What's Italian Beef? Chicago's Favorite Sandwich, Explained

From stockyards to weddings to gambling dens, the story of the sandwich mirrors the history of the city that celebrates it. 

Maybe because of its distance from both coasts or the perceived lack of respect that comes from its status as the "second city," Chicago has its own way of doing things— especially when it comes to eats. By now, you're probably familiar with their lasagna deep dish pizza. You may even know how important it is to never ask for ketchup at Wrigley Field, The Wiener's Circle, or anywhere else that sells a Chicago-style hot dog. But if you grew up far from the shores of Lake Michigan, you might know a bit less about the last element of the Chicago food holy trinity: Italian beef.

A roast with the most

The main ingredient of an Italian beef is roasted, thinly-sliced sirloin tip or top round beef seasoned with Italian herbs like oregano and basil, plus spices including red and black pepper, and occasionally nutmeg and cloves. Depending on preference, giardiniera and/or roasted green peppers can also be added to the mix before the whole thing's served on a long french roll.

That might sound like a pretty standard roast beef to you, but there's one key differentiator that plays an indispensable role in making the Italian beef what it is: juice. Specifically, the juice (or gravy) that accumulates when the fatty content of that sirloin tip or top round melts away during the roasting process. Once the roast is done, the beef is thinly sliced before it's dipped into that (reheated) broth of liquid gold for a little while longer in order to absorb the essence of its flavors.

Between the roasting and soaking, It's certainly not the kind of sandwich you can make at home in a hurry. Many have attempted to introduce shortcuts over the years, including some sort of sous vide method where raw, unroasted beef does all of its cooking in the juice/gravy, but there seems to be no perfect substitute for the tried and true method.

A sandwich served with a side of Chicago history

Like most untrademarked foods, the exact origin of the Italian beef is hard to pin down, but the story of its proliferation throughout the Windy City Italian immigrant community (and eventually far beyond) is a bit clearer.

Thanks to the Union Stock Yards, Chicago was the beef and pork processing capital of the world from around the Civil War into the 1920s. That meant workers would often find themselves bringing home lower-quality, tougher cuts of meat that made for prime roasting candidates, with spices also thrown in to make things more palatable.

Though we may never know who first hit on this idea at home, what would eventually become the Italian beef made its public debut on Chicago's Italian-American "peanut wedding" circuit in the 1920s, the name of the game was serving as many wedding guests as cheaply as possible. Depending on who you ask, either Anthony Ferrari or Pasquale Scala (both of whom peddled food on the streets of Chicago at the time) was the first to realize that the secret to feeding as many peanut wedding guests as possible lie in slicing beef very thinly, letting it cook in its own juices, and serving it as a sandwich.

Over time, this beef prep method took on the name it still has today, and both families would go on to play a further role in Chicago's Italian beef lore. Ferrari's son Al would then go on to open Al's #1 Italian Beef, one of Chicago's leading purveyors of the dish. Today, Al's admits the idea was to open up a sandwich shop that could serve as a front for illegal gambling, but their work turned Italian beef into a Chicago staple by the 1950s. In 1925 Pasquale Scala, the other supposed Italian beef innovator, opened Scala Packing Company, a longtime supplier of the actual beef that goes into the sandwich. Suffice to say, both families who claim credit for Italian beef have made out well.

Original Homemade Italian Beef

So how do you order an Italian beef?

Much like the Philly Cheesesteak, another regional beef sandwich, there's no one way to order an Italian beef. Whereas the cheesesteak primarily comes down to a choice of cheese (including "wiz") and "wit" or "witout" onions, there are even more ways to customize an Italian beef to your liking.

Portillo's, another major Chicagoland purveyor, breaks it down pretty well. First, there's how much gravy you want, as well as how it's presented. Some like their Italian beef "dipped," which means the whole sandwich (bread and all) gets a gravy bath before it's served. Some contrarians prefer a "dry" Italian beef, which squeezes out as much gravy as possible before the sandwich is served.

Then, there's the peppers. Asking for your Italian beef "sweet" will get you roasted green and/or red peppers, while ordering it "hot'' is what adds in the giardiniera. If you're really, really into the idea of dipping your sandwich, you can also ask (Portillos, at least) for hot giardiniera oil on the side, which you can dip your (potentially already gravy-dipped) sandwich into as you please. Cheeses are also an option, but since this is Chicago, ketchup is probably best avoided.

Can you make Italian beef at home?

You betcha, pal. If you've got a slow cooker at home or any other way to roast, there are a few different ways you can make your own Italian beef. It'll take you about six hours all told, but if you're missing the taste from home or just curious about trying a regional staple without the travel, it's worth the time and effort.

Get the Recipe: Original Homemade Italian Beef

So there you have it: the story of the Italian beef, the local favorite that should be part of any eating tour of Chicago. If you can finish the Windy City triple play of an Italian beef, Chicago dog, and a deep dish pizza all in one day, I'm pretty sure you get the key to the city.


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