Buona Italian Beef Sandwich: a Chicago original

Buona Italian Beef Sandwich: a Chicago original

“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

The Italian Beef Sandwich may just be the most Chicago of Chicago foods. Yes, even more than deep-dish pizza and the Chicago Style Dog. To me, there is nothing more satisfying than stepping inside of one of Chicago’s iconic Italian Beef stands, on a cold day with icy snow pelts flying sideways, and biting into a warm juicy (Baptized) Italian Beef Sandwich.

Some may disagree that the Italian Beef Sandwich should head the list of the most Chicago of Chicago foods but hear me out.

Living north of the city in an area that sadly is an Italian Beef Sandwich desert for its lack of the authentic cuisine, I have been known to travel long and far to get my hands (both hands–as it takes two) on the real thing.

I can get Chicago Style Hot Dogs and Deep Dish Pizza, anywhere I go in the city and my neighborhood, and even Diabai. And although our Chicago treasure is available in other parts of the world, the Italian Beef Sandwich is mostly associated with Chicago.

Just google it.

Chicago’s Italian Beef Sandwich stands and restaurants, for the most part, are family owned businesses, started by Italian immigrants (yes, immigrants) who came to America in the early 1900’s. Originally they were served at weddings and banquets where the meat was sliced thinly so there would be enough to feed all the guests and stay within limited budgets.

The sandwiches proved so popular that by the 1930’s small family-owned Italian beef stands began to pop up on the south and west sides of  Chicago. Al’s Beef was one of the first when it opened a small stand at Harrison and Laflin St, in 1938. 

Buona Beef co-owner and CEO Joe Buonavolanto Jr., photographed March 7, 2016 in his Berwyn office. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

Buona Beef co-owner and CEO Joe Buonavolanto Jr., photographed March 7, 2016 in his Berwyn office. (Michael Tercha / Chicago Tribune)

One of these family owned businesses is Buona (pronounced bone-a) Beef, now in its third generation. Started nearly 40 years ago by family Patriarch Joe Buonavolanto who literally dug the foundation, along with the two oldest of his five sons, for his Berwyn establishment.


The Buona story is a feel good Chicago story. The original Italian beef recipe was concocted by Joe’s wife Peggy, while Carl Bonavolanto Jr. their Uncle (‘Junior’), proprietor of Chicago’s iconic Mr. Beef was instrumental in helping Joe learn the ropes of the business.

Slowly but carefully over the years, wanting to keep the restaurants family-friendly, they researched and opened new locations mostly in the south and western suburbs and added to the menu. Joe Senior’s five sons each worked their way up from serving customers and washing floors to running the key functions of the organization.


With their newly opened Streeterville restaurant (613 N. McClurg Ct.), Buona has 21 locations including one in Wrigley Field on the north side and Guaranteed Rate Field on the south side. In addition to the Beef, Buona has some pretty impressive tasting pizza’s especially the BBQ Chicken and the Arugula Verduro, delicious meatballs, pepper and egg sandwiches on Fridays (another iconic Chicago original) along with an insane number of other options including vegetarian, vegan and gluten free. They also have beer and wine (half priced on Fridays) along with soft drinks and other beverages.

But, personally, for me, it’s all about the beef. Buona has maintained their quality in this area being in the top ten–usually at the top or very near the top in “best of” lists from USA Today to the Chicago Tribune. If you’re new to the world of Italian Beef Sandwiches, here’s what you need to know:

A Primer on ordering and eating an Italian Beef Sandwich

First of all–what exactly is an Italian Beef Sandwich?buona1

The answer is right there on the wall.

Next, how do you order an Italian Beef Sandwich?

People can get pretty passionate about their Italian beef sandwiches. But Buona makes it pretty easy. When you are seated you are given a card on “How to Order Our Original Italian Beef.” The card lists and defines what you need to know: The Buona Way is served in its own natural gravy with an extra spoonful of gravy to top it off. Other options include: 

  • DRY: Served with less natural gravy.
  • DIPPED: The ends of the bread are Dipped in gravy.
  • BAPTIZED: The entire sandwich is dunked in gravy.
  • RED: Marinara sauce is added on top.
  • HOT OR SWEET:Do you want sweet bell peppers, house-made hot giardiniera, or both?
  • CHEESY: Topped with mozzarella or some other cheese. (Please note, according to Italian Beef purists, adding cheese to an Italian Beef Sandwich is akin to adding ketchup to a Chicago style hot dog).

buonastance1-1Finally, how do you eat an Italian Beef Sandwich?

Italian Beef Sandwiches can get pretty messy. So before you dig in, here’s what you need to know. The “proper” sandwich is a two-handed affair, that has to be eaten with mouth wide open and lots of napkins. One popular method for eating an Italian Beef Sandwich is the “Italian Stance.”

Here are the rules: 1. Elbows on counter; 2. Step back two feet from the counter; 3. Lean into the counter; 4. Mouth wide open.


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