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Chicago Blues Cafe in San Leandro has Italian Beef Sandwiches

Took a ride on the first Slurpee day of the year over to the East Bay to try a newish little cafe, Chicago Blues, in San Leandro. They had been mentioned previously on the board as having Chicago-style hot dogs and BBQ. It is in a funky little building in the Palmas Plaza on E. 14th near a Popeye's, Starbucks, Walgreens and Ono Hawaiian BBQ place.

I want to be as fair to these guys as possible:

What they have:

1) Full Vienna Beef Brand Chicago food, quarter pound all beef Vienna Beef natural casing hot dogs prepared in the Chicago style- steamed dog on steamed poppy seed bun, green relish, tomato, onion, pickle spear, mustard, hot sport peppers. They give a choice of yellow or brown mustard. 4 bucks.

2) Maxwell St. Polish hot dogs, served with grilled onions or sauerkraut.

3) Vienna Beef Brand Italian Beef sandwich. Exactly as Melanie has described for the one served at Hot Dog City in Santa Rosa.


Long discussion about Italian Beef here:


Chicago Blues serves theirs with sweet red peppers and has giardiniera (hot pepper and vegetable mix) available at 50 cents extra. The menu says the sandwiches are served "dipped" which means they get dunked in the natural gravy/au jus. I always get mine on the side. Vienna Beef Italian Beef is sliced very thin.

They also have the Italian Beef and Sausage combo, which I ordered. Comes with a hot italian sausage. This version of Italian Beef is definitely standard Chicago style and properly prepared. Vienna Beef is not my favorite brand of Italian Beef, I like the jus to be a little beefier and the giardiniera to be a little spicier. I also prefer a mild sausage to a hot, sometimes mild italian sausage has more flavor than hot. Maybe 7.99 for the combo. Pricey, but it's a big sandwich.

4) BBQ- brisket, tri-tip, chicken and baby back ribs.

They we out of brisket and ribs when we went. So people don't go and then are disappointed, I'm gonna just describe the BBQ and you can decide if it is up your alley. This is meat that is heavily sauced. They have five sauces available, but you get once choice for your platter. They are called if I remember "traditional, southside, southside hot, chicago fire" and I can't remember the 5th. Most of the sauces tasted like straight ahead sweet midwestern BBQ sauce. I think the "southside" variations had more bite from vinegar, while the "chicago fire" had visible crushed red pepper in it. The try tip was labeled as "sliced" on the menu, but came as large chunks that fell apart with on the fork into shreds. The meats are all smoked for "16 hours" and had the consistency of being cooked in that fashion. The chicken was dry-ish but fell off the bone and the try tip was very tender and fell apart. There was no smoke taste in evidence. The primary seasoning evident under the sweetness of the sauce was black pepper. 1,2,3,4 meat plates available in lunch and dinner portions- dinner plate has two sides and a roll, lunch plates have one side and a roll. Didn't seem to offer BBQ meat sandwiches.

I thought the BBQ tasted very much like that at BBQ Man in Menlo Park. It is what it is, but is not liable to satisfy many of the tastes present on this board.

The sides are made in house, but I think are liable to disappoint. They have yams, potato salad, cole slaw and maybe mac and cheese. The yams were standard boiled yams with marshmallow topping. Cole slaw was standard.

5) Fries and onion rings and other things- these are not on the menu, but are on the take out menu. We ate outside and got some fries at the Popeye's next door. Our server mentioned they had fries and I pointed out that we saw this on their take out menu after the fact, and that it wasnt on their display menu.

6) Full coffee shop. I think this place must have just been a coffee shop before they added the kitchen/menu.

They were kind of busy when we went and service was definitely scattered as I think they don't have a lot of restaurant experience and are relatively new at it.

Some people will like their BBQ, I suspect that if you like sauce-on-the-side, thick smoke ring traditional BBQ, this isn't the BBQ you are looking.

All the Chicago stuff is prepared exactly as it should be with good quality Vienna Beef brand components shipped from Chicago. So if this is what you are jonesing for, or would like to try, this is a place to get it.

I want this place to stick around because you just can't get Italian Beefs in the Bay Area outside of the West Side Cafe (former Gumbah's) in Vallejo and Hot Dog City in Santa Rosa. Places not exactly close to South Bay/Peninsula.

Hot Dog City
631 4th St Ste 1, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

Hot Dog City - CLOSED, moved
804 Coddingtown Center, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Gumbah's Italian Beef (see West Side Cafe
)138 Tennessee St, Vallejo, CA 94590

Chicago Blues Cafe
13802 E 14th Street, San Leandro, CA

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  1. How did you feel they compared to West Side Cafe ... aka Gumbah's ... seriously, they need to keep the old name, I'll never remember the new one.

    Was it neon green relish or just regular green?

    4 Replies
    1. re: rworange

      Neon green- everything from Chicago- just straight Vienna Beef everything (except the buns, but likely the buns are from Chicago too- they are the appropriate poppy seed).

      I like the sausage better at Gumbah's- more flavor. Vienna Beef Italian Beef is strong on the italian seasoning (thyme, oregano etc) but Gumbah's is overseasoned. Gumbah's beef is more beefy and not sliced quite as super thin as Vienna Beef brand. It is possible that Gumbah's/West Side gravy/jus is just a tad bit more flavorful. I like it a little bit salty, closer to au jus, but many Chicago places it is thin on the beef flavor and just is a watery oily mix of Italian seasonings. FOr example the famous Portillos chain, their gravy/jus just has no taster to me.

      Gumbah's homemade giardiniera is spicier than the Vienna Beef mix (or other brand) that Chicago Blues uses. There is no way giardineira should be 50 cents extra, either. If I ran the place, I would also have a LARGE SIGN explaining what it is and why it is good- people do not know what these things are, or what to expect, because they haven't grown up with them, so you have to help them out. They both use the right bun. In terms of authenticity, I think they are about equal. Chicagoans would probably be more used to the super thin Vienna Beef mass produced product than the homemade Gumbah's. They are both on the pricey side, but I love my Italian Beef and Sausage combo, and 40 minutes is closer than 65!

      1. re: P. Punko

        Since were getting into the esoterica of proper beefs and combos, are the sausages chargrilled or fried? I'm looking for the crunchy bits on the ends that spell combo nirvane for me.

        You're right about Portillo's, great for dogs, not so much for the beef. I lived close enough to his original trailer growing up that we used to get 5 dogs for a dollar on a Saturday special, I don't think they've changed a bit in all this time. I can't say the beef was ever in the top 10 of all the stands I use to go to.

        1. re: Scrapironchef

          I really prefer the chargrilled sausage like you, but many places don't do it. The char works best at places where I think the beef is not too strong tasting and really becomes a vehicle for giardineira. Part of this comes from coming to Italian Beef from French Dips, you always think there should be more salty/beefy flavor, which is why I always get the combo- the sausage adds a lot of lfavor.

          Chicago Blues does not gril their sausages. They might grill their polish, though. My favorite Chicago style places do the traditional but offer a char option even on the hot dogs- I like to mix it up like that.

          1. re: Scrapironchef

            Any places around here that deep-fry a Polish?

      2. I haven't been into the Chicago Blues yet, so thanks for the report -- I'm amazed they have so much on the menu because the place is tiny. You are correct, it was a coffeehouse in a prior life. I lived in San Leandro nine years ago (and just returned in December) and it had just opened up. Nothing special but there was hardly even a Starbucks in SL in those days, so it seemed to do decent business. Then Palma Plaza, which was a very shabby little strip mall, burned down; the building that houses the Blues Cafe was apparently not damaged, since it looks much the same. The only other part of the original Palma Plaza to survive is the fabulous vintage neon palm tree sign out front.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Nina

          Hey thanks Nina- I was wondering why the sign for the strip mall looked so old school when everything in it was new!

          Chicago Blues still has all the coffee stuff and it was nice to see a bunch of people in there for coffee even with a Starbucks across the parking lot. I think they also do Italian sodas, because they did have Torani syrups on display.

        2. Thanks, Candus, we really appreciate your response, and we do know that you are trying- I think your customers will appreciate it.

          Just for your information, every place I have ever been for Italian Beef, including places in and out of Chicago, giardineira is a standard option ("hot or sweet" is the question asked- meaning sauteed sweet peppers or hot giardiniera is the choice)- also, a lot of people are not familiar with Chicago-style Italian beef or even what giardineira is, so if you could have some sort of sign explaining what those things are, I know you'll get some people to try it that have never had it before.

          As for the BBQ, I can tell you what a lot of people on this board really want to see from their BBQ- they can be deeply traditional, and therefore the flavor from the slow smoking is of primary importance to a lot of them, and they are probably expecting their sauce on the side, so it does not overpower the meat and the smoke can be appreciated. After this, of course, the meat being cooked long enough so it is tender is quite important. I am used to BBQ from all over the US, and am sometimes fine if it is swimmin' in sauce, because I like BBQ sauce, and your sauces were just fine, but this will be a minus to some people (I know there are traditions where the sauce is the star). The tri-tip was very tasty, and cooked just right, but not smoky at all, and not sliced like the menu stated. The chicken had clearly been cooked in a smoker, but was not smoky tasting, and was dry. This happens with chicken a lot, so it is not unexpected from most people, and what I would love is if you had sandwiches with BBQ meat- for example, you could do a pulled chicken sandwich that would be a way for your sauces to shine and dryness won't be a problem.

          We'll be back because we love our Italian beef, and we still need to try your fries.

          2 Replies
          1. re: P. Punko

            Just a few facts I learned about

            - They use the Vienna Brand Poppyseed Bun from Chicago
            - They started making Chicago Style Deep Dish Pizza
            - Both Italian Sausage and our Polish Sausages are grilled
            - The Palma Plaza sign is actually a replica - they accidentally tore down the original, and the City forced them to build a new one.
            - BBQ sides are made "in house"

            1. re: rworange

              Thanks RW- you know you are my chowhound hero.

              I also learned that the reason the fries/rings/etc. aren't on the main menu is that they just added those last week. I hope they'll be on the menu soon.

          2. PS. Downhill alert on BBQ Man in Menlo Park. The sign now reads "BBQ" (the man has been removed) and the owner appears to be a very slim and trim asian woman (I saw her write a check out of the business account, dealing with some vendor) - BBQ Man was rather large and white.

            I had a brisket sandwich and it tasted like minute steak with a decent sauce - BBQ that ain't! The quirky touch of a slice of vidalia onion is no more. I will likely give it one more try, but... you've been warned.

            And yes, this message has nothing to do with Chicago or Italian sausage, but the OP did mention BBQ Man, and I just had this experience a few days ago.

            2 Replies
            1. re: bbulkow

              Well that is a bummer. I tried them once, for my birthday curse three years ago (I feel like great BBQ and get not so good).

              To reiterate, I thought Chicago Blues tasted like BBQ Man used to- lots of sauce, no smoke, but meat reasonably tender and definitely slow cooked. The "man" was on the sign as of a couple of weeks ago, so it must have been pretty recent. The place has looked nice and kept up. Even if they are not for me, I don't like to see places go downhill. I think I will try them again, maybe for lunch or something.

              1. re: bbulkow

                You might want to post that in a topic without "San Leandro" in the title!

              2. Visited last week for the Italian Beef. Being from Chicago I really miss it and, when visiting LA, have landed at Burbank Airport, gotten my rental, and immediately driven to Buena Park to visit Portillos. (the drive sometimes takes as long as the flight.....)
                In any case, I would call Chicago Blues Italian Beef a success. I did ask for giardiniera since I am used to stating my IB preferences upfront, and I get the sense that I would not have gotten it if i did not ask. Now my personal opinion is that, either giardiniera or sweet peppers are a critical component of this sandwich. If you are not familiar with the sandwich, you might be thinking, "hey whats the big deal, meat on a bun". I really want this place to work (I recall the late lamented ChiDog and their successful edition of IB) so I would have 2 suggestions. It should be made very, very clear that giardiniera or peppers are a part of the options here. Two, on round 2 (uh yes, i had 2) I asked for it dipped as the first round did not have enough juice on it. This, as well, is highly important to sandwich success.

                So, I REALLY hope this place makes it, as I would love a regular Italian Beef stop. Even though the location is not convenient for me, its worth it......

                1 Reply
                1. re: tomritza

                  Thanks tom, for the response. I specifically tried to let the owner know that people don't know what giandineira is, and offering on the side for 50 cents more, no one will know about it. Italian Beef is a thing that you just want to have around, like "in case of emergency, break glass for Italian Beef"

                2. I just returned from here and here's my take. It's CASH only people..no credit no debit.
                  After going about 4 years w/o a Vienna hot dog I can say I was satisfied. I got the Works which is everything. To feel that crunch when you bite in to it..it was wonderful. The bun could've been a little more steamed. I didn't detect any celery salt either. The tomato slices could be a bit thinner..it made it hard to get your mouth around it. They asked me what kind of mustard I wanted..umm..plain yellow mustard please.

                  The Italian beef was good. They do dip it but not enough for my taste. The beef seemed a bit on the dry side. I don't know if they have the beef sitting in the juice(it seems that they don't) but it could use more juice. I asked for hot giardiniera & they put just enough on it. Overall it was worth the trip down there just to taste that giardiniera.

                  Onion rings were good but a bit salty..they don't need to be sprinkled with salt. It was nice to eat a real onion ring made w/ real onions.

                  My daughter was disappointed with the chili cheese dog only because they put shredded cheese on it & not melted like she remembers.

                  Other things on the menu include some thin crust pizza, rib dinners, a couple of kids items, pizza puffs.etc.
                  Extensive drink/coffee list like mentioned before. Some items were crossed off the menu..pulled pork, some breakfast( they have stuff like crepes & pancakes) & drink items. They maybe trying to do too much before perfecting other things.

                  Service..well..they're kids so service was slow & innattentive. The one guy who took our order was talking on his cell phone while making my daughter's drink and some guy came in & waited for about 2-3 minutes before walking out. And the kid still never looked up. Note to owners: do not let your counter staff use their cell phones while they are on the job. It was just really rude & bad service. You lost one customer & possibly more from his word of mouth advertising. It was not busy when we were there..nobody before us & there was one guy waiting after us so service could have been faster.

                  They need to explain what hot giardiniera is. It's nowhere on the menu. I will definitely go back. I've already told my fellow Chicagoans at my work about this place. LIke every new place they need to work on some kinks. Maybe scaling back on that drink list so that food can be prepared faster & the service is not stuck making coffee drinks while ignoring customers.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: sugarbuzz

                    So glad to hear these reports! It's on our list to get out there some Saturday (much more economical than mail ordering portillo's or vienna beef)

                  2. Today's San Leandro Times reports that the cafe owner is having some issues with the city. Apparently their original permit doesn't allow them to cook on the premises or have live music.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Nina

                      I tried this place today and I can confirm Nina's post - I heard the owner and his wife talking about it! They seemed pretty optimistic about it all working out, and in fact are in the midst of some improvements on the property. The owner is from Chicago (his wife isn't) and they're very nice people. The menu is authentic enough that only a Chicagoan would have designed it, though in Chicago you'd never see all the different specialties in the same restaurant.

                      As for the Italian beef, it's pretty damn authentic. I don't know if it was a Gonnella roll but it tasted like one, and the beef had the peculiar umami of a real Italian beef. The giardiniera could have been a little hotter but it was fine, and the juice (always on the side for me) was nicely spiced and rich. Waffle-cut fries are definitely not orthodox, but they were quite good. All in all it more than fit the bill for a fix that's been hard to find in the Bay Area.

                      I live in Burlingame so this is a hike for me unless I happen to be in the area, but I'll certainly swing by when I am and sample the Polish. Incidentally I'd never been to San Leandro before, and if you ignored the distant hills it looks rather like the South Side...

                      1. re: Deeg67

                        Deeg..I had that same exact thought about it looking like the South Side.

                        I left a comment on the San Leandro times site & encourage others to do so as well. SL has long been known to be tough on independent business owners. I really would like this place to succeed..not just because I need an italian beef fix but because there really is nothing else like it around here.


                        1. re: sugarbuzz

                          Story at San Leandro Times link (to their blog, where you can leave comments)


                          1. re: sugarbuzz

                            I don't think San Leandro's less business-friendly than most California cities. Most of the codes (like exit doors opening out) are state laws or local laws that follow state models. All restaurant and catering kitchens have to meet certain conditions. I don't think any city allows live music without a cabaret permit.

                            The cafe operator sounds like he's making trouble for himself, getting permits for one thing and then doing another.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              I have to agree with RL after reading the story. I've been through the planning, permit, inspection and approval process. it may be maddening but it can be done. Trying to shortcut cut it will only tick off the bureaucrats who don't take kindly to being messed with and have no incentive to let you endanger the public with a substandard kitchen. Work with them and treat them like human beings instead of an enemy and you'd be surprised at how helpful they become.

                              As a beef lover, I'm on the owner's side, I hope he can get his act together.

                      2. I got to stop by and try the Italian Beef today. Because after reading this thread, I just had to.

                        I have actually never had a Chicago-style Italian beef before, so I can't compare it to anything, but I really liked it. The beef had an almost sausage-like taste I liked (not like roast beef), the bun was good, the dip and seasoning added some flavor. They could have been a little more generous with the giardinera, but today, it was definitely spicy enough...I have a high spice tolerance and my lips were burning by the end! Maybe it had some of those "sport peppers" they put on Chicago dogs that tend to be really hot. $8 w/tax seems a bit pricy, but I think it's fair for both size and quality of sandwich.

                        Based on that I have no doubt the rest of their Chicago specialties are "authentic". Their dessert case has cheesecake which looks like Eli's...I should have asked!

                        I'm surprised nobody has tried to open a Chicago food joint in SF, but I'd love to see these guys on an anonymous blue-collar street in San Leandro develop a huge following for offering something almost impossible to find in the Bay Area.

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Agent 510

                          There's at least one Chicago place in San Francisco (not counting Little Star, Patxi's, and Morton's)

                          Moishe's Pippic
                          425 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102

                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                            I'm not sure Moishe's Friday only Brisket Sandwich is quite what the above folks are talking about.

                            1. re: wolfe

                              There's more Chicago stuff there than that.

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston


                                If I read the poster correctly, they are referring to an Italian Beef/Chicago Hot Dog kind of place, that maybe also has gyros or calzones. Some of the local Chicago places are grab bags like that. Kind of like Gumbah's/West Side Cafe in Vallejo. I know there used to be a place in Santa Clara I think (Chowhound tells me it was good but they lost there lease or something in 03).

                                1. re: P. Punko

                                  I was replying to the somewhat vaguer, "I'm surprised nobody has tried to open a Chicago food joint in SF."

                        2. Don't forget you can get Vienna Beef hot dogs and italian beef as well as other Chicago products (and Chicago decor) at Moishe's Pippic (a Jewish deli) in Hayes Valley in SF. You can even buy Vienna Beef hot dogs to take home, although a bit pricey by the pound. Check this place out...great service and great food to satisfy your Chicago jones.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: cassyblue

                            Funny thing is the Moshe's folks are not from Chicago and never tasted the real stuff. They heard enough people longing for the Chicago thing that they decided to meet that need. As a 100% from the city limits Chicago guy ---this is key: many who say they are from Chicago are actually from suburbs 50+ miles from the city center (it is the midwest after all; lots of acreage), Moishe's is only about 30% authentic Chicago style, but I'll give them points for the effort and am a regular. A place called Portillo's (which I never heard of back home but have ordered from via mail) is very good and now franchising nationwide in places like FLA, Arizona and SoCal (all Chicago transplant hubs) and I have tried to talk friends into joining me to bring one to SF, but they doubt the demand would be there. Plus, I'd only do it in the City and that will increase the break-even nut. Any rich Chowhounds wanna take a risk this is a reasonable one. Portillo's folks are authentic and do the whole menu of Chicago faves.

                            1. re: NoeMan

                              Well, if you are ever passing through Vacaville, there's a new Chicago Deli there ... of all places ... and the family says they are from Chicago

                              1. re: rworange

                                Looks good. Thanks for the heads up. One note, you'd never see Italian sausage with cheese and marinara suace in Chi-town, but the combo sounds right, and again, points for effort. I wonder if they're sourcing the beef and sauage from Chicago (like the Hot Dogs). Chicasgo Italian sausage tastes different from Italian sausage in North Beach or New York, but simlar to Boston's. Must be due to the hometowns of the Italians that settled in each city.

                                1. re: NoeMan

                                  The site says they are using Vienna dogs and they are approved by that company as a vendor.Don't know about the sausages. From what I gather, the buns are made for them by a local bakery.

                          2. I just happened to stop by this little corner hut and ordered "The Works", a Chicago-style dog with a pickle spear, chopped onions, spicy mustard, neon green relish, celery salt, sport peppers and tomato slices. All I can say is that I haven't had a great hot dog in the Bay Area like this since I've moved here over 10 years ago. If you are from Chicago or have tried a real Chicago dog, this is as authentic as it gets. The Vienna beef dog has that pop when you bite into it and the toppings were all placed in the proper proportion. The fries were nice and crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The owner said he uses rice oil to fry them.

                            I'm going back to try the Italian sausage sandwiches and Italian beef sandwiches next. This place does justice to Chicago dive food just as The Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City does justice to New England lobster pounds. Now I just need to find an Italian restaurant like the ones I frequented in Boston's North End.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: rhing

                              San Leandro, right? Glad to hear the place is still around after the permit issues. Will have to try those fries.

                            2. I stopped by today on my way home. They've really cut back the menu. dogs, polish, beef, pizza, sides..that's about it...although there was no pizza. The waitress said they'd have it next week. No breakfast menu anymore, no drinks! they were making smoothies last time I was there.
                              I don't know if it had to do with their electrical problems Their register was down & everything was added up w/ a calc. Cash only because of it. It also took about 20 minutes to get 1 beef sandwich & 1 plain hot dog & some onion rings. The beef is still good..although it seemed a bit on the dry side. I had it dipped but I think they could let the beef sit in the juice as well.

                              I almost thought it was closed when I drove up. It looked really bare bones. I'm thinking they're losing money and scaling it back to the basics. I mean ..if you can't afford to supply you're own bags & are using Wal mart plastic bags to put orders in..well, I dunno.

                              I'm hoping they can get their stuff sorted out because I really feel they could make it. The just chose the wrong location.
                              If my credit weren't so screwed I'd open up my own Chicago style place.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: sugarbuzz

                                Stopped by today and had a hot dog with everything, fries and a (canned) soda, $7.77 out the door. The only other customers were a family eating BBQ at noon on a Thursday, no cash register, a non working soft serve machine, no pizza and a few other items crossed off the menu.

                                The dog was good, the waffle cut fries (from a freezer bag) were fine, but there wasn't enough business to keep this place alive and it showed.

                              2. SFGate reports that the cafe was sideswiped by a car at lunchtime today; one person is dead and one badly injured; it is not clear whether they were customers or passengers in the car. The building has been damaged.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Nina

                                  Recently, there was a car crash at Chicago Blues Cafe, nobody at the cafe was injured or killed. However, one of the passengers did indeed die as a result of the crash. I would like to reiterate that Chicago Blues is NOT closing down! We plan to stick around.

                                  I would also like to say that there have been some recent changes to the menu because the landlord does not want us competing with our neighbors in the plaza: Starbuck's, Quiznos, and Popeye's. However, we still have all of our Chicago Items on the menu.

                                  Thank you,
                                  Chicago Blues Cafe

                                  1. re: chicagoblues

                                    I'm so glad to hear that! The pics in the Chron looked not so good. I guess Chowhound took down my link to the story for whatever reason.

                                    I hope you guys make it. Why anyone would go to a Popeye's instead is beyond me. I really was not looking forward to losing my beef sandwiches.

                                    1. re: chicagoblues

                                      Terrific news. Congrats and see you soon.