Then there was beefy beef and gravy dominated beef. For beef alone, these tasters preferred thin sliced, it seems, with strong gravy flavor. Johnnies was the choice, followed closely by Chickies. A fair drop off to a group of very good places - Mr Beef, Patio, Boston and Al's. But know this about Al's - it is a polarizing place with very high scores and very low scores. More on that follows.

      Along with the beef comes the gravy. The best gravy is meaty, with good herbs and garlic and enough beef fat to give it beefy flavor, but not to the point of being greasy. Johnnies and Freddys were head and shoulders above the others, but with only two ratings each so far, this could change. Then a familiar group - Chickies, Mr Beef, Patio, and Al's with Scatchells a bit behind. Boston and Carm's had serious problems - cheap powdered garlic dominating Bostons, and way too much beef fat in Carm's. But once again, if we did this the way they score figure skating and threw out the high and low scores, Al's would win the best gravy. Different herbs, maybe fennel, and some people just did not like the flavor (me, for instance).

      As to the best sandwich, it does not exactly equal the sum of its parts. Johnies was best dry and dipped, though there are not a lot of ratings for them. Close behind was Chickies dipped. Then things started to drop off, with a group fairly close together - Mr Beef dipped, Patio dry, Boston dipped (despite the gravy issues it came together very nicely), and another group a bit behind - Patio dipped, Al's dry, Mr Beef dry, Chickies dry, Boston dry, and Al's dipped. Sorry to repeat myself, but most tasters loved Al's, and a few of us did not like it much at all, particularly dipped with that gravy.

      So if we had to eat one Italian Beef Sandwich, where would it be? Based on this comparision tasting, what is the best Beef Stand, top to bottom, in Chicago? Every one of these places is pretty good, except Carm's and Scatchells, which were a step below the rest. Carm's almost seemed like a French Dip - beefy gravy, thick chewy slices. And Scatchell's just seemed mass-produced.

      If you add it all up, great sandwich, atmosphere, good peppers and giardinera, these tasters as a group pick (scores in parentheses, with 10 being perfect) -

      1. Johnnies (7.9) - they just do not do anything wrong
      2. Chickies (7.7) - ditto
      3. Freddy's (7.4) - as previously noted, this is based on a small number of ratings and Freddys is a great Italian grocery, so the odds are you won't even get a beef sandwich. Still it is very good.
      4. Patio (7.0) - Surprisingly good
      5. Al's (6.8) - to repeat myself, if you throw out one terribly low score of 3.7 (!) Al's ties for third. Drop one more, Al's wins. A very large range of scores.
      6. Mr. Beef (6.6) - yes, it is a good sandwich, but if you do not care about service, have a fast food joint atmosphere and offer pretty lousy condiments, it counts for something.
      7. Boston (6.3) - a decent sandwich, but many of the same issues as Mr Beef, except we really liked the owner.
      8. Carm's (5.9) - great atmosphere, friendly people, good fries and a beefy, greasy, under-seasoned sandwich.
      9. Scatchell's (5.0) - They don't care, why should we?

      The best sandwich is Johnnies, but you won't go wrong with Patio or Chickies, and Al's is wonderful if you like that gravy. Freddys is a grocery store that serves a good sandwich, but it is the condiments.

      Look forward to hearing your opinions, and if you want to provide ratings so I can update this with more reports, just email me.

      d

      1. re: dickson d

        By Freddy's, do you mean the grocery store in Cicero, or the Italian beef/pizza place in Bridgeport?

        It sounds like you mean Cicero, although I didn't know they had beef there and I go there all the time. Freddy's in Bridgeport makes a very mediocre beef, but they sure give you a lot of it.

        I am sure the stores aren't related.

        1. re: Manning

          Thanks for this magnum opus, d, as well as your recent tantalizing report on Michael's Fresh Foods.

          Is there a post with the addresses of all the Italian beef places surveyed?

          Keep eating and writing!

          1. re: Mugs

            I wonder if you've tested other suburban beef places? I do enjoy Johnnie's. I also like Karms on wolf rd in hillside/westchester, Q's on butterfield in hillside. Paul's on 31st and wolf was also good.

            1. re: Will

              I NEED TO FIND THE ADDRESSES FOR ANY OF THE KARMS IN ILLINOIS. PREFERRABLY THE ONE IN CHICAGO. PLEASE HELP=)
              NEED BEEF!! THANKS, TAMI

              1. re: TAMI

                Carms 1801 S Wolf Rd. Hillside IL

          2. re: Manning

            Freddy's in Cicero, 16th & 61st Ave, I believe.

            d

          3. re: dickson d

            Okay, I knew I would have to do this but did not have the energy this morning. Addresses follow.

            Somehow I missed David H's score sheets for which I apologize. David scored 5 places and his scores would have improved the standings of Patio a little, Boston a bit more, knocked Mr Beef down a little and knocked Al's down another peg or two (for texture of beef, as opposed to the gravy which he liked a lot). I will redo totals if I get more - as of now it does not appear it would change much.

            Locations of the places visited are as follows, in Chicago unless otherwise noted.

            Al's - 1079 W Taylor
            Carm's - 1057 W. Polk
            Patio - 1503 W Taylor Not sure about this one as it shows on the web with at least 2 different addresses, but this seems most likely to be right as it is a few blocks west of Al's and on the south side of Taylor Street.
            So go, do your own tasting of these three, they are less than one mile apart. Let us know what you think of Al's beef and gravy.
            Mr Beef - 666 N Orleans
            Boston Bar-B-Q - 2932 W Chicago
            Chickies - 2839 S Pulaski
            Freddy's - 1600 W (should this be S?) 61st Cicero
            Scatchells - 4700 W Cermak Cicero
            Johnnies - 7500 W North Elmwood Park

            All these places seemed to be reasonably busy, tho I wonder about Boston as it does seem to be in decline.

            d

            1. re: dickson d

              Yes, freddy's is at 1600 S. 61st in Cicero. It is one or two blocks west of Austin, on 16th. It is across from the oft-praised Jim's Meats, which has a mixture of prime and choice beefs (mostly choice lately, unfortunately), and very well reviewed sausages. Especially the cream sausage.

              -Ed

            2. re: dickson d

              David,

              Thanks for all your work in organizing the beef tasting and in tabulating the score sheets.

              It was a fun event and I think everyone learned a lot about Italian beef sandwiches.

              I agree with your observations, and am happy to add Patio to my list of places to go. Also, I hope to try Chickie's in the near future.

              Thanks again.

              George R

              1. re: dickson d

                chickies beef is by far the best beef in the city and they just dont do anything wrong i think they should be #1 or at least tied for #1 spot

            3. good post, any chance did you find out what kind of meat they use? or what is the best way to roast or cook it. i know it has to be shaved really thin, and the cost of meat has gone up!!

              1 Reply
              1. re: hey mikey

                Sirloin butt, I believe, and a pretty low grade. Though one place (Patio) seemed to buy already roasted and seasoned brisket (they showed us a delivery), the rest buy raw meat from whoever the cheapest purveyor is at the moment. They all used to do business with Scala's.

                I think it is roasted first, and then sliced and simmered in gravy, but Gary and others can give more details. The degree to which the owners shared access and information with us was really the best part.

                I appreciate your interest Mikey and your posts asking where this was spurred me to get it finished.

                d

              2. I've been to Johnnies and Al's and I don't think they compare to Buona Beef. I've been going there for years and have never had a bad beef (I like just mozzerella on them.) I know it's a chain and all but to me it's the taste that counts.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Dunbar

                  Buonas was originally on the itinerary and then was displaced by a couple of other places - probably Carms and Chickies. You are welcome to rank Buonas and add it to the database anytime. Let me know if you would like a score sheet. Your rankings of other places would be welcome as well, and/or you could join us on the next outing.

                  I did taste Buonas once or twice in training for the Beef taste off (as well as Bonos and Portillos in my neighborhood) and Buonas was quite good. I think they may put garlic on the roll or something, because it seemed to have a much stronger garlic flavor than any other I have tasted. Very good for me, and for anyone else who likes garlic I expect.

                  As to how it compares with Al's and Johnnies, please provide rankings. As noted, Al's is a very different sandwich which people seem to love or hate. Johnnies is more mainstream and very good. Personally, I probably do prefer Buonas to either Al's or Johnnies, but need to sample a few more to be sure. Al's dry was very good for me, other than the chopped meat, and I need to try Johnnies when I have not already sampled 8 other places, with some fried shrimp thrown in.

                  But the idea was not to argue about one's individual tastes; rather to sample a bunch of sandwiches, rate them, and see what the consensus is, not that your observations are not of interest and value.

                  What do you like about Buona's?

                  d

                2. Speaking from experience (I owned a beef and hot dog stand in the mid 70's). On average, Mr. Beef has the best beef sandwich, consistant, not greasy, good taste, tender beef with Gonella bread, even "juicy" the bread holds up well. Old Chicago Italian beef sandwich from the 50's - only one of a kind from a corner store on Taylor St. and Hoyne Ave, Carmie's, don't remember if his little corner grocery store/butcher shop actually had a name, added a little tomato paste to his beef gravey which was even tastier. Don't know of any beef joints with that type gravey.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Joe Anselmo
                    v
                    Vital Information

                    I hope you will join us on our next beef tasting tour. It should happen soon. You can see how places today hold up.

                    Freddies in Cicero has a gravy with a defined tomato element, probably from tomato paste. I believe it was the only one we tasted on our adventure that had the tomatoes.

                    Rob

                    Link: http://vitalinformation.blogspot.com

                    1. re: Joe Anselmo

                      I don't necessarily remember the beef sandwiches, but BOY, do remember Carmie's and Red, the butcher. Right down to the sawdust on the floor, gumball machine next to the entrance (get a "winner" gumball & get your choice of a candy bar), butcher section to the right of the entrance. All cuts of meat were "special cuts" and FRESH. With a note from your mom, Carmie would sell you cigarettes. If you didn't have the money right then for the groceries, Carmie kept a ledger book & extended his personal credit. AND, by the way, your last name sounds familiar. Our family lived at 2119 W Taylor, between Hoyne & Almond. Thanks for bringing back some great memories from the mid-'50s.

                    2. How do I get on the list for the next beef tasting?
                      My brother and I have been running our own italian beef ratings for the past few months and have missed a few of the places mentioned on this board.

                      Thanks for any info!

                      Kevin

                      1. Mr. Beef has the best italian beef sandwiches in Chicago imo.