Found the Beef
Chicago is visited for many reasons: world renowned museums, innovative and jaw dropping architecture, some of the most popular blues clubs in the country, Michael Jordan, Wrigley Field… the list goes on. But like any other city in the world, if you really want to gauge the pulse of the city, if you really want to feel its soul and transcend its history, its making, the center of its core, you visit its restaurants. Chicago has one of the highest regarded restaurant scenes in the world, but nothing tells the story, steeps you into the tradition, makes you feel everything Chicago than visiting an Italian Beef Stand.
The Windy City’s signature dish, the one that was truly birthed here is the Italian Beef Sandwich. Deep Dish pizza (which most locals revert to only when hosting out of towners) was a modification in the 1940 of various styles of pizza from Italy. Chicago-style hot dogs, albeit extremely popular and fantastic in their own right, was an evolution from the Frankfurter in Germany. The Italian Beef would lead you to believe it has its roots in Italy, but that is not the case. The sandwich is our thing, created out of the industrious and creative spirit that our city was founded and built upon.
In one of his last visits to Chicago, the late Anthony Bourdain said “Chicago is a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered mother****in’ city. Forget Deep Dish, the Italian Beef sandwich is a big soggy load of awesomeness, dripping with magical greasy beef juice. It is a signature dish any great city should be proud to boast of.”
Chicago-based fast food chain, Portillo’s Inc., famous for its Italian beef sandwiches, does a staggering $7.9 million in yearly revenue per store, surpassing competitors like Chic- Fil – A (approx. $5 million) and McDonalds (approx. $3 million). Since going public they plan to open 600 additional stores across the United States. As Portillo’s takes Chicago’s favorite sandwich nationwide, let’s take a look at its origins, the recipe and how pizza operators can benefit from adding this classic staple to the menu.
The Italian Beef Sandwich dates back to the early 1900s, when many Italians immigrated to America. They found work at the Chicago Union Stock Yard and Transit Co., in the meatpacking district. More meat was processed in Chicago than anywhere in the world at the time. Workers would bring home cheaper, rougher cuts of meat. They would tenderize and simmer the meat in a broth of flavorful Italian spices. The dish became a very popular meal for Italians on holidays and special events, like famous “Peanut Weddings”. They would gather in church basements or homes to celebrate weddings, feasting on peanuts, sausage and Italian beef.
The Godfather of Italian Beef
The godfather of the beef sandwich is Pasquale “Pat” Scala. There were many who claim they originated the sandwich, but it was Pat who made them a cultural tradition during the Great Depression. He delivered meats and homemade sausages to people’s homes by horse drawn carriage. He prepared the beef, shaved the thinnest slices, soaked the meat in its flavorful juices and served it on thick bread rolls.
The Beef Stand
In 1938 Al Ferreri and Chris “Baba” Pacelli opened Al’s Beef. A front for their bookie operation, it was the first documented beef stand. Al and Baba would finish at their day jobs, then go open the restaurant, serving Charcoal Grilled Italian Sausages and Italian Beef sandwiches in the front and hosting card games and sports betting in the back. Eventually the restaurant became so successful they dropped the bookie operations. Others saw their success and beef stands started popping up across the city.
The composition of a Beef Sandwich Bread. The most important element is the bread. French bread is the best — it absorbs the beef juice and holds the ingredients together. If the bread falls apart, the sandwich is ruined! So a sturdy bread is a must!
Beef. Top sirloin or bottom round are great options. Slow cooked, then sliced paper thin (or shredded).
Peppers. Hot pickled giardiniera peppers are a must. The other option are “sweet peppers”, which are bell peppers sliced, oven roasted with olive oil, salt, pepper and a little oregano.
Ways to order a Beef
Dry. The beef is pulled from the juice, most of the juice drips off and is placed in the bread.
Wet. The beef is pulled from the juice and immediately placed in the bread, leaving the beef “wet”. Another spoonful is added to the top after this step.
Dipped. The beef is pulled from the juice, placed in the bread and the sandwich is then dipped into the beef juice, making it soggy and delicious.
While many top Italian beef restaurants in the city use recipes passed down for generations and even roast their own beef, most pizzerias use heat and serve products. The thin sliced vacuum sealed beef comes in cases of 10 pounds with one gallon of beef gravy and is available through most distributors. Jim Buonavolanto, of Chicago Authentic Brands, recommends heating the gravy to about 170 F. It can be held throughout the day in a steam table. When needed, drop in your sliced beef, and let it soak for a minimum of three minutes, maximum 30 minutes.
It’s easy to see why most pizzerias in Chicago have Italian beef on the menu. It’s a simple, delicious and fast item with a three-week shelf life. Chicago based national chains Rosati’s and Giordano’s carry the item on their menus all across the country.
All pizzerias should add Italian beef to their toppings list. Although chicken and pork toppings are very popular in the industry, beef toppings are scarce. Some places will have ground beef, hamburger (which may contain soy), or meatballs (some pizzeria’s fail to mention that majority of meatballs distributed contain pork as well). Italian beef is a great option to round off your topping menu and offer a great tasting protein that meets religious and cultural dietary requisites. This can be an easy upcharge, as most customers will understand it is premium meat.
There are two ways to incorporate Italian beef on pizza. One way is to cook the pizza completely, soak the beef in gravy and apply to the pizza. The other is to place the beef on the pizza prior to cooking, without dunking in gravy. Both ways are delicious, but I prefer cooking the beef on the pizza with a side of beef gravy. The full flavor of the meat bakes in the pizza, and the crispiness gives great crunch and texture.
One of our most popular pizzas at Bacci Pizzeria is the “Old School Chicago.” It has Italian Beef, bulk Italian sausage, hot giardiniera, sweet peppers and a sprinkle of Romano cheese, peppers, a sprinkle of oregano and Romano cheese, and is served with a side of beef gravy to dip or pour on the pizza.
Pasquale Di Diana is the owner of Bacci in Chicago, IL