At first glance, the corned beef at City Provisions could be passed off as prosciutto. The very thin slices have a rich red hue and visible patches of fat. But while it may look like no other version in town, it is undoubtedly the tenderest, most full-flavored corned beef we encountered. Though the corned beef sandwich ($11.95) comes with all kinds of other top-quality ingredients, including Prairie Pure Swiss cheese, next time we're going to let the meat do all of the talking and just go for a little mustard and rye bread.
Gene's Sausage Shop & Delicatessen
This glorious sandwich ($4.99) has the total package: fantastic corned beef (Gene's works with a supplier in Wisconsin), über-fresh rye bread generously flecked with caraway seeds, tangy pickles, a big stone-ground mustard, and horseradish cheddar cheese. That's right, a little unconventional, but amazing. Apart from a couple of listed combinations, sandwiches at Gene's are essentially build-your-own. We fashioned this one following the sage advice of the friendly deli-counter staff. The corned beef had been too refrigerated to enjoy right away; but once it came to a suitable temperature, its flavors started popping. The meat was beautifully marbled without being stringy, and retained the meatiness of a fresh brisket while delivering the onion-and-brown-sugar mystery of a finely brined corned beef.
Most corned beef we encountered came thinly sliced and piled high, but not at Jam, where the house-cured corned beef ($14) is cubed and tossed on rye bread with a horseradish cream cheese sauce. That sauce could have had more punch—some bites just tasted like plain cream cheese—but we've got nothing bad to say about the corned beef, which is both absurdly tender and pleasingly juicy. Stringiness is the last thing you'd say about it. This is the stuff corned beef hash dreams are made of.
Boy is there a lot to like on this plate. To add extra dimension and flavor to the brined-in-house corned beef at 2 Sparrows—which is featured in the Lincoln Park restaurant's corned beef sandwich ($10)—chef Greg Ellis and crew griddle the thinly sliced meat just to the point of a nice perimeter char. Crispy, say hello to tender. The slices of likewise house-pickled pickles lend extra oomph to the tangy, vinegary goodness already at play between 2 Sparrows' toasted, mildly caraway'ed "beer-rye" bread (we only wish there were more of them).
The hot corned beef sandwich ($9.79) from Steve's Deli, in River North is tame but oh so tasty. Don't expect peppery, all spice fireworks—this corned beef is relatively mild in flavor, with faint hints of vinegar and mouth-watering savoriness—but it makes up the difference in exceptional texture: meaty, chewy, rich, and barely stringy in the least. The rye bread at Steve's is fresh, but pretty standard issue (read: mild). And while Steve's falls short of the comical, artery-clogging portions you might get at Manny's, it still serves generously piled-high corned beef sandwich.
Moon's Sandwich Shop
Want your corned beef stacked to the sky, with nothing but mustard and rye read in the mix? It's hard to think of a better stop to make than Moon's Sandwich Shop on the West Side, which bustles with energy during the lunch time rush. While the guests line up for an open spot at the packed counter, everyone waits knowing that the meat for the corned beef sandwich ($7.70) will be sliced to order.
Although not brined on the premises, the thick-cut corned beef at Ashkenaz is still one of the most flavorful of the bunch here. Round notes of peppercorn linger on the palate long after you devour the Gold Coast Jewish deli's piled-high corned beef sandwich ($8.45). Texturally, it wasn't the most fork-tender corned beef we tried, but the aroma and robust meatiness were sublime and the perfect complement to the fresh, nutty, caraway-studded rye bread. Ashkenaz sources its corned beef locally from Vienna Beef and, when you order your sandwich hot, the meat is popped in the microwave to warm it up. Not sure how we feel about that—on the one hand, it gets the meat's juices flowing, bringing out loads of flavor, but it also causes the bread to get soaked. Solution: bite, invert, and repeat.
For years now Chief O'Neill's has been the thinking man's Irish pub—you won't find any beer-soaked booths and gratuitous leprechauns here. To its credit, the food has always been part of the equation, but thanks to the addition of new chef, Alan Lake, Chief O'Neill's is currently operating at a higher level than ever. That's definitely true of the corned beef ($9.95), which is made in-house. It shows. The aggressively seasoned meat has a nice balance of lean meat and fat and is one of the better examples we sampled in the city.
Of all the corned beef sandwiches you can get in town, none has quite the same reputation as the one you'll find at Manny's. Sure, a whole host of politicians use the deli as a more of a campaign stop than a place to get a meal, but corned beef doesn't lie. Chicago may have the most corrupt politicians in the nation, but no one has to fake enthusiasm for a sandwich as gloriously over the top as this one. Some say the pastrami is better, which is why we also suggest going with a friend so you can try a little of both.
Kasia's has garnered recognition for its Polish delicacies, most notably its pierogi, but the deli along West Chicago Avenue can also hold its own when it comes to corned beef. Made with meat cooked in-house, Kasia's Irish corned beef sandwich ($4.99; includes 1/2 pound of sauerkraut) delivered a nice balance of flavor and texture. It was slightly stringier than others we tried, but that's being nitpicky. Kasia's also deserves high marks for superior sandwich artistry; we really appreciated the amount of pickle slices on this sandwich, which also came with lettuce, mustard, and a mild Swiss cheese. Somehow, though, we ended up with white bread instead of rye. Sigh.
Eleven City Diner
This (relatively) new-school Jewish deli on the scene luckily still does things the old way. That includes the corned beef, which is surprisingly juicy thanks to a decent amount of fat. The corned beef sandwich ($10.79) is obviously a good choice, but what are you supposed to do considering the deli also makes killer pastrami? You can get the best of both worlds with The Woody Allen ($12.99), which, unlike the film director, is over-sized and and out of control—in the best possible way, of course.
Corned beef can get by with nothing but a little mustard and rye bread, but that doesn't mean that's the only way to get things done. Sure, there is the rueben, but the folks at Jerry's Sandwiches apparently just wanted to figure out a way to give corned beef a Chicago twist. How do you do that? Why, add some giardiniera to it. The spicy condiment provides a sharp kick that helps balance the meat on the Manny S ($10.70). It's a great combination, and one that we'd like to see more often. Still, it helps that Jerry's makes the corned beef in-house and slices it so thickly. You could dress it up any way you like, and it would still taste great.