"It's not everyone's favorite beef, but it just happens to be mine."
Al's #1 Italian Beef
1079 W. Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-226-4017
The Short Order: The original Italian beef, in all its tender glory.
Want Fries with That? Perfect, skin-on, freshly fried spuds.
Want Ketchup? Want a smack in the face?
Al's #1 Italian Beef is fascinating for more reasons than just its food. When I first dreamed up the Standing Room Only column, the images I had flickering in my brain of restaurants without seats, where people ate unpretentious and delicious food, were of Al's. It's a perfect food stand.
Though there are many other worthy competitors, none look, feel, or taste like this one. No one else's Italian beef is so thinly sliced, haunted with as many spices (rumored to be clove and/or nutmeg), or served with a jus with such a strong beefy presence.
And, of course, if you're eating one of these amazing sandwiches in-house, you're absolutely standing up. This 72-year-old shrine of Chicago still doesn't have a single table or seat, unless you plan to eat it outside on the picnic table in January.
Even the children have their own special "children's counter."
Why no seats? Well, certainly it's safer to eat standing up. The Italian beef is a notoriously messy sandwich. You don't just worry about toppings spilling out because the sandwich is overstuffed—you have have to worry about the whole sandwich disintegrating before your eyes and unleashing a torrent of juices on your clothes.
You can choose your own level of mess. Sane people might get the sandwich "wet," which means you'd like some of the roasting juices from the beef to wet the inside of the bun. But the real way to go is "dipped." The whole sandwich gets dunked in a bath of pure beefy goodness.
I know it looks like a disaster, but the roasting juices, laced with spices, soak into the bread so every bite is full-flavored. The bread isn't just a device to carry the meat—it's just as crucial as the meat itself. The only reason this thing hasn't caught on elsewhere, especially in fast-food culture, is that it's impossible to eat while driving. Believe me, I've tried.
How do you eat an Al's Italian Beef? It's best to lay the sandwich on the counter, carefully lift it off the wrapper, and then lean into it. This will keep your shirt (relatively) clean and your concentration steady. Then you can begin to understand what makes this sandwich so unique.
The sandwich toppings are all about accentuating the beef. You can get it "sweet" which is a layer of roasted bell peppers. Some people like this but I find it too mushy. I always get it "hot," which is giardiniera made up of crunchy vegetables, lacquered in oil, and spiked with red pepper flakes. It's crisp, slightly acidic, and spicy. It's the perfect contrast to the tender sandwich.
Even the fries are freshly-cut and fried wonders, crisp on the outside and creamy in the middle. They aren't my favorite in the city, but they are solid rendition, and a perfect encapsulation about what makes Chicago stands such a delight to visit.
I've found a half-dozen other great Italian beefs around the city that I quite love. Chickie's and Pop's are two outstanding examples. But a recent visit to Al's reminded me why I fell in love with the sandwich in the first place. It's not everyone's favorite beef, but it just happens to be mine.