Beef. The quintessential meat. Hearty and filling, it can be found throughout many different cuisines served in very different forms. If you visit Chicago, you can sample some of the best steaks in the country. We used to be the butcher for the world with the Union Stockyards, but they have gone the way of smoking on airplanes and pay phones.
Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a great porterhouse or t-bone. If you’re not in the mood to drop some major paper on some of that red stuff, there are cheaper alternatives. Enter another Chicago institution: the Italian beef sandwich. While other US cities have sandwiches that could be considered distant cousins to this hearty and humble meal like Philly’s cheesesteak or Pittsburgh’s Tommy DiNic’s Italian pork sandwich, the Chicago version is the best, I think. In fact, it is so popular here that there are many restaurants that claim to have the best Italian beef sandwich in the city. Today’s restaurant review revolves around one of the biggest names in the beef biz: Mr. Beef.
Two of the biggest names in the city are Al’s Beef located in the Little Italy neighborhood and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the River North neighborhood. Their rivalry is so notorious that it was featured on Travel Channel’s Food Wars. I won’t spoil it for you, but I disagree who the real winner is. Anyway, for those of you who haven’t been to Chicago, an Italian beef sandwich is one of those “must”s for Chicago tourists to try. It’s in the holy trinity of a Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza, and the holy beef sandwich. It arose from the Italian immigrant community’s need to make the meat last longer, so they sliced it thin, stewed it with spices, and slapped the tender meat on a fresh roll. Thus, the Italian beef sandwich was born. While I was working at a Mexican university that was located right next to the restaurant, I knew I had to pop over to try it since I’ve walked past it a million times but never tried their sandwiches. So, I finally fulfilled my vow, and walked in to see a shop that is similar to other Italian delis with lots of pictures on the wall and a deli counter at one end with no fancy decorations. Scanning the menu, I saw the beef sandwich I wanted, but it was 7 bucks. I couldn’t believe how expensive it was compared to their competitors, so I was expecting this sandwich to justify the price tag. I got it spicy which means that I got giardiniera on top. I think giardiniera is also a Chicago thing since it comes from the Italian community also and consists of a mix of pickled vegetables and chili peppers in olive oil. However, you can get it mild with cooked bell peppers or with no peppers at all. Then there’s the juice factor. You can get it dry or juicy, i.e. dipped in the same herb tinged broth the beef soaks in. I always get mine juicy since it adds more flavor to savor, but you can get it dry to enjoy the freshness of the bread and the delicious beef. After the brusque cashier took down my order, they set to making my sandwich. As I was looking at the menu I saw they had other typical fast food staples like burgers, hot dogs, and sides like fries and onion rings. Eventually, I finally got my sandwich and was ready to see what all the hubbub was about. I got a seat in the back room at one of the super long tables you share with your fellow diners. Once I opened up my wrapped up treasure, it looked mouth-watering. From the bright verdant giardiniera to the fresh bread, I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into dat beef. The first bite was quite satisfying with a good ratio of bread to meat, but it lacked that spicy flair that comes with other dipped Italian beef sammiches. The beef was tender and flavorful, but the giardiniera left something to be desired. While other Italian eateries have a generous blend of veggies, I wasn’t a fan of the mainly celery based mix atop my meal. It wasn’t as fiery as other spicy sandwiches which made it lose points, but it was innovative in the sense that the giardiniera was extremely crunchy to provide a bit of different texture to the mainly chewy sandwich.
So in the end, would I say Mr. Beef is the be-all, end all of Italian beef in Chi-town? I’d say no. It lacks the ingredient complexity of their competitors, and the relatively expensive price tag took it down a couple notches in my book. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try this fixture on the Chicago food scene. It’s just a different take on a hometown classic, so maybe it will be better for you than for me. Happy hunting!