An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, which originated in Chicago where its history dates back at least to the 1930s. The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style Giardiniera (called “hot”) or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called “sweet”).
Italian beef sandwiches can be found at most hot dog stands and small Italian-American restaurants in northeastern Illinois, Northwest Indiana and Indianapolis. However, Chicago expatriates have opened restaurants across the country serving Italian beef, Chicago-style Hot Dogs, and other foods original to the Chicago area.
Italian beef is made using cuts of beef from the sirloin rear or the top/bottom round wet-roasted in broth with garlic, oregano and spices until medium rare or medium. The roast is then cooled, shaved using a deli slicer, and then reintroduced to its reheated beef broth. The beef then sits in the broth, typically for hours. Once a sandwich is ordered, the beef is then drawn from the broth and placed directly on the bread. Because the meat is served dripping wet it is necessary to use a chewy bread, as a softer bread would disintegrate. The typical bread used is long, Italian style loaves without seeds sliced from six to eight inches in length. Italian beef can also be shredded instead of sliced.
Many retailers purchase pre-seasoned, pre-cooked, and pre-sliced Italian beef with separate cooking broth (“au jus”), and then heat and serve, while the most acclaimed Chicago beef places typically prepare the beef on their own premises according to their own recipes. Some produce their own homemade giardiniera as well.
Origins of the sandwich are disputed, but one early vendor, Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef, opened its first stand in 1938.
One story has it that the Italian Beef sandwich was started by Italian immigrants who worked for the old Union Stock Yards. They often would bring home some of the tougher, less desirable cuts of beef sold by the company. To make the meat more palatable, it was slow-roasted to make it more tender, then slow-simmered in a spicy broth for flavour. Both the roasting and the broth used Italian-style spices and herbs. The meat was then thinly sliced across the grain and stuffed into fresh Italian bread.
According to Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company (formed in 1925), this meal was originally introduced at weddings and banquets where the meat was sliced thinly so there would be enough to feed all the guests. It rapidly grew in popularity and eventually became one of Chicago’s most famous ethnic foods: the original Italian beef sandwich.
By 1954, a local restaurant Al’s Beef was advertising its “Pizza, Spaghetti, Ravioli, [and] Italian Beef Sandwiches” in the Chicago Tribune.
There are varying degrees of juiciness, depending on taste. Nomenclature varies from stand to stand, but wet or dipped means the bread is quickly dunked in the juice; juicy even wetter; and soaked is dripping wet.
Most Chicago beef joints also offer a “combo,” adding a grilled Italian sausage to the sandwich. Different eateries offer hot or mild sausage, or both.
Typical beef orders are:
- Hot dipped: Italian beef on gravy-wetted bread and giardiniera.
- Hot dipped combo: Italian beef and sausage on gravy-wetted bread with giardiniera.
- Sweet dry: Italian beef placed on dry bread, topped with sweet peppers.
- Gravy bread: meatless Italian bread soaked in the juice of Italian beef, often served with peppers or giardiniera. Also known in some places as “Soakers” or “Juice-ons”.
- Cheesy beef or cheef: Italian beef with cheese (Provolone, Mozzarella or, rarely, Cheddar); not all stands offer this.
- Cheesy beef on garlic: Italian beef with cheese (Provolone, Mozzarella or, rarely, Cheddar) and the bread being pre-cooked and seasoned like traditional garlic bread; not all stands offer this.
Some order the “triple double,” which consists of double cheese, double sausage and double beef. Other even less common variations include substituting Italian bread with a large croissant or topping with marinara sauce.
- 1.8 kg top round beef, with fat
- 2 ¼ tablespoons Italian seasoning
- 1 ½ tablespoons salt
- 1 ½ tablespoons fresh cracked black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cayenne
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon red chilli flakes
- 3 tablespoons bacon fat, or canola oil
- 3 onions, chopped
- 1 cup garlic, whole cloves
- ½ cup red wine
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 cup beef stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 baguette rolls halved, toasted (sourdough rolls work well)
- 1 cup chopped giardiniera vinaigrette vegetables
- 1 cup bottled red capsicums
- Rub meat with dry ingredients, cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.
- Preheat oven to 135°C
- Add meat to a roasting pan with bacon fat, add onions and garlic, saute for 15 minutes, deglaze with wine, and add Worcestershire sauce, beef stock and bay leaves.
- Place roasting pan in the oven and cook for 3 hours, uncovered, or until an instant-read thermometer registers 60°C in centre. Remove, let cool, then slice very thin.
- Cool broth in roasting pan and remove the fat that rises to the top. Strain.
- Reheat the broth, and add the sliced meat. Place some meat on each toasted roll, ladle with some broth and top with giardiniera vegetables and capsicums.