Do you want your Italian beef to be dry and a little sweet? Do you want it dipped and hot? Alternatively, how about wet, hot, and sweet? Ordering the famed Chicago sandwich is similar to the procedure at a coffee shop; there is a language to learn, a culture to grasp, and choices to be made before the sandwich is delivered.
Deep-dish pizza and the Chicago hot dog are two of the city’s most well-known meals, and there are many more. Italian beef, on the other hand, is unique: roasted, thinly sliced meat that is drenched in its own jus and nestled in a soft roll, then topped with sour, spicy giardiniera or sweet peppers (or both), and often dipped in a rich broth made from cattle drippings, is a culinary masterpiece. The meaty taste is amplified by the broth, which soaks into the bread’s crevices and provides an acidic counterpoint to the richness of the beef. It’s like an entire meal’s worth of rich tastes are packed into one sloppy, incredibly juicy mouthful.
Those three meals may not be the most well-known or physically appealing, but the sandwich is, according to David Hammond, the eating and drinking editor of the local magazine Newcity and the author of a forthcoming book on the city’s delicacies, “the most delicious.” However, although deep dish is mostly for tourists, according to him, and hot dogs can be found in many places, Italian beef is a Chicago institution, he said.
Cathy Lambrecht, a member of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, described the meal as “a dish that tells volumes about the city and the Italian-beef aficionado,” she added. A whirlwind of recollections swirls about in my head.”
It is said that the sandwich was first served at Al’s Beef, Serrelli’s Finer Food and Scala’s Original, which shuttered some years ago, among other locations. According to culinary historian Bruce Kraig, it’s unknown who invented the dish, however it’s possible that Italian immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s came up with it as a means to stretch a less costly cut of beef to serve in big amounts at weddings.
Nonetheless, as the city’s demographics have altered over the last several decades, a new selection of sandwiches influenced by Italian beef has arisen. From garlicky longanisa sausage served at the Filipino café Kasama to sweet-savory bulgogi served at the Korean-Polish deli Kimski to halal meat served at the 1950s-style fast-food restaurant Slim’s, these dishes include a diverse range of flavours and ingredients.
If the Italian-beef sandwich reflects the history of Italian immigration, these versions tell a different tale, one about a new generation of Chicago chefs who are fusing the city’s traditions with their own ideas about food.
In an interview conducted just before his death from cancer in December at the age of 43, the chef Brian Mita expressed his belief that Italian beef and niku dofu, a Japanese dish of thinly sliced beef and tofu cooked with soy sauce and dashi, were similar in flavour and texture.
He said that niku dofu is similar to Italian beef in that it allows people to be more frugal with their meat consumption. At his restaurant, Izakaya Mita, niku dofu is filled with shokupan, or milk bread, and then topped with giardiniera to make niku dofu shokupan (milk bread). Due to its popularity, Mr. Mita decided to make the sandwich a permanent addition two months after it was first launched in the summer of 2020.
The Vietnamese-inspired Italian beef served at Nate Hoops and Anthony Ngo’s restaurant, Phodega, seemed like a natural extension of their identities as Chicago natives who grew up in Asian American families, according to Mr. Hoops, who grew up in a Vietnamese-inspired Italian beef family.
Won The Ko-Po beef sandwich that Kimski invented is not advertised as a variant on Italian beef, despite the fact that he took inspiration from the original dish. Bulgogi, sautéed shishito peppers, gochujang butter, and a sprinkle of scallions top his rendition of the dish.
According to Patti Serrelli, proprietor of the long-standing Italian beef supplier Serrelli’s Finer Foods, these versions are “bastardising” the original recipe: “They are essentially rewriting history.” Italian beef is prepared the traditional manner at Serrelli’s, with the meat being roasted in a special combination of herbs and spices before being dipped in its own juices.
This territorial mindset, according to Garrett Kern, vice president of strategy and cuisine for the Chicago-based restaurant chain Portillo’s, is the result of residents’ desire to safeguard a food that they consider to be distinctively theirs.
As a result, when Laricia Chandler Baker introduced a meat-free Italian beef sandwich to the menu of her vegan restaurant, Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, in November 2020, she went to considerable lengths to guarantee that the sandwich looked and tasted just like the original. She finely slices soy protein and cooks it in a vegetable broth that has been seasoned with herbs and peppers before stuffing it onto a toasted French bun.
The owner of Slim’s restaurant, Khurram Shamim, who serves a halal Italian-beef sandwich, is equally wary about deviating from established practises. Customer’s desire to consume Italian beef while maintaining their dietary limitations, according to him, is a driving force. The sandwich should be as familiar as possible to the consumer.
Portillo’s, which is well-known across the city for its Italian beef, has never had an issue with familiarity or recognition. This year, the company became public and has accelerated its national development, with new locations in areas such as Arizona and Florida.
Mr. Kern believes that, although Chicagoans are divided about these Italian-beef modifications, the true problem for Portillo’s will be convincing people all across the nation to embrace what Chicagoans love about a sloppy mess of a sandwich, as Mr. Kern put it.