The Winners!#1: Portillo's
7500 West North Avenue, Elmwood Park, IL 60707 (map); (708) 452-6000
When Italian-Americans in Chicago were looking for ways to make the cheapest cuts of meat more palatable, I think it's safe to assume that creating one of the city's iconic foods was not on their list of priorities.
But when someone figured out in the 1920s or '30s that you could make tough meat—like top sirloin or top or bottom round—much easier to eat by seasoning and roasting it before slicing it, and soaking it in a warm pool of beef broth/gravy, that culinary pioneer stumbled upon Italian Beef, the moderately seasoned tender meat that forms the heart of an absolutely sensational sandwich.
While there is plenty of incremental variety in the world of Italian Beef, there are fundamental themes to the sandwich from which few deviate.
The meat can be served plain or topped with sweet roasted peppers or hot peppers in the form of giardiniera, an oil-based spicy vegetable mixture. The bread is a soft chewy roll, frequently made by Gonnella, that almost seems designed to soak up juice, a quality that allows diners to request their sandwich to be dipped in the beef gravy that the meat sits after being sliced.
I set out to sample 11 different Italian Beefs with three friends. We came with eager stomachs and a fairly wide array of experience. I've been eating the sandwiches for at least 25 years. Another eater, an Evanston native, estimates he had his first in 1995. And the other two, including Nick Kindelsperger, had their first Italian Beefs in 2009. At each stop, we each ate about three inches of a sandwich, each of which was topped with giardiniera and dipped in the thin gravy.
Our goal wasn't to crown the best Italian Beef in the city—that cannot be done in just one day. But we did hit a number of the better-known spots and put together the most extensive documented one-day study since the LTH Beefathon of 2006.
In under six hours, we sampled sandwiches at 11 places: Joe Boston's, Mr. Beef, Portillo's, Al's Beef (franchise), Al's Beef (original), The Patio, Chickie's Beef, Scatchell's, Freddy's, Johnnie's, and Connie's. Here's the map »
At the end of the day, we used preferential ballots to rank our sandwiches, with each first place vote worth 11 points, second place worth 10 points, etc.
10. Mr. Beef
9. Freddy's Pizza & Gelateria
7. Al's #1 Italian Beef (franchise)
4. The Patio
3. Johnnie's Beef
2. Al's #1 Italian Beef (original)
And the Winner... Portillo's Hot Dogs
To say I was shocked at the result would be a massive understatement. Portillo's is a chain that supplies pre-cooked beef and gravy to each location. If someone had asked me when the day began where I expected Portillo's to finish, I would have said somewhere in the middle of the pack at best. And while I disagree with the group's decision as I, along with Nick, had Al's ranked first, let me be absolutely clear: this sandwich had no flaws.
The bread, from Turano instead of Gonnella, was soft, had a nice bit of chew, and held together despite having been dunked in a tub of gravy. The giardiniera was a well-balanced crunchy blend of jalapenos, carrots and celery that had enough heat to make you notice but not so much that it covered up the beefiness. And most importantly, the thinly sliced meat was delicious and wonderfully tender.
See all the results from worst to first in the slideshow above » If you want even more Italian Beef porn, take a look at this site and this one. And keep in mind that even a mediocre Italian Beef sandwich is a thoroughly delicious treat that deserves to be an American classic.