Serious Eats: Chicago
Standing Room Only: Italian Beef at Chickie's
Standing Room Only, in which the author visits Chicago's best seatless eateries. Have at it, Nick.
2839 S Pulaski Rd, Chicago IL 60623 (map); 773-277-2333
The Short Order: Succulent Italian beef with excellent green giardinera
Want Fries with That? Absolutely. About as good as fries get.
Want Ketchup? Available, but not necessary.
Last week I explored Jimmy's Red Hots, a perfect example of a Chicago hot dog stand, and so this time I figured I needed to examine the second pillar of seatless eateries in Chicago: The Italian beef stand. And though there are many outstanding examples, I figured Chickie's would be a good place to start. It shows that the Italian beef may be one of the few foods on earth that might actually require standing up. It is a spectacular mess.
For those that have never experienced this Chicago delicacy, an Italian beef is basically a thinly sliced roast beef sandwich that's stuffed onto an Italian roll. In many ways it resembles a French dip, except it's beefier, and more gloriously hedonistic. Instead of serving au jus politely on the side, the entire Italian beef is dunked into a vat of the roasting juices, making sure the flavor coats every square inch.
The sandwich is then topped with spicy blend of giardiniera and sweet peppers (if you like those things), and finally wrapped up tight to avoid spillage. The bun is always perilously close to disintegration, which means you need to bring your mouth to the food and not the other, more common, way around. Counters provide the logical eating top, allowing you to lean in, take a bite, and keep your shirt out of harm's way.
This truly messy sandwich is thus fairly easy for many people to dismiss as a greasy, overstuffed gut bomb. I know many people even in Chicago who are scared of them. But a properly made Italian beef is a true gastronomic wonder, perfectly tender, beefy, and puntucated with a spicy kick of peppers. One step into Chickie's should convert anyone.
Located on the far west side of Chicago, Chickie's has no seats inside. There are a few picnic tables outside which are spectacularly worthless during the winter, or on the 90 degree scorcher that I visited on. I took some pictures on the tables, and then retreated into the A/C of my car.
All the menu items are written out on a chalkboard. Though the $5.25 6" Italian beef will stuff most people, it's best to shell out $6.75 for the combo meal which includes fries and a can of soda.
Rather like Jimmy's Red Hots, Chickie's serves incredible fries. They are crispy on the outside and perfectly puffy and creamy on the inside. It's amazing how fresh french fries can taste. If these were available in the Loop, I'm sure people would stand in line specifically for them.
But Chickie's also makes a mean Italian beef. Like many other stands, they get their beef from the Scala company and serve them on Gonnella rolls. Chickie's treats the meat with care, slicing the beef paper-thin and seasoning it with a nice kick of black pepper.
What really sets Chickie's apart is the giardiniera, which is made with thinly sliced jalapenos, celery, and, I believe, just a touch of cabbage. The bright green topping makes for acidic, spicy, and crunchy counterpart to the mouthwatering sandwich. For a sandwich that looks unwieldy, it's remarkably balanced.
Chickie's is a neighborhood joint, meaning it's hard to get to unless you happen to live around there. I wish this place were a little closer to my apartment. But it's worth the drive for one of the best examples of an Italian beef in Chicago.