Ever felt like the more you love something, the easier it is to pick out its faults? Doesn't make you appreciate the good parts any less, but it does get under your skin after awhile. In this case, I speak not of my wonderful wife or my darling daughter (who still hasn't slept through the night), but of the Italian beef—the meatiest and messiest sandwich in town, and one of our most iconic dishes. After a brief honeymoon of three years, where I blindly devoured as many as I could find, I began to have some lingering questions about the sandwich, which I knew eventually had to be answered.
Let's get right to them:
- The Italian beef starts with a hunk of beef that is roasted, cooled, sliced, and then dunked in gravy. So why do so many places screw everything up by leaving the thin slices of meat in the gravy for hours, where they inevitably overcook?
- And why does every place use the same kind of roll, which is neither particularly crusty or flavorful? Obviously, the bread needs to be strong to stand up to the soaked meat, but other great sandwiches of the country have managed to figure out this delicate balance. Both the roast beef Po' Boy in New Orleans and the cheesesteak in Philadelphia are just as ridiculous and beefy as the Italian beef, but they also happen to be served on crusty, flakey, and flavorful rolls. Why can't the Italian beef do the same?
These two questions started to ferment after one ridiculous day where a group of us traversed the city and ate 11 Italian beefs in a row. What became clear after an hour or so was that there were a bunch of good options, and only a select few that were truly great. While the very, very good offering from Portillo's ended up topping our list, it did so because votes were split between the two that (in my opinion) really deserved it: the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor St. and Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park. Look at just about any best Italian beef list, and you'll probably see both somewhere near the top, forever locked in a battle for Italian beef supremacy.
Which begs the question: why do Al's #1 and Johnnie's consistently come out on top?
Though a seemingly simple sandwich, the Italian beef requires a great deal of effort to make. The best hot dog stands work hard too, but they also don't make the hot dogs—Vienna Beef does that work for them. But the best Italian beefs come from places that roast whole hunks of beef in house, slice it thinly, and dunk it into gravy. This is a lot of work for the owner, especially when he or she can make an edible Italian beef, and avoid all the hassle, by just purchasing pre-sliced meat.
So where could I find Italian beefs made by people who really care?
Italian Beefs at Italian Delis
Everything changed after visiting Bari to pick up some giardiniera for a taste test (you can see the results here). While selecting a jar, I noticed an Italian beef special written hastily on a white sheet of paper and tapped to the scale. Though I'd already eaten lunch and wasn't the least bit hungry, my curiosity was too great to pass up the chance to see what Bari could do with the Italian beef. When the man behind the counter handed me the sandwich, he smiled and said, "I know you're going to like this." He was right.
In fact, he was too humble, because this was the best Italian beef I'd had in ages. It might be the best Italian beef I've ever tried. It had everything I wanted: tender and juicy slices of beef, a deep and powerful gravy that adhered to the meat, a roll that was strong enough to hold the two without disintegrating into a pile of mush, and a healthy helping of crunchy and spicy giardiniera to perk things up.
That immediately gave me an idea: perhaps there was a whole world of unexplored Italian beefs hiding in plain sight. While I'd been trying to find excellence at random fast food chains, which have small kitchens, small budgets, and lots of competition, I just needed to focus my search on places that roast their meat in-house. In other words, I needed to visit some Italian delis.
Doesn't this all make sense? Italian delis already slice meat to order for their customers, why wouldn't they do that for a sandwich? Plus, with access to a range of different bakeries, I had a feeling that they'd use a different kind of roll. Though an extra crispy roll—like the wonderful ones from D'Amato's—probably wouldn't work too well with so much liquid, I knew there had to be a better option.
The only issue I had was that there were simply too many Italian delis to choose from. Where should I begin? Before putting my plan into action, I emailed Jim Graziano, the man behind the best Italian subs in the city at J.P. Graziano's. Currently, the shop doesn't serve an Italian beef (though one can hope) so I figured it was okay to ask his opinion about where to find a great one. He immediately agreed with my theory: "Some of the best I have ever had are at delis that make their own beef." Thanks to his help, I had a good list of delis to begin my search.
Along with these picks, I added some delis that sounded intriguing, plus a couple of places that other people had suggested. This resulted in ten spots that are hardly ever mentioned in Italian beef roundups. As you have probably noticed from the map, they also happen to be scattered northwest and southwest of the city. And you know what? All of them are worth trying—just not in the same day.
- Frangella Italian Imports
- Frannie's Beef & Catering
- Italia Imports
- Nottoli Italian Foods
- Original Nottoli and Son
- Riviera Italian Imported Foods
- Rubino's Italian Imports
- Tony's Italian Deli & Subs
And the Winner Is...
Of course, the question you probably want to know is whether any of these are better than Al's #1 and Johnnie's. The only one that I'm definitely sure should be in the running for the best in the city is the one at Bari. The West Town deli managed 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 inside than the standard one used for most of the Italian beefs in Chicago, but still strong on the outside to prevent premature collapse from all the wet ingredients.
The rest ranged from 'nearly as good as Bari' to 'still better than 90 percent of the Italian beefs out there,' which is impressive. As I expected, most of the places sliced meat to order and used great rolls, but that still didn't guarantee that all the ingredients would coalesce to make a truly great sandwich. I realize this is kind of hard to explain, but the art of the sandwich is a bewildering process. Do know that the average beef at an Italian deli is still much, much higher than average beef at a stand.
After devouring so many Italian beefs, I need a break. But if you have any Italian delis that you think do or potentially could serve a great Italian beef, definitely let me know. Might take me a few weeks to get back in the game, but the hunger will surely return.
To check out notes on all the sandwiches, click on the slideshow.