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Battle Beef on Ontario-- Al"s vs. Portillo's

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An LA hound was in the mood for scarfing down some good Ital beef this weekend and wanted to compare the two restaurants. Reviews on the Chowhound Chicago board are heavily weighted on Al's and Johnnie's. So in the comfort of time near me, I duked out Al's vs. Portillo's. Went to Al's first for the double dip beef sandwich with fries, and I hate to say this but the quality of the meat was poor. Seemed that the beef was sitting around for a while and was a little stringy. Fries I thought were good with a very nutty flavor due to the type of oil they use, which I believe must be peanut with some type of lard. The meat quality could be due to the fact that I arrived there around 3pm. Portillo's beef sandwich, or big beef was a wonderful mound of soft supple meat with just the right mount of jus. Unlike the Al's jus, it seemed less salty, and the quality of the bread sopped up just the right amount of jus. Al's was very wet due to the double dipping, and was quite messy for a sanwich.... which I did not mind. The fries were crinkle cut, and tasted like they were fried out of an Ore Ida bag. I cannot recommend the fries. I ate at Portillo's on Saturday night around 10pm, and the quality was excellent, and service seemed on top of it. Overall I am surprised how good the Portillo's beef sandwich is, especially coming from a Chicago chain. I will be back to Portillo's in regards to a beef sandwich and I am lucky that they opened one up near me in Buena Park, CA. I was too full to try the dogs and ribs, and please let me know if there is something that I should try there next time.

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  1. In my opinion, (I eat 2-3 Italian Beef sandwiches a week)

    I think Al's is the worst of the most mentioned Beef sites on this board. Flavorless, fatty beef, not very good at all.

    Portillos, there beef is good, and probably the most consistant, but nowhere near my favorite

    My top 2:

    #1: Paul's in Westchester, $4.50 for a sandwich bigger than the Portillos Big Beef, tons of hot peppers, I have never had a bad one here.

    #2: Johnnies on North Avenue, Small sandwich, and the quality is hit an miss.

    1. I was beginning to think I was the only one who found the Portillo's beef sandwich to be the best of the bunch. My singular experiences with Al's and Mr. Beef were both sub-par, whereas Portillo's seems to taste just as good every time I've ever had it.

      I think the bias against chains is real and, in some cases, unjust. Having just come back from San Diego, I draw a parallel between Portillo's and Rubio's (fish tacos). The simple fact that there's a lot of them doesn't necessarily make them inferior. I'm all for Portillo's.

      1 Reply
      1. re: jlynch9

        As they say in socal, DUDE!!!, you are absolutely right about this. I love Rubio's and I think it is a great place for good food. I am impartial to mom and pop's but comparing food quality, Portillo's rocks. As a side note, I also saw a ton of CPD at the restaurant and to me that is a good sign....

      2. My favorite Italian Beef is from Johnny's on North Avenue or Carms on the Southwest side. Torre's at Elston, Diversey, and
        Western is pretty good as well.

        I have to admit, the Portillo's chain of restaurants is fantastic. I love this place. The food is consistently great and service excellent. This place would thrive anywhere. It's way underrated. Next time have a slice of chocolate cake...unbelievable!

        1. Agreed, I would rate Portillo's over Al's.

          Plus add in the fact that Al's fares even worse on its satellites stores (with Gurnee Mills being outright bad) in comparison to ANY Portillo's location, and you end up with a no-brainer of a comparison.

          1. Roma's on Cicero has a great beef sandwich. The fresh cut fries are killer.

            1. Sounds to me like you did not visit the original Al's on Taylor St., and therefore, I am not surprised that you did not enjoy Al's. Unfortunately, almost all of the Al's beef locations (i.e., franchises) have disgraced the original, and I find that the Al's on Ontario is simply awful.

              I think Portillo's makes a pretty good Italian beef sandwich, reliable although not great. For great, I head to Johnnies, although I have also had very good Italian beef sandwiches at the original Al's, Tore's, Max's, Carm's and Bob-O's. I have not been to Chickies, but I hear consistently good reviews about it.

              1. Is there a Portillo's in Skokie? I sometimes crave top quality Italian Beef sandwiches - a rare find anywhere near Evanston? Suggestions please?

                1 Reply
                1. re: Jesster

                  The Portillo's in Skokie is located at 9400 Skokie Blvd., just south of Old Orchard. There's also one in Niles at 8832 W. Dempster.

                2. there is a Portillo's in Skokie....by the mall. There is also an Al's that opened up in Evanston as well

                  1. FWIW, My friend, Dom, has been methodically sampling Chicago's top-tier beef stands and reporting his findings on his blog. So far, he's visited (and ranked) Al's, Roma's, Portillo's, Boston's, Mr. Beef, Johnnie's, Chickie's, and, most recently, Tore's:

                    http://www.skilletdoux.com/2006/09/th...

                    E.M.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Erik M

                      Thanks for reminding me of Chickies! It's been 20+ years since my last visit. I have fond memories of Chickies for their hot dogs...never tried their beef sandwiches. I recall that their dogs were some of the best around.

                    2. Nice post fellow SoCal'er...

                      The tide is turning in the direction of saneness in my opinion. For years here and elsewhere Portillo's seems to get knocked...and the only reason I can surmise is that it's a chain. There are certainly some compromises in a chain business, and they might not have the "best" IB out there, but it's darn good and consistent in the locations I have been to...including here in SoCal where my biggest beef is that the prices are 20% higher. Portillo's does a LOT of things VERY well.

                      Al's seems to be a love/almost hate among IB fans. And the franchises certainly are not consistent. The Taylor Street location is the one things should be judged on, but even there it's not everyone's favorite.

                      1. All this chat made me have to go satisfy the over riding need for a Beef yesterday.

                        So I went to the holy shrine of beef: Al's on Taylor St. Had a combo as I love both their beef & sausage, I don't know what it was with me, maybe it was because I had such a taste for a beef, maybe the beef blog from the post above (very cool BTW) but yesterday my sandwich was one of the best I've ever had, and it was absolutely wonderful!

                        It's really such a shame that the Al's in Gurnee or really any of the satellites locations cant deliver the same exact quality and taste.

                        So my rating, assuming I'm in the Taylor St. area is for Al's on Taylor as hands down the best. But for the rest of time, when I'm all over the city based on a multiple locations, Portillo's would still my next best option.

                        1. Al's beef is really only good at the Taylor St. location. The other franchise locations are OK, but the Ontario seems to be the worst. I dont get the Mr. Beef thing. Its always been mediocre to me, but I'm a guy who likes a nice, peppery juice with an IB, not just bland jus.

                          Portillos is decent beef, but if you want a better beef from a chain, I'd recommend Buena.

                          Thanks for the tip on Pauls in Westchester - I'll have to try it soon. If you go there - you might want to travel down 31st st. about a quarter mile east for the best (and leanest) Italian Sausage I have ever had - at Albani's Deli (? I may have the name wrong) - you have to buy them and grill them yourself.

                          1. The only good Al's is the original on Taylor St.

                            Portillo's beef is pretty good but I think it can be inconsistent depending on location, and I just don't like the restaurant as a whole. . .if that makes sense?

                            Johnnie's on North Ave. has them all beat though, IMO the best beef (and fries) in the city.

                            1. My favorite beef is Freddies located at Union & 31st. It's commonly overlooked on the food boards but you will find very favorable reveiws on the LTH forum. I admit the fries leave something to be desired but I think that's true of Portillo's and Al's. The Italian ice is good though.

                              Johnny's is also pretty damn tasty.

                              1. The Al's on Higgins is awful too. Love the original on Taylor street. The one in Park Ridge is very good. I must confess, I do love Al's fries, even on Ontario.

                                1. If you're looking for an indulgent & delicious lunch @ Portillos my suggestion would be to get an Italian Beef, Cheese Fries, and a Chocolate Cake Shake. You will think you had died and gone to heaven :)

                                  1. Funny this thread should get resurrected because I had the exact same experience about a month ago. I don't currently live in Chicago and I can go back only about once a year, so every time I go I make sure at least 50% of my meals are Italian beefs. Al's on Taylor was mediocre this time. The beef was in shreds which is not to my preference, and it managed to be somehow greasy and dry at the same time. The roll was so stale I could not eat any part of it that was not completely drenched in juice.

                                    I got my Portillo's hot and dipped from the touristy main store downtown and ate it in my car. The sandwich was so damn good I literally started cursing and pounding the steering wheel. I mean this sandwich does not taste like something that came out of a chain kitchen. The bread was fresh and had a crackle to the crust which gave way to the perfectly soggy interior. Beef had a deep oven-roasted flavor which I have rarely found the match of in Chicago. The only other place that can match this kind of beef flavor is Johnnie's on North Ave and they are not always on their game. I hate to support a chain over independents but Portillo's has really earned it this time.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: RealMenJulienne

                                      Heh. I like Portillo's, too - as do lots of other folks.

                                      The Al's on Ontario a stone's throw from Portillo's is not good IMO - and I see even all those years ago that place got pretty bad slams too, so in my books (and according to my preferences) it has never been good and probably will never be good.

                                    2. Having now perused all of the Al's vs Portillo's Italian beef commentary I note that "Luke's" on W. Jackson failed to garner even a single mention even though the Italian beef there compares quite favorably with Al's, Mr. Beef, Portillo's or any of the other local other beef emporiums I have patronized during my 69 years on the planet. Place closes in mid-afternoon but has done good business at Loop location for many years with minimal publicity. Excellent broth reminiscent of Al's at its best, ditto meat.

                                      -----
                                      Mr. Beef
                                      666 N Orleans St, Chicago, IL 60654

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: jasoncrawford

                                        For me, Italian Beef comes down to one thing and it's that you aren't legit unless you have signed pictures of Joe Mantegna on your wall. If you don't see Joe, just keep going. I'm not sure how Joe gained this status, but you'll see him on the walls of the great joints discussed here.

                                        For me, nothing compares to Mr. Beef. I was in town last week and went twice. I even managed to eat two sandwiches the first day. It's that good.

                                        -----
                                        Mr. Beef
                                        666 N Orleans St, Chicago, IL 60654