"A few things are undisputed about the Italian Beef Sandwich: it originated on the “Sout” Side of Chicago by Italian immigrants, is served in hundreds of places around the city and when made correctly should leave a trail of juice down your arm." USA TODAY
Perhaps Chicago's most traditional and iconic food, Italian Beef, is finally getting the respect it deserves with the first annual Italian Beef Festival in May and this weekend's CT Food Bowl's Beef & Brew Trolley Tour--both sell outs.
The history of Chicago's Italian Beef Sandwich is not clear but here's what we do know:
- Originally it was served at weddings and banquets where the meat was sliced thinly in order to save money and stretch the beef to serve more people.
- Next came the stands and carts, many in the "Little Italy" neighborhood along Taylor Street, where the beef was sold from tin bins and served au jus (known by locals as 'gravy') on a roll.
- Then came the restaurants, mostly quintessential 'ma and pa' shops, started by Italian immigrants--the first of which was Al's that opened in 1938 as a front for a bookie at Harrison and Laflin St. The businesses continued through generations and were named simply Al’s, Jimmy’s, Mickey’s, Johnnie's or Tony’s after their founders. With each generation, most have expanded and flourish today in "Little Italy" and way beyond including Tucson, Arizona--home to" Lukes of Chicago."
Saturday lucky participants in the Beef and Brew Trolley Tour got the 101 on the history of Chicago's Italian Beef along with dry, wet or dipped sandwiches topped with sweet or hot peppers, cheese optional from Luke's, Al's and Buona plus brews from Revolution Brewing.
First Stop: Buona Beef
We started our crawl at Buona's newest location at 613 N McClurg Ct. in the Streeterville neighborhood--the furthest north location with the exception of the one inside Wrigley Field.
Buona (pronounced bone-a) Beef, now in its third generation, started nearly 40 years ago in Berwyn by family Patriarch Joe Buonavolanto who literally dug the foundation, along with the two oldest of his five sons. Buona beef now has 23 locations.
I ordered an Italian Beef, the Buona way, served in its own natural gravy with an extra spoonful of juice to top it off. I got a mix of giardiniera and sweet peppers, no cheese.
The recipe: The family still uses the original family recipe including meat that is slow-roasted for hours and a gravy made from all-natural ingredients.
The bread: Buona uses Turano bread which is the bread of choice for about half of the city's beef stands--the other half being Gonnella with a few outlaw brands making an appearance at other establishments. The bread held up well to the gravy offering a bit of juiciness on the outside, without being too soggy--making it easy to eat without falling apart.
The peppers: A bit of char gives the sweet peppers an extra umami and the giardiniera is a nice mix of celery, carrots, olives and cauliflower with spices.
All Aboard the Trolley
A contingent of beef loving guests traded stories, mingled and enjoyed three styles of Revolution brews, soft drinks and water on the trolley. John Gill, Marketing Director acted as the tour guide with Jimmy Buonavolanto pitching in as color commentator. Along the way we learned and debated about “peanut weddings,” "soakers" and more but we'll save that for another day.
As we headed to the former home of Chicago's iconic Union Stockyards, John pointed out historic spots along the way including the home of Scala beef an early player in the history of Chicago's beef.
The Union Stock Yard Gate is all that's left of the 475 acres of cattle, hogs and other animals that gave Chicago its status as "Hog Butcher to the World" from its inception in 1865 to when it closed in 1971. The Gateway, designed by Burnham and Root around 1875, was designated a Chicago Landmark on February 24, 1972, and a National Historic Landmark on May 29, 1981.
The steer head over the central arch is thought to represent "Sherman," a prize-winning bull named after John B. Sherman, a founder of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company.
Next Stop: Taylor Street
Taylor Street, home of Al’s #1 Italian Beef (1079 W. Taylor St.) dates back to 1938 when Al Ferrari and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli, Sr., developed the original idea and recipe for their Italian beef sandwich.
The original recipe, which is still used in all Al’s Beef locations today, was developed in Al’s home kitchen. The Taylor Street location now run by Chris Pacelli, Jr. houses years of memories and pictures of the famous and infamous guests who stepped through their doors.
I ordered the Italian Beef and fries. From there I continued down the counter where I added my own peppers, sweet and hot and picked up my fries.
The bread: The bread was Gonnella. Whether it was the bread or the juice, the sandwich was a bit soggy and hard to contain--although some may argue that this is the way an Italian Beef sandwich is suppose to be--thus the 'Italian Stance' where you lean over the counter to eat your sandwich so as not to have the juice run down your chin. Note: You can order your sandwich 4 different ways at Al's: Regular, wet, dipped and dry--so it may have been my mistake--or maybe it was just the 90 degree heat that was making us all a little soggy.
The beef: The beef, made in-house at the Taylor Street location, was tender and nicely shredded with hints of garlic and oregano, just the way it should be, and simmered and served au jus.
The peppers: Being a big fan of peppers, I liked that I could pile on as many peppers as I craved on top of the beef. The sweet peppers were nicely flavored in the gravy but the giardiniera was lacking featuring mostly celery sprinkled with red pepper flakes.
Two Guys you should know
On Taylor Street, we met up with two of Chicago very own--Chris Pacelli, Jr. (left) of Al's and Mario (right) of Mario's Italian Ice right across the street from Al's. The pair were the real deal as they entertained us with stories from the past--whether I believed all the tales or not, they provided a warm welcome to the 'hood.
All in the Family
The final stop was Luke's Italian Beef (215 West Jackson Boulevard). Easy to miss, the location, near Union Station, blends in with rest of the landscape. I was surprised to learn that it has been there for 28 years.
Typical of Chicago's Italian Beef legacy, Luke's is a family affair. It was created in the 1940’s by Edith (Luke and Muriel’s mother) and Margie (John’s daughter) who put it on the menu at her candy store.
Margie and her husband Al Vitullo owned an ice cream store under the El tracks on Hoyne Ave when they added the sandwich to the menu. Their most popular beef stand was located at Cicero Ave and Kammerlig St.
It was getting near the end of the time allotted for the tour and I had another event that I needed to attend so I took this one to go.
It was ready for me as soon as I stepped up to the counter in the welcoming space. The sandwich was packaged in a brown paper bag, wrapped in butcher paper with the peppers wrapped separately so they stayed fresh and didn't bled into the beef.
Although I didn't eat the sandwich until the next day, it tasted like it was just made.
The Bread: The Gonnella bread was fresh with a bit of crunch.
The Beef: The beef was nicely seasoned, wet, juicy and shredded rather than sliced thin.
The Peppers: The sweet peppers were a mix of red and green, most likely steamed retaining a nice color. The Giardiniera was a mix of sport peppers, red jalapano peppers, celery and spices offering a nice hint of heat--just enough as to not overwhelm the beef.
Would I go on this tour, if it is offered again. In a heart beat. And so should you.
If you want to see pictures of the three sandwiches, follow Chicago Eats @Chicagoeat1 on Instagram.
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