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~ Sweet Home Chicago: Italian Beef Sandwiches ~

IMG_2416Have I ever eaten an authentic Chicago-Style Italian Beef Sandwich?  Technically, no, because I didn't eat it in Chicago, BUT I ate one, more than a few times, in Philadelphia.  I think it counts as enough experience to write this post because they were sold and marketed as Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches.  I will probably hear a few "boo's" from my Philadelphia friends and readers for my next statement, but:  I like this sandwich better than the Philly's famous cheesesteak.  And, for any of you hard-core Chicagoland folks:  before I decided to post this, I asked the necessary questions of one of my very well-traveled, foodie-writer friends (thank-you Peter), who confirmed that my recipe is pretty dang close to what you'd get in Second City!

IMG_2384Italian Beef Rule #1:  Meat must be melt-in-your-mouth tender!

A bit about Italian beef sandwiches:  The classic Chicago-style beef sandwich is a drippy, wet, mess-of-a sandwich, which is best eaten over a trough.  It is said to have been created by Italian immigrants living and working on the Sout Side (no "h" in South) of Chicago back in the early 1900's.  It was popularized during the 1920's depression by a South-Side butcher named Pasquale Scala.  Scala's sandwich consisted of:  very thinly-sliced/shaved, highly-seasoned, medium-rare roasted beef, that is briefly simmered in a thin, flavorful, specialty sauce made from the meat drippings.  He heaped it onto a sub-type roll and served it topped with fried peppers!

Italian Beef Rule #2:  Sauce must be highly-flavored, yet refined!

A bit about the "sauce":  Nowadays, in a lot of places, the entire sandwich gets plunged into the sauce just prior to serving it to you dripping wet, topped with some spicy giardiniera (a hot pepper and vegetable mixture).  I refer to the liquid as "sauce", rather than "au jus", because I don't want you to confuse the Italian beef sandwich with the French dip sandwich, which gets served with its own somewhat salty juice (au jus) to the side, into which you daintily dip the ends of the sandwich as you eat it.  The sauce for Italian beef is very robust, the key being not to let any one spice or flavor overwhelm it.  I also don't refer to the liquid as a "gravy", because if you are Italian, that's "a tomato-based pasta sauce".  If it's not au jus and it's not gravy:  it's sauce!

IMG_2399Italian Beef Rule #3:  Learn the lingo for ordering Italian beef:

"dry" = no extra sauce gets added to the meat after it has been sauced and placed on the roll

"wet" = extra sauce gets ladled over the meat after it is place on the roll

"dipped" = the entire sandwich, meat and bread, gets submerged in the sauce 

Als1I can't hands-on recommend a place to eat Italian beef in Chicago, but, Al's, which is now a franchise, has been rated #1 consistently for years.  They make their Italian beef using top sirloin and their slightly-spicy sauce is a well-kept secret.  There's standing room eating only at the counter (no indoor seating) + a few picnic tables outside.  Founded in 1938, my reseach indicates that if you're in Chicago and new to Italian beef, this is where to go to give it a try! 

Making Chicago-style Italian beef sangwitches a la Mel...

... it's easier than you think & here's what you'll need:

IMG_2281USE A MEAT THERMOMETER!!! If you do not have one, go buy, beg, borrow or steal one!  Come back and read the rest of this post when you have one in your hand!

For the beef (at room temperature):

1  8-pound top sirloin roast

IMG_2290For the sauce:

6  cups beef stock, preferably homemade (but canned stock works just fine)

1  cup port wine (a sweet, fortified red wine)

1/2  cup Pickapeppa sauce (a Jamaican steak-type sauce), or your favorite steak sauce

1/2  cup Worcestershire sauce


In a 2-quart measuring container, whisk together all of the sauce ingredients.  Set aside.

IMG_2300For the spice rub (combine):

2  tablespoons Italian seasoning blend

1  tablespoon garlic powder

1  tablespoon fine sea salt

2  tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper

1  teaspoon red pepper flakes

IMG_2302For the aromatics and fresh herbs:

12-16 ounces coarsely chopped yellow or sweet onion

3-4  ounces each:  coarsely chopped carrot and celery

1-2  4-6" sprigs each:  fresh rosemary and oregano 

4-6  3-4" sprigs fresh thyme

Getting the beef ready for the oven + roasting and resting it:

IMG_2315~ Step 1.  Prep and place aeromatics/herbs in the bottom of 2, 20" x 12" x 4" disposable aluminum pans that have been doubled to form one sturdy pan.  Add 4 cups of the sauce.  Set remainder aside. 

~ Step 2.  Place a 12 1/2" x 11 1/2" sturdy cooling rack into the pan and put the roast, fat-side-up on top of it.

IMG_2318Note:  My measurements are hardware specific.  When roast goes onto rack, no part of it should be touching any of the liquid!

~ Step 3.  Using your fingertips, begin applying the spice to all surfaces of the roast, concentrating on the top first, then the sides afterward, allowing all excess rub to sift down into the sauce mixture!

IMG_2337~ Step 4.  Roast, uncovered, on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven, about 2- 2 1/2 hours, or, until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the center, in 2-3 places across the top, reads 125-130 degrees.  Do not overcook.  Do not be inclined to cut or taste even the smallest of pieces or bites... any cut you make in the roast now will result in a loss of a lot of juices! 

IMG_2343~ Step 5.  Tighty seal the entire pan with aluminum foil.  Set aside to rest, about 2 hours.  This allows residual heat to cook roast to medium-rare, and the rest of the juices to drip into the sauce!

~ Step 6.  Uncover pan, remove the roast, wrap it tightly in plastic, place it on a plate and set aside 2 hours prior to slicing.  

IMG_2354Note:  Call me old-school, but, I am not in favor of refrigeration prior to slicing this meat under any circumstances.  In my humble opionion, refrigeration absolutely compromises the flavor and texture of the meat and all of the fat within and surrounding the meat.  I also have it on good authority that authentic Italian beef is always sliced while it is still warm!

IMG_2351~ Step 7.  About 30 minutes prior to slicing meat, place the remaining 4 cups of sauce mixture in a 10" chef's pan with straight, deep sides.






~ Step 8.  Next, transfer all of the highly-flavorful pan juices, about 2-2 1/2 cups, through a fine mesh strainer, into the sauce in the chef's pan (pictured above). Discard the vegetables left in strainer (although I always find myself eating those luscious carrots).

Note:  You will now have 6-6 1/2 cups of highly-flavored sauce for your Italian beef sandwiches!

IMG_2372It's time to slice the beef!

~ Step 9.  In a perfect world, every home kitchen would have an electric meat slicer. This Chef's Choice VariTilt (model 632) will make short work of cutting my entire roast into paper-thin slices in less than 10 minutes.  In my busy kitchen, this time-saving machine paid for itself almost the moment it arrived.  Don't have a meat slicer? Don't fret.  Just pick up a sharp knife and slice the beef as thinly as you physically can, or:

Just slice it to a thickness you like!  It's your dang sangwitch!  

IMG_2399~ Step 10.  Over medium heat, bring the sauce to a gentle simmer.  Slice a firm-textured sub-type roll in half lengthwise.  Using a pair of tongs, grab a portion of beef and swirl it around in the simmering sauce for about 10-15 seconds. Continue this process until sandwich is filled with meat,  placing the dripping wet meat on the roll as you go.  Top with whatever you want, but I like it the classic way, with crunchy, colorful hot giardiniera:



IMG_2446A bit about the giardiniera:  Coming from the Italian word "giardiniere" which means "gardener", culinarily this is a mixture of pickled garden vegetables.  Depending on the type of peppers added to it, the mixure can be mild or spicy/"hot".  It can be chunky-diced (which I like) or small-diced (which Joe likes).  When you're in Chicago, you'll be served the kind Joe likes!

Sweet Home Chicago:  Italian Beef Sandwiches:  Recipe yields 12 large sandwiches and 6-6 1/2 cups of sauce (allowing about 1/2 cup per sandwich for dipping or drizzling).

Special Equipment List:  2-quart measuring container; whisk; 1-cup measuring container, 2, 20" x 12" x 4" disposable aluminum roasting pans, doubled to form one sturdy pan; 18 x 10" cooling rack; 10" chef's pan w/straight deep sides; instant-read meat thermometer;  heavy-duty aluminum foil; plastic wrap; fine mesh strainer; cutting board; chef's knife; electric meat slicer (optional but worth the investment if you want to save $$$'s on store-bought deli-meat); tongs

6a0120a8551282970b017c3189181a970bCook's Note:  To get my recipe for ~ Chicago-Style Deep-Dish Pizza ~, which I first tasted at Uno's on Rush Street in Chicago, just click into Categories 2, or 19.  It was an experience of a lifetime!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2012)


Ernest -- I don't have a newsletter you can subscribe to. Feel free, however, to follow me, Melanie Preschutti on Facebook. I post all blog posts there, the moment after I publish them here on Kitchen Enounters. I have a very nice group of foodie friends who follow me there. Thanks for your support!


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