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ITALIAN BEEF - THE TRUE CHICAGO FOOD

Anyone else tired of the "Chicago Dog" or "Deep-Dish' being the trademark chicago food? Both items have long been available outside of the city. Italian beef on the other hand it truly unique to chicago.

After extensive uh, research, I've conclude that Chickies is the best beef in town. Can anyone argue for another?

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  1. I have to agree with you, I am also tired of the pan pizza(especially Giordano's), & hot dog(especially Hot Doug's) city tag. You can get better pizza, and decent hot dogs pretty much anywhere in the country. But a good Italian Beef sandwich cannot be found outside of the Chicagoland area.

    I am a Johnnies in Elmwood Park fan myself.

    1. I agree that it is certainly unique to Chicago. My favorite is Al's on Taylor.

      Although as a child, we'd gorge on "cheesy, juicy beefs" from Byrons. Now I'm more of a traditionalist.

      1 Reply
      1. re: lbs

        For a beef w/ hot giardiniera, my fave is Tore's on Diversey/Elston/Western.
        For a combo, then Johnnie's gets my vote.
        Note: If I could pair Johnnie's char grilled snausage with a beef w/ hot from Tore's, then the perfect combo would exist.

      2. Italian Beef is probably Chicago's greatest contribution to humanity. Now I have not tired of deep dish or hot dogs (though I never really got the Hot Doug phenomenon), but a combo with hot giardiniera and cheese is a force to be reckoned with. I don't understand why they haven't taken off like the French dip, Philly cheesesteak, weak competitors imho.

        11 Replies
        1. re: JungMann

          I am also a big fan of the combo.

          However I am a big fan of a Philly Cheese steak as well. I put them on even ground with the Italian Beef sandwich, or the Combo. The French dip I can do without.

          1. re: swsidejim

            I like the Philly cheesesteak, but I think the spices and flavor in the Italian sausage and jus of a combo really elevate it far above the cheesesteak even with all its cheezwhizy goodness.

            1. re: JungMann

              Perhaps that is the difference, I do not get a Philly with Whiz, but with white American.

              Either way a sandwich overflowing with beef, and hot peppers is about as good as it gets in my eyes.

          2. re: JungMann

            Cheese???? What self-respecting italian beef eater gets it with CHEESE?

              1. re: JungMann

                While we Chicagoans have some unique combinations that we love (cheese/caramel popcorn -- Garretts, please), there are certain things we are purists about.

                Never, ever put ketchup on a hot dog (neon piccalilli is de rigeur) and Italian beef gets nothin' but juice and peppers -- hot, sweet, whatever you like -- but no cheese. There may be others, but that's what comes immediately to mind.

                Now, if you want to eat those things in that unnatural fashion, you are welcome to do so of course, but keep it to yourself or do it outside the Greater Chicagoland area. :>)

                1. re: chicgail

                  Right on, Gail. I'll sometimes get an Italian beef from Ronny's on Lake Street (home of the $5.99 steak, but their beefs are awesome), and for some reason they ask if you want cheese on it (which I'll never get). I try to beat them to the punch by not waiting for the question ("Italian beef, extra giardinere, NO cheese").

                  I thought of the ketchup on hot dogs taboo too. Sacrilege!

                  1. re: chicgail

                    I agree with the no cheese on a IB sandwich sentiment, I have mine with extra hot peppers.

                    I am just curious why some places that offer an IB, offer a "cheesy beef"? catering to tourists, or Wisconsinites possible. ;-)

                    1. re: swsidejim

                      I think the predominantly African-American patrons (and workers) at Ronny's is the reason for the "cheesy beef." I don't think it's a tourist/Wisconsinite spot, per se, although I will recommend the place for an Italian beef for out-of-towners who need one last "Chicago experience" before hopping on the blue line to O'Hare.

                    2. re: chicgail

                      Actually, come to think of it, I never have cheese on a beef unless I'm making it myself (usually out of state). In Chicago, cheese never seems to be an option on the toppings list! I never noticed, but still, while I respect the great traditions of Chicago foodways, I am content to be the Galileo envisioning a cheese-filled truth!

                      1. re: chicgail

                        I want chicgail by my side the next time I see someone disfigure a damn hot dog with ketchup!!! Hold me BACK!!

                        In fact, I would go so far as to say that the dreaded K condiment doesn't even belong on fries, *especially* fresh hand cut ones like at Gene & Jude's or Al's Beef.

                        As to Cheese? Like a Cheesy beef on garlic at Zippy's....uh no, I dont think so!

                2. Thanks for your responses so far. Johnnies absolutely has the best sausage. But for beef Chickies is just about untouchable. Can we start a campaign to have Mr. Beef change their hot peppers? There is no hot, and almost no peppers. I love Mr. Beef, but the peppers are lacking.
                  (Note: When talking italian beef, please do not even mention cheese. You are labeling yourself as a novice.)

                  16 Replies
                  1. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                    Doogie Houndser M.D. -

                    Mr CF and I will be in Chicago next week and we're gonna need lunch(es) while we're there. I want to try Al's - I can walk there - unless there's a better place for Italian Beef near the Sheraton...

                    So I don't look like a novice (or at least not any goofier than usual) how do you order one of these?

                    TIA!

                    1. re: Cookiefiend

                      The best Italian beefs are in the neighborhoods, altho some people do like the downtown versions (Mr. Beef, for instance). Another possibility, nearer the Sheraton, is Portillo's which, at least in the past, has produced a reasonable version of both beef and Chicago-style dogs:

                      Portillo's
                      100 W. Ontario St.

                      1. re: jbw

                        Okay, we're Chowhounders from Berlin, and we are staying at the Sofitel Watertower- are any of these places near there? Open on Sunday?

                        Also, is it worth the one hour wait time at Giordanos or would our time be better spent making our way out to the neighborhoods to find Italian Beef?

                        1. re: desylicious

                          Giordano's isnt worth waiting, or being seated right away. Many better options.

                          1. re: desylicious

                            Personally, I think there are much better pizzas than Giordanos, and I'd MUCH rather have a good beef. But, you should also know that you'd only have to wait for an hour if you chose to not call ahead, and order before you arrived.

                            1. re: desylicious

                              Personally I would make my way for beef. Mr. Beef is open on Sundays. You could always have a Deep Dish delivered to your hotel room. That way you won't have to wait, and can still try the pie.

                              1. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                                We skipped the pizza and stopped at Portillo's on our way to the airport (passing an Al's half a block away). We didn't get around to eating until the airport lounge but it was still warm. OMG, was it good. The pickled carrots and cauliflower were an amazing counterpoint to the juicy beef melding into the soft roll. It may not be the best Italian beef in town, but it was fantastic. This is coming from a die hard Philly Whiz-wit' girl.

                                I GET IT. And I loved Chicago. Totally different from Berlin, but easily one of my favorite cities in the world.

                                1. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                                  Just wanted to make a note that Mr. Beef is NOT open on Sundays. We went today based on this thread to find out that they are only open Mon - Sat. We ended up going to Portillos instead and had an enjoyable meal of Italian Beef though :-) thanks.

                                1. re: chitwngrl

                                  who?

                                  cookiefiend or desylicious?

                                  I'm in on Tuesday - can't wait!

                              2. re: Cookiefiend

                                From the sheraton your best bet is either Portillo's or Mr. Beef. Mr. Beef only a bit further away, but worth the treck. (Huron and Orleans) Here is how I order a beef:
                                "Beef, hot."

                                Other options include words like: sweet (you will get sweet bell peppers instead of hot), wet or dipped (the sandwich will be extra juicy. I choose not to order this way because I believe a sandwich is juicy enough without addtional "wetness") Hope this helps.

                                1. re: Cookiefiend

                                  For Pizza
                                  Make it easy on yourself- Order it to go- and catch a cab to millenium park- and eat it ouside- Or have em' deliver to the hotel

                                2. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                                  Mr. Beef is Gods gift to the Chicagoan. Chickies is spectacular but they miss on conisistency. Mr. is great all of the time and with their late night hours on the weekends and easy to get to location (right off the Brown line or what I like to call the "Beef Line") they get the overall #1 for me. I will agree though that Chickies on a good day is sublime.

                                  1. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                                    I have to agree with Doogie. My one and only Italian beef sandwich experience was a combo at Mr. Beef, and while it was OK, it didn't blow me away. And the pepper/oil mix was 90 percent oil and not spicy in the least. I thought I was missing the point. I'll have to try Chickies or one of the others next time I'm in town.

                                    1. re: Doogie Houndser M.D.

                                      Dear Doogie-
                                      First- Bring a bib- or a tee-shirt you can wear that you don't care about then:

                                      Belly up to the bar- and say beef juicy plus sweet-hot on the side. And if they have it- Large Italian ice Lemon.

                                      Bring a camera- You'll want to record the moment

                                    2. I know I'm chiming in late on this; but I will render my humble opinion nonetheless!

                                      In my book, beef-liness is next to Godliness...

                                      While a Philly cheesesteak is an amazing sandwich, its much less challenging to make perfect. Beef on the other hand has the added complexity of making a great gravy to with it, and then add in a great sausage for the combos too? Fahget about it!! No contest, Chicago Italian beef wins hands down.

                                      That's another reason why you see Chicago hot dogs and frozen pizza's (IMO no one outside of Chicagoland makes deep dish worth a crap) out in the wild, they are much less complex.

                                      Best beefs:

                                      1) Al's on Taylor
                                      2) Johnnies in Elmwood Park (best sausage)
                                      3) Big Jack's in Round Lake Park (yeah SURPRISED? Seriously, it's that good!)
                                      4) Mr Beef on Orleans
                                      in at a distant 5) Portillos... if I must, it's still the best big chain though.

                                      swsidejim, we really need to get together and eat our way around town sometime; beefs, BBQ, dawgs, pizza & steaks!!

                                      16 Replies
                                        1. re: chicgail

                                          : )
                                          I think there's allot of love in this room right now!

                                        2. re: abf005

                                          name the time abf, I will set some $$ aside

                                          BTW, I went to a place called Chucks Southern Comforts down in Burbank, and had their ribs yesterday, they claimed to have the "best ribs in Chicagoland" on their website.. not even close..., the hot link, and the mac and cheese were good though.

                                          1. re: abf005

                                            "While a Philly cheesesteak is an amazing sandwich, its much less challenging to make perfect. Beef on the other hand has the added complexity of making a great gravy to with it, and then add in a great sausage for the combos too? Fahget about it!! No contest, Chicago Italian beef wins hands down."

                                            Not if you think bread is an important component to a sandwich, rather than just a vehicle (In Philly they care about the bread--of course, there's that cheez whiz, altho it is "kosher" to substitute Fontina.) Anyway, it's almost apples v. oranges; or maybe hamburger v. meat loaf. Enjoy them both for what they are.

                                            1. re: jbw

                                              If you talk to the owners that serve the best beefs in Chicago, I think you'll find that these guys hyper obsess about just how fresh the bread is, and where they get it. Reason; stale or thin bread doesn't dip right and gets soggy instantly.

                                              I went to a place that recently opened in Gurnee called Old Chicago Red Hots. I asked the new owner what the best thing on the menu was, and he starts to boast that's its his beef, well enough said, I ordered it up! THEY TOASTED the frigging bread, slapped in the thick cut, overcooked tough meat and then dipped my dry toast sandwich in the gravy!!! I ended up with a paper wrapper full of mush!!! I wanted to scream.

                                              Moral; ANYONE can make a horrible beef, but only a few make great ones, thus another added layer of complexity lies in using only the freshest ingredients, which is why places with low volume and slow turn on product cant seem to turn out great beefs.

                                              Now don't get me wrong; I LOVE my Philly cheesesteaks too, and totally respect them as one of the best sandwich creations on the planet earth...but only after an Italian beef of course!

                                              1. re: abf005

                                                There are only two types of bread to which an Italian Beef can be served on. The first and most preferred is Gonnella. The second brand is Torranto. That's it.

                                                1. re: foodcoma24

                                                  Torano.

                                                  Tor[r]anto is in Canada.

                                                  That aside, you're absolutely correct.

                                                  1. re: chicgail

                                                    Lol - are you both wrong? (yet also correct)

                                                    Turano.

                                                    And there is no letter a in that city in Canada.

                                                    1. re: gordeaux

                                                      I have total egg on my face. Thanks for correcting that gordeaux.

                                                      1. re: chicgail

                                                        Thank you all for your gramatical assistance

                                                  2. re: foodcoma24

                                                    I agree, there are primarly two prefered bakery's for beefs.

                                                    And since a genuine Philly should be served only on a Amoroso roll... that means A Chicago Itialian beef has twice the complexity of a Philly!! ;)

                                                    1. re: abf005

                                                      . . . or Vilotti-Pisanelli/D'Ambrosio or Sarkony's or the Mom-and-Pop bakery down the street that's been making rolls for the stand for the last 50 years. I really don't think it comes down to whether you like Amoroso's bread better than Turano's, but rather that the bread has always been an essential component of a steak sandwich and that special care given to this element is an absolute necessity. When Pat's switched from Amoroso's to V-P, it was considered a newsworthy item.

                                                      Note this from Mark Glicksman, "The Foods of Philadelphia" (on bigmap.co):

                                                      "Out of South Philadelphia have come the sandwiches that I consider Philadelphia's greatest contribution to the culinary arts. What makes them so special? The answer is simple - it's the rolls! Deep within South Philadelphia are bakeries whose hearths yield Italian rolls of unspeakable perfection. Their crust has a medium texture, midway between the hard crust of a baguette and the wimpy crust of a packaged supermarket roll. And, the interior is soft, with a wonderful yeasty taste.
                                                      These long rolls are the essential and irreplaceable ingredient of a true Philadelphia sandwich."

                                                      As much as I like Italian beef, I've never heard a similar claim made for Chicago's great sandwich.

                                                      1. re: jbw

                                                        Damn jbw! Very well stated!! You sure make a convincing case! And I withdraw my statement regarding the bread
                                                        .
                                                        But… I still contend, Cheesesteaks are not a more complex sandwich to make over Chicago Italian Beefs, not as far as the pre prep goes anyway time factors. Here is why, if I assume your contention that the bread (which is made by bakeries/suppliers) separate of the serving establishment is the key, then the place that is doing the chopping, frying/steaming and whizzing up of those delectable cheesesteaks, says to me that the “in house” complexity factor is significantly less. In other words, if I buy the right bread from the right guys, I’m halfway there. While on the other hand, all the best Beefs in Chicago slow roast and cook the meat and make everything in-house.

                                                        So… true enough, the main essence of a Chicago beef is really in the meat and gravy and not the bread; the gravy has to have right combination of quality oils, fats, spices and seasonings, subtle and distinct but never overpowering or rank. Getting that extra fraction of additional tenderness and flavor from fresh shaving the beef with a perfect deli cut which is so important, and cooking it tender to begin with! Throw in the whole added dynamic of the balanced spicy giardinare, and it distinct properties are akin to debating about the best pico de gayo and salsa’s.

                                                        For those “SERIOUS about beef, this blog is “must read” field guide for Italian beefs: http://www.skilletdoux.com/2006/12/th...

                                                        Don’t get me wrong, I truly love Philly cheesesteaks, and have only had the pleasure of enjoying them in Philly on one occasion. Here at home though, I've never found a place that did them the way they do them out there. That being said, I choose Philly's Best on Belmont as my "go-to" place for them. So please tell me, where do you go in all of Chicagoland to get what you’d consider the best one??

                                                        1. re: abf005

                                                          I don't disagree with anything you say here abf005, although I think "complexity" is more of a descriptive rather than qualitative distinction. (To my mind there's nothing better than a perfect omelette, which is basically composed of eggs, butter, a Tbsn of water and a pinch of salt--it's all in the technique and the quality of the ingredients) . As you indicate, there's also a bit more technique involved in cooking (rather than pre-prepping) the meat for a steak which can also factor into the equation.

                                                          Fortunately I travel to Philly enough times (family) to satisfy my cravings there, and for the same reason I've never sought deep-dish pizza elsewhere than Chicago, I've only attempted steak sandwiches on its true turf. I've had enough disappointments in my life than to do otherwise.

                                                          As far as Italian beef is concerned Johnnies is the king in my book altho I'm often tempted by Al's when I'm in the Taylor Street area..

                                              2. re: abf005

                                                Johnnie's also opened a place in Arlington Height- About 400 yds South of Golf Rd. on Arlington Heights Rd. It took over a defunct Mr Beef (I think) and it's open 7 days a week- More places to sit than the original- cleaner- and I hate to say this- More consistenly good- The last two trips to Elmwood Pk yielded stringy chewy beef... It Broke My Heart If you're serious about wanting beef take the Metra train to Arlington Heights station- (Not Arlington PK) catch a taxi and go south on Arlington heights road about..3 miles TRUST ME... IT IS WORTH THE EFFORT

                                                1. re: chitwngrl

                                                  The Johnnies is Arlington Hts has a grease problem. Although the sandwich is tasty, it is just too greasy. Notice "greasy" not "juicy." There is an important difference. However, when out in the burbs, it is a fine choice. Go for the combo on that one.