The Italian Beef sandwich: what Chicagoans crave when they move away. And what tops their “must have” list when they return. It’s a simple food: beef in its own seasoned juice–called gravy–and served on Italian rolls or crusty bread. If you like, topped with sweet green peppers, hot Giardineria…or both.
Depending on how much you love gravy, you also can order your Italian Beef sandwich:
- Dry: no extra gravy
- Wet: extra gravy is added
- Dipped: the bread is dunked in gravy
How did Italian Beef sandwiches get to Chicago?
Italian Beef sandwiches are Chicago-born, dating back to the 1930s. Maybe even earlier. This was a “working man” food. Italians (they were considered undesirable immigrants then) working at the Union Stock Yards would bring home the tough cuts of meat (also undesirable) sold by the company.
Because Italians happen to know a thing or two about food, the meat would be slow-roasted, then simmered in broth flavored with Italian spices. Cut into thin strips–across the grain–and put on Italian bread. Delicious!
Pasquale Scala recognized the opportunity to make a profit from Italian Beef. In 1925, he and some buddies founded Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company. Their beef was a huge hit at Italian weddings, because it was sliced so thinly that it could feed lots of guests at a reasonable price.
From there, the Italian Beef sandwich took off like a rocket. An ethnic food for poor people became a Chicago food for everyone. Now, it’s available across the country…but never as good as in Chicago.
Others jumped on the bandwagon, too. Of course, everyone has an opinion about which is best:
- Al’s Beef, by Al Ferreri: 1938
- Mr. Beef, by Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and Tony Ozzauto: 1961
- Portillo’s, by Richard Portillo: 1963, but didn’t add beef sandwiches until the 1990s
How can I make my own Italian Beef sandwiches?
Naturally, when we can’t get to our favorite beef stand, we wish we could duplicate it. Good news! We can come very, very close! My son and I have tinkered with an online recipe and think we have nailed the taste. The other news: it’s shredded, not sliced. Unless we invest in a meat slicer–and we’re not–there is no way to make the characteristic paper-thin slices. But we’re fine with that.
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon onion salt
- 3 cups beef broth or water
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 (2/3 ounce) envelope Italian salad dressing mix (such as Good Seasons)
- 5 lbs inside round roast (cap on)
1. In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the water, salt, ground black pepper, oregano, basil, onion salt, garlic powder, and salad dressing mix.
2. Stir well and bring just to a boil.
3. Place roast in a slow cooker and pour mixture over the roast.
4. Cover and cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours OR high setting for 4 to 5 hours.
5. Shred meat with a fork.
6. Serve on Italian rolls or French bread.
As with all recipes, adapt the ingredients to your taste.
Want to make the hot Giardineria, too? Here you go!
If you’re a budget traveler, or a Frugal Foodie, an Italian Beef sandwich will cost you $6-8.