The Italian Beef Sandwich
A Brief History
Created on the South Side of Chicago, in the Italian enclaves around the now defunct Stockyards, the classic Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich is a unique, drippy, messy variation on the French Dip. It is available in hundreds of joints around the city, and rarely found beyond its environs (except of course here at Chicago Mike's!).
The exact origin is unknown, but the sandwich was probably created by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s as they rose from poverty and ground meat into the middle class, when they were able to afford beef for roasting.
Nobody knows for sure the inventor, but the recipe was popularized by Pasquale Scala, a South Side butcher and sausage maker. During the Depression, in the late 1920s, when food was scarce, Scala's thinly sliced roast beef on a bun with gravy and fried peppers took off. Today, beef sandwitches are a staple at Italian weddings, funerals, parties, political fundraisers, and lunches "wit my boyz".
Italian Beef is made by slowly roasting lean beef on a rack above a pan filled with seasoned beef-based stock. Some folks call it gravy, but in most Chicago Italian households gravy is a term reserved for tomato sauces. Let's just call it juice, OK?
Then it is sliced paper thin, soaked in the juice, and layered generously, dripping wet, onto sections of Italian bread loaves, sliced lengthwise. According to Allen Kelson, former restaurant critic for Chicago Magazine, and now a restaurant consultant, it is important that the bread has, what Bounty Towels calls "wet strength". This comes from long fermentations, he explains. The more accelerator, the worse the bread, as far as Italian beef goes. French breads just don't cut it, he says.
The meat is topped with sautéd green bell pepper slices and giardiniera according to your choice. This is simply a condiment of hot pickles serrano peppers, celery, green olives, carrots, cauliflower, and more with spices packed in oil. Finally beef juice is spooned over the toppings, making the bread wet and chewy. We will dip the whole sandwich in juice if you ask. You can also ask for juice for dipping on the side, but then everyone will know "you ain't from Chicago are you?"