Since I started this column, I’ve always wondered about doing an italian beef article. Any real Chicagoan has enjoyed one, but during talks in the past with friends, including people who were born in the area, it doesn’t seem like they know much about it, or worse, have had one. So let’s talk about italian beef.
They’re fatty, sloppy, sometimes sweet, other times spicy, but always coma-inducing mountains of meat that bring out the carnivore in any ordinary omnivore. All you really need to know about Italian beef is that there are a few different ways to order it and most times, brevity is key. Size of sandwich, whether you want it sweet or hot (referring to the choice of sweet peppers or giardiniera on top), and if it’s dipped (with extra juice) or double-dipped (the entire finished sandwich is dunked into the beef broth).
When I have to stay in the city, I always stick with Portillo’s. Big beef. Double-dipped. Hot. I always love watching my friends try one for the first time. The reaction is always the same: simultaneously seeing their brain cry for not having known it existed before and then watching their stomach thank them for the gustatory gift Chicago’s given them.
When it all comes together the experience is multi-sensory and oddly interactive. First you encounter the sweet, dense bread sopped up the juices it was dunked in and is now wonderfully mushy. With the taste already in your mouth, you then get the hot meat, fatty and tender from stewing in its own juices for so long. Hit the peppers and you get a slightly crisp texture along with that little bit of sweet or heat, combining in a four-star fireworks display of true Chicago flavor. There’s meat juice everywhere. Don’t eat one of these on a first date. Or do. If you can get through it with a laugh you’ll probably be with that person forever.
Whenever I can find someone with a car or I just can’t take life without it anymore, I’ll drive a few miles west on North Avenue to Johnnie’s Beef. The ride there is interesting and you’re able to watch a few lower-income neighborhoods turn into a gentrified utopia the moment a sushi place pops up on your right, close to the restaurant. Johnnie’s is tiny, generally lined-up outside, only takes cash, doesn’t give refills on drinks and during the Summer they offer Italian ice. This is also the only place I’ve heard the word “juicy” in place of “dipped”. Ordering is quicker than any place I’ve ever been (my sandwich is essentially ready by the time I’m done with my sentence) and the portion size is perfect. At about six inches, you’ll be done with it before you know, and the spice factor is higher due to more oil in their giardiniera.
If you haven’t had a proper Italian beef before, let me know once you have! Just make sure before you go, you pack a pillow.