Real Home-Made Italian Beef Sandwiches: The Chicago Classic in Your Kitchen

I did not like eating meat as a child. So it was not hard for me to become vegetarian on my own at age 11 (nobody in my immediate family did so with me).  There were several reasons for this odd childhood decision in the 1970s.   

My mother did not like to cook, and she would admit that her skills were uninspired in this area, particularly with over-cooked meats.  While we ate meals out or had take-out frequently, I never cared for most meat in restaurants.

I also was a big animal-lover, with cats, dogs, hamsters, gerbils, and fish in our household.  Thus, I did not care for the idea of eating animals, when I was young.  I read extensively about animal rights (for example, Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation), the horrors of the meat-packing industry (e.g., Upton Sinclair’s classic, The Jungle) and some of the more  kooky 1960s health food manifestos.

George indicates Italian beef to be chop-licking good.

For about 10 years, I ate no red meat or chicken.  During some of that time, I did not touch seafood, either.  However, I suddenly reverted to omnivorous ways at a dinner party while at the University of Chicago, where the hostess did not know I was vegetarian.  She served a wonderful medium-rare steak.  I decided it would have been rude to declare my vegetarianism and thought I would give it a try. My clean plate indicated a hasty farewell to my strict vegetarianism.  Today, however, I eat relatively little red meat or even chicken and try to be sure it is ethically raised, organic, free-range, or, at least, happy.

This is all a round-about way of explaining that, while I grew up near one of the very best purveyors of Italian beef sandwiches in suburban Chicago, I think I never ate one until I was an adult.  When I discovered this classic sandwich, I became a devoted admirer of this Chicago classic.  I have tried examples, which are supposed to be the best – all over  ”Chicagoland”.   

The Italian beef sandwich is one of two Chicago originals, specialties in the culinary world and best eaten there – the deep-dish Chicago-style pizza being the other.  In the nearly 20 years I have been away from Chicago, I make a point of having Italian beef on each trip back.  

For the Italian beef’s origins, review, food holidays – and the recipe…

Italian beef is a kissing cousin to the French dip sandwich (purportedly, it originated in Los Angeles), served “au jus”.  The difference is that Italian beef is served with a more vinegar-y sauce, hot and/or sweet bell peppers, and giardiniera, a mixed pickle of bite-sized pieces of celery, carrot, cauliflower, pearl onions, spicy peppers, as well as red and green bell peppers. In Chicago at an Italian beef stand, one would order a sandwich with hot peppers well-soaked as “Italian Beef, hot and juicy” – or “sweet” for the sweet peppers – in the correct local slang.   

The distinctive hot-vinegar-garlic-spice blend imbue the beef with superb and complex umami flavours.  Using the abundant gravy in which the beef roasted, the bread can soak up an excellent counterpoint to the tender, fall-apart shreds of beef, contrasted by the crunchy and chewy giardiniera. With a (relatively) lean beef base and lots of pickled vegetables, the Italian beef sandwich is rather light and more healthful – certainly compared to regional classics as Philly cheese steak sandwiches.  It does include most of the major food groups….

I have prepared Italian beef twice, adapting a recipe from my very favourite food writers, Jane and Michael Stern’s book, Roadfood Sandwiches, and another one for a slow-cooker version from Allrecipes.com.  The only issue I would point out is that the roll or bread should be a soft but chewy and firm Italian bread, rather than the more crisp and hearty French baguette.  However, it should not be too fluffy and delicate, or else the sandwich will disintegrate.  One day, I hope to bake the right kind of bread, as the store-bought and bakery-produced versions I have tried here were not quite right.

It is very simple to make and can feed a crowd for brunch (before watching a sporting event?), lunch, dinner, or whenever one wants an authentic taste of Chicago.

Before the recipe, I wanted to incorporate a couple of items I usually put in my Friday Food Facts and Fun feature, as it is Friday.

Upcoming Food Holidays

January 7 – National Tempura Day

January 8 – National English Toffee Day

January 9 – National Apricot Day

January 10 – National Bittersweet Chocolate Day

January 11 – National Hot Toddy Day

January 12 – National Marzipan Day  and National Curried Chicken Day and
National Glazed Doughnut Day

January 13 – National Peach Melba Day

January 14 – National Hot Pastrami Sandwich Day

It is a bit much to go from bittersweet chocolate to glazed donuts to pastrami sandwiches, with just a day in between – during the month of January, for that matter – do you agree?

Despite some of those, January is also a month of oatmeal, soup, and fat-free living:

  • National Hot Tea Month
  • National Oatmeal Month
  • National Slow Cooking Month
  • National Soup Month
  • National Baking Month
  • National Fat Free Living Month

Italian Beef Sandwiches, Adapted from Jane and Michael Stern’s Sandwiches, from Original AI’s #1,  serves 10-12

Ingredients

  • 6 garlic cloves, cut into slivers
  • 1 3- to 4-pound boneless chuck roast (or bottom round), well marbled
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 cup marinade from jar of store-bought giardiniera (a pickled, spicy assortment of vegetables)
  • Hero rolls, Portuguese rolls, or Italian bread (or baguettes, as a lower-priority alternative)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Use a small knife to insert the garlic slivers into the roast all over.
  3. Put the water in a deep baking pan not much larger than the roast.
  4. Add the roast and top it with the seasonings. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 2 hours, basting 3 or 4 times and adding water, if necessary, to keep plenty of juice in the pan.
  5. Remove the beef from the pan and let it sit. With an extremely sharp knife and a big fork, slice or shred the meat into very thin slices or small shreds, similar to pulled pork.
  6. Degrease the pan and taste the gravy – it should be highly seasoned with a peppery kick.
  7. Adjust the seasonings to-taste and add cup of giardiniera marinade from and mix in.
  8. Allow it to wallow at least 15 to 20 minutes before serving.
  9. Serve on rolls or lengths of Italian bread with roasted bell peppers and store-bought giardiniera.

For the slow-cooker version:

  1. Heat two cups of water with one-half litre of chicken or beef stock until boiling, add the dried spices.
  2. Place  water-spices in slow-cooker, add roast (prepared as above with garlic).
  3. Cook for 5-6 hours on low setting, basting every couple of hours, or whenever you are drawn in by the aroma…until fall-apart tender.  Follow the shredding/slicing directions above.
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25 responses to “Real Home-Made Italian Beef Sandwiches: The Chicago Classic in Your Kitchen

  1. Your sandwich looks really delicious and very decadent too!

  2. I’ve been waiting for you two post this! Between this and the deep-dish pizza, I’m not sure which to try first…but I am picking up a big load of grass-fed beef at the end of this month, so maybe the beef sandwich should wait until then. Oh yeah, and happy National Tempura Day. Who woulda known? Theresa

    • Hi, Theresa. I would love to buy some local grass-fed beef (I used to buy some raised up in Pemberton while living in Vancouver), so I should get your source. You’d like the slow-cooker version of this recipe. It makes your house smell tantalizing all day and is perfect to greet dinner guests with the aroma.

      Once I get over my fear of frying, I can celebrate National Tempura Day. That is one holiday which deserves a big feast, I dare say.

      Thanks,

      Dan

  3. Wow, the cat had the right idea. This dish looks amazing! Very nice. I love these beef sandwiches and I really love the recipe to this. I have to try this. Thanks for sharing

    • You’re welcome, Babygirl (which happens to be one of the nicknames for our other cat, Jinja). It is a great recipe – one which is surprisingly easy to do at home.

      Thanks,

      Dan

  4. So clearly this is something to try when I’m in the Windy City! Looks delicious, and clearly George agrees!

    Hopefully seeing you, C & the cats soon, fingers crossed!

    Jax x

    • Hi, Jax (I hope nobody said anything like that at Heathrow or Gatwick!).

      You’d enjoy this sandwich very much. Regardless of whether I can make my version for you when you’re out here, try Mr. Beef (Orleans Street) or Al’s #1 Italian Beef (various locations) in Chicago. Also, a visit to Pizzeria Uno or Due near north really would be the way to go in Chi-town!

      Thanks,

      Dan

  5. Michele Patterson

    I can relate as I have been a vegetarian (well actually fish-e-tarian) for 25 years or so, but for some reason I have recently been having cravings for lamb…..lamb chops, rack of lamb with mint, lamb souvlaki… how odd eh? I haven’t acted on this yet, but may have to do something about this by asking chef friends for outstanding lamb recipes ;)

    • Thanks, Michele. I know what you mean about those sorts of cravings. We might be able to get some fresh lamb, raised just around the bay from us, if we are very lucky. In this case, I can hear the bleating from the lambs in the spring before they turn into various dishes elsewhere – but they have a wonderful “lambhood” with rolling meadows and great ocean views!!!

      I do have a wonderful lamb stew recipe, but I want to re-create a shepherd’s pie I ate at a new year’s eve potluck (with spinach, topped by sweet potatoes rather than the traditional white mash).

      Dan

  6. Chicago pride! Dan, this is a really helpful post, in addition to being totally mouthwatering. I’ve only tried Italian beef once, and didn’t get the mass appeal; your post is a great explanation of it. I’ll have to try making the stuff myself now…that’s always the key in learning to love something, anyway.

    • Hi, Maddie. I wonder where you tried the aforementioned sandwich? If you ever make it out to Elmwood Park, the best – I think – is Johnnie’s, along with a superb Italian lemonade (Italian ice).

      But, then again, the home-made version is superb, I have to admit…you will be able to find the right kind of submarine sandwich rolls easily, I bet.

      Thanks,

      Dan

  7. Oh my, this sandwich sounds like it was made just for me. What a delicious treat. Both of my brothers attended the University of Chicago by the way, it was fun to visit and watch the neighborhood change. I am going to have to give them a hard time as they never introduced me to a real Italian sandwich.

    I do not see it listed on your holiday schedule, which leads me to believe I can make my own date with destiny, which I will indeed do soon. Thanks again!

    • Thanks, Louann. I wonder if you had pizza at Medici, Edwardo’s, or Giordano’s on your Hyde Park visits? I never had Italian beef around UChicago, as I was vegetarian for almost my entire time there, and I don’t think there was a good outlet for this sandwich near campus…though there was Harold’s Chicken Shack – another not-so-great vegetarian dining option.

      You do raise a good point about National Italian Beef Sandwich Day – a holiday which should definitely exist!!!

      Dan

  8. Dan, what an awesome sandwich!!! But most i really enjoyed reading about your story how you became vegetarian and then had this sandwich. I have never been vegetarian and i don’t think i could it but i, just like you, don’t eat a lot of it. I just need to eat more fish than i do. If i could i would eat fish 5 times a week, but if i get it once or twice a week i am happy.

    • Hi, Ewa. I do hope you try this at home, when you feel like classic Chicago comfort food. Seafood is something I could eat more frequently, too, and the summer is when I indulge more.

      Thanks so much,

      Dan

  9. Dan – Love the sandwich, and have ever since I was in Chicago on an interview…many years ago. My handler took me out to “dinner” after a long day of meetings … we stood on a street corner and scarfed down Italian Beef sandwiches. I turned down the job, but the sandwich gained an immediate place of affection in my heart.

    The white lily flour you asked about… nothing really is a good substitute for it. Most are either too heavy, or just a bad mix of flour and leavening. You can buy White Lily online at >> http://onlinestore.smucker.com/display_category.cfm?cat_id=63&aid=WWLW07010

    Cheers,

    Toby

    • Thanks for the advice on Lily flour and the comment, Toby. I’m trying to recall if I ever had a “handler”, though I like the image of standing up to eat the Italian beef: this is the proper posture, after all!

      But now you can make it while frozen indoors in not-so-hot-Atlanta…..

      Dan

  10. Dan, you know the first pic of the sandwich is deliciously shocking!
    Funny you were vegetarian and now you try some meat.

    With those beefy sandwiches is hard to ignore them :)

    All the best,

    Gera

  11. Hi, Gera. I have always wanted to have a deliciously shocking picture – or sandwich! That is a great description, which I will have to steal, um, borrow from you.

    Yes, the Italian beef sandwich is the foe of vegetarians everywhere….

    Thank you,

    Dan

  12. Dan, I’m right behind you, on the long, omnivore line.
    This is one of my favorite sandwiches—followed by the French Dip (which is what I had for lunch, yesterday). Your delectable photos speak volumes, as always!

    • Hi, Sol. Omnivores eat everything – that could have been a t-shirt in the 1970s.

      I am still wanting to try an original French dip in L.A., which I have not done on visits there. I’ve had too many poor imitations and only a few good ones.

      Thanks,

      Dan

  13. Have you eaten at Phillipe’s which is supposed to be the original French Dip in L.A.? Anyhow, the sandwich looks hearty, juicy and delicious. My whole fam. would appreciate this one and it seems very user friendly.

    • Hi, Geni. Jane and Michael Stern love Phillipe’s, and I don’t know why I’ve never eaten there, while in LA (a couple of trips were during my vegetarian era…). It is a major place in American food history for the French dip!

      The Italian beef is similar but the vinegar’s acidity and giardiniera distinguish it from the more garlic-y French dip and make it habit-forming. The slow-cooker version is really easy, so you might like to try it out….

      Thanks,

      Dan

  14. Pingback: Blogging, Copywriting – Social Media – Internet Tools – Foodies: Best of this Week

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