Should I feel bad that the best Italian beef I tried was also the very first one I tried on my quest? Bari just set the bar too high, managing to pair exceptionally tender and juicy slices of beef with a full-flavored gravy. Of course, it helped that everything was housed in a structurally sound roll, which was softer than the standard one used for most of the Italian beefs in Chicago, but still strong enough to avoid premature collapse from all the wet ingredients. Honestly, this is the only one to give Al's #1 and Johnnie's a run for top Italian beef in Chicago.
#2: Riviera Italian Imported Foods
Coming in a close second was the beef from this much-loved Italian deli on the far West Side. Riveria is best known for Will's Special, a strange and spicy sandwich created by a frequent customer, so I knew the deli had the chops to serve a good version. And I knew it would as I watched the man behind the counter pull out a gloriously red hunk of beef from a case and shave it thinly. This is the most manageable Italian beef I tried, which only works when the quality of the meat is so high. I also liked the slender and flaky roll.
#3: Nottoli Italian Foods
If you're looking for a beef that is completely and utterly out of control, look no further than Nottoli Italian Foods. The beef was screaming rare, even holding on to some of its red color after a dip in gravy, which explained the great texture. Some particularly funky giardiniera also helped set this gut-busting option apart. I even liked the bread, even if it was soaked to its core.
#4: Frannie's in Schiller Park
Heads up to commenter, RealMenJulienne, for pointing out this amazing stand in the near west suburb of Schiller Park. It's not exactly a deli, but the beef is made in house, which is good enough for me. Everything I tried, from the snappy hot dog to the golden-hued fries, was great, but the beef still stood out. The beef is in the running for the thinnest in town. To my mind, only the Original Al's #1 on Taylor comes close. And much like that classic stand, it's almost miraculous that slices of meat so delicate can also be so beefy. The giardiniera is also sliced thinly, much like Pop's on the South Side. The only element holding this beef back is the gravy, which isn't quite as unhinged as the best places. Still, this is quality stuff.
The Rest: Frangella Italian Imports
Don't get your beef dipped here. By the time I got this to the car, the bread had broken down into a mush. But even with mess, I found myself drawn to the sliced-to-order meat, which was very tender and displayed a great dried spice blend. The giardiniera was kind of one note, but that meat makes it worth the trek.
Original Nottoli and Son
The beef is very tender and juicy, even if the gravy isn't as meaty as it could be. But some great bread—crispy crust with a buttery note—makes this beef worth trying. Also, I always admire when there are some olives in the giardiniera.
D'Amato's probably cut its meat the thickest of the bunch, which lead to a few tougher bites. Fortunately, the gravy was nice and meaty. I liked the bread, even if it wasn't the same extra-crusty used for the shop's Italian sub.
Rubinos Italian Imports
The beef was thinly sliced and very tender, even if it could use some seasonings to set it apart. The long roll was flavorful, but a bit too soft, breaking down after awhile. Still, a solid option if you're in Tinley Park.
Tony's Italian Deli
The photo doesn't really do this beef justice, because though it looks stringy and tough, it was actually rather tender. I really liked the bread, even if it was perhaps a bit too delicate and soft; though it worked on the first few bites, the bottom started to break apart even though the sandwich wasn't dipped.
More than any of the others, this one just tasted like a warm roast beef sandwich—a good roast beef sandwich, but still not an Italian beef. The meat is sliced ahead of time, but it is kept cool, which I guess can work. But the meat was still a little tough and thick. Good bread, though. It's just that the meat gets kind of lost.