Chicago’s signature sandwich, Italian beef, gets multicultural update

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CHICAGO – Do you like your dry and sweet Italian beef? Soaked and hot? Or maybe humid and hot and sweet? Ordering Chicago’s beloved sandwich is reminiscent of the drill in a coffee shop ; there is a language to know, a culture to understand, decisions to be made.

The city has several famous dishes to its name, such as the deep pizza and the Chicago hot dog. Still, Italian beef stands out: thinly sliced ​​roast meat that’s bathed in its own juice and nestled in a soft bun, then topped with pie, spicy giardiniera, or sweet peppers (or both), and often soaked. in a rich beef jus broth. The broth enhances the meaty flavor and saturates the cracks in the bread, while the peppers provide tangy relief. In one messy, intensely juicy bite is a whole meal of complex flavors.

The sandwich might not be the best-known or the most appealing of the three dishes, said David Hammond, editor-in-chief of local magazine Newcity and author of an upcoming book on food in the city. But while the deep dish is primarily aimed at tourists, he said, and hot dogs are sold in many cities, Italian beef is owned by Chicagoans.

“It’s hard for me to imagine Chicago food without Italian beef,” Mr. Hammond said.

It’s a dish that says a lot about the city and the Italian beef fan, said Culinary Historians of Chicago member Cathy Lambrecht. “It’s all a daydream of memories.”

Which Italian beef stand do you prefer? In which part of town? ‘ “, did she say. “Or if you are Catholic,” in which parish did you grow up? “”

Several establishments – including Al’s Beef, Serrelli’s Finer Foods and Scala’s Original, which closed several years ago – claim to have invented the sandwich. Food historian Bruce Kraig said it was not clear who actually made it, although it is likely that in the 1920s and 1930s Italian immigrants invented the dish as a means of ‘stretch a cheaper cut of meat to serve it in large quantities at weddings.

Italian beef has come to reflect the city itself – its identity as a hub for working-class immigrants and the meat-packing company. The sandwich made a portable, inexpensive, and filling meal on the job.

But as the city’s demographics have changed over the past few decades, a new list of Italian beef-inspired sandwiches has emerged. These creations incorporate a variety of ingredients, from garlic longanisa sausage from Filipino coffee Kasama, to sweet and savory bulgogi from Korean-Polish grocery store Kimski, to halal meat from 1950s-style fast food restaurant. Slim’s.

While the Italian beef sandwich reflects the story of Italian immigrants, these adaptations tell a different story, that of a new generation of Chicago chefs blending the city’s traditions with their own.

In an interview before he died of cancer in December at the age of 43, Chef Brian Mita said he saw a kinship between Italian beef and niku dofu, a Japanese dish of minced beef and tofu cooked with soy sauce and dashi.

Like Italian beef, he said, niku dofu is a way to be economical with meat. In his restaurant, Izakaya Mita, the niku dofu is stuffed in shokupan, or milk bread, and garnished with giardiniera. Mr Mita introduced the sandwich in the summer of 2020, making it a permanent addition two months ago because it has sold so well.

“Really, it’s a merger,” he said. “I’m half Japanese, half Chinese, but I grew up here in the United States,” in Chicago. “It’s also part of my culture. “

Chicago was once defined by its low-key immigrant enclaves, food historian Mr. Kraig said. “Everything has changed, because gentrification has taken place and people have moved. “

Many neighborhoods now have more diverse populations, he said, and Chicagoans have grown up being exposed to a wide range of cuisines, especially as the local restaurant scene has grown more multifaceted.

Nate Hoops and Anthony Ngo’s Vietnamese version of Italian beef at their restaurant, Phodega, looked like a natural outgrowth of their identity as Chicago natives who grew up in Asian American homes, Mr. Hoops said.

They layer a thinly sliced ​​sirloin steak on top of French bread and garnish it with cilantro and jalapeños – classic banh mi toppings. The dish is served with a side of pho broth for dipping. They added the sandwich, called Pho Dip, to the menu in the summer of 2020.

“It’s almost like a recipe for rock-solid success,” said Mr. Hoops, 37. Locals love Italian beef, so “you know it’s gonna be okay.”

“I wouldn’t say it competes” with Italian beef, he added. “It’s definitely a different sandwich.”

Won Kim does not present the Ko-Po beef sandwich he created at Kimski as a variation of Italian beef, even though it took inspiration from the classic dish. Its version features bulgogi, sautéed shishito peppers, gochujang butter and a shower of green onions.

Chicagoans love to complain when food doesn’t follow tradition, he said. “They judge quickly, so I didn’t even want to be close to calling it an Italian thing.”

And he’s right, people have strong opinions.

“I’m a purist,” said Erick Williams, chef and owner of Virtue, a southern restaurant in Hyde Park. “I’m sure these sandwiches are probably very good, and I’d be interested in trying them, but I’m in no rush to replace the original version of an Italian beef.”

He doesn’t make the sandwich at Virtue, but he loves it, and partnered up with Al’s Beef in 2020 to serve a special menu that included Italian beef.

Patti Serrelli, owner of longtime Italian beef supplier Serrelli’s Finer Foods, took a harsher view of these adaptations: “They kind of mess with the original recipe. At Serrelli, Italian beef is cooked the traditional way, the meat roasted in a secret blend of herbs and spices and soaked in its own juice.

Garrett Kern, vice president of strategy and cooking for Chicago-based restaurant chain Portillo’s, said this territorial attitude stems from locals’ desire to protect a dish that looks like them.

“A lot of Chicagoans have that chip on their shoulder” because the city doesn’t get as much national attention as other big cities, he said. They therefore attach an inordinate pride to Italian beef.

This pride is why, when Laricia Chandler Baker added a meatless Italian beef sandwich to the menu at her vegan restaurant, Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, in November 2020, she took great care to make sure it looked and tasted like the original. She thinly slices the soy protein and soaks it in a vegetable broth seasoned with herbs and peppers, then slides it into a French roll.

Khurram Shamim, who sells a halal Italian beef sandwich at his restaurant Slim’s, is also reluctant to play with tradition. Customers want to eat Italian beef while respecting their dietary restrictions, he said. The sandwich should be as familiar as possible.

Familiarity has never been an issue for Portillo’s, who are known throughout town for their Italian beef. This year, the channel went public and accelerated its national expansion, in states like Arizona and Florida.

But as locals debate these Italian-style beef adaptations, the real challenge for Portillo’s, Mr. Kern said, is to get people across the country to do what Chicagoans do: worship a soggy sandwich.


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