July 31, 2018

Got Beef?

What better way to take on Chicago for a #TravelTuesday than to grab a bite of some of our most famous local staples? Take a look at this sandwich here. “Woah, what is THAT?” you might ask. I’ve noticed that folks visiting us often react to an Italian beef sort of the same way as when they realize that Lake Michigan looks more like the ocean than any of the lakes they’re used to seeing. It’s a lot to take in, literally! So what exactly is an Italian beef, and where did it come from?
In spite of its name, the Italian beef sandwich was invented right here in Chicago. There are several theories about how it was created, but the most common one is that in the early 1900s, workers in the famous Union Stockyards, many of whom were Italian and Eastern European immigrants, needed to find a way to use the tough, low-quality meat they took home from work to feed their families. So they slow-roasted the beef and sliced it thin, letting it cook “au jus” along with a blend of spices they had brought from their homeland, before stuffing it into an Italian roll to make a sandwich. But when you visit, be prepared to know your options when you order: you might be asked if you want it hot or sweet (depending on the peppers), and if you want a little extra kick, you can asked for your sandwich wet or soaked, with the sandwich dipped back into the gravy that gives the Italian beef its unique flavor.

There are a bunch of different stops around the city that are famous for their own different blends of spices that makes each kind of Italian Beef just a little bit different. The most famous is probably Al’s, which was the first restaurant to publicize their sandwiches all the way back in 1938. Anybody chowing down at a White Sox game will get a taste of Buona, and of course, there’s Portillos, which specializes in pretty much anything uniquely Chicago (although this does lead to the joke that if your favorite restaurant in Chicago is Portillos, you’re not really from Chicago!). But the truth of the matter is that like any authentic local cuisine, it’s not about what brand or chain is the best or most famous, it’s about the fact that in Chicago, you can walk into just about any greasy hole-in-the-wall and get a kind of sandwich that you won’t find anywhere else. It really is the local flavor that counts!

(photo: wikimedia commons/jeffreyw)