Chicago’s Signature Sandwich, Italian Beef, Gets a Multicultural Update

CHICAGO — Do you like your Italian beef dry and sweet? Dipped and hot? Or perhaps wet, hot and sweet? Ordering the beloved Chicago sandwich is not unlike the drill at a coffee shop; there’s a language to know, a culture to understand, decisions to make.

The city has several famous foods to its name, like deep-dish pizza and the Chicago hot dog. Yet Italian beef stands apart: roasted, thinly sliced meat that is bathed in its own jus and nestled in a plush roll, then topped with tart, spicy giardiniera or sweet peppers (or both), and often dipped in a rich broth of beef drippings. The broth supercharges the beefy flavor and saturates the crevices of the bread, while the peppers offer tangy relief. In one messy, intensely juicy bite comes a whole meal’s worth of complex flavors.

The sandwich may not be the best-known, or most visually enticing, of those three dishes, said David Hammond, the dining and drinking editor of the local magazine Newcity, and the author of a coming book on the city’s foods. But while deep dish is primarily for tourists, he said, and the hot dogs are sold in many cities, Italian beef belongs to Chicagoans.

“It is hard for me to imagine Chicago food without Italian beef,” Mr. Hammond said.

It’s a dish that speaks volumes about the city and the Italian-beef fan, said Cathy Lambrecht, a member of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “It is a whole reverie of memories.”

Which Italian-beef stand you prefer “brings up, ‘Where did you grow up? What part of town?’” she said. “Or if you are Catholic, ‘what parish did you grow up with?’”

Several establishments — including Al’s Beef, Serrelli’s Finer Foods and Scala’s Original, which closed several years ago — lay claim to inventing the sandwich. The food historian Bruce Kraig said it’s unclear who actually did, though it’s likely that in the 1920s and ’30s, Italian immigrants came up with the dish as a way of stretching a less expensive cut of meat to serve in large quantities at weddings.

Italian beef came to reflect the city itself — its identity as a hub for both working-class immigrants and the meatpacking business. The sandwich made a portable, inexpensive and filling on-the-job meal.

But as the city’s demographics have shifted in recent decades, a new slate of sandwiches inspired by Italian beef has emerged. These creations incorporate a variety of ingredients, from garlicky longanisa sausage at the Filipino cafe Kasama to sweet-savory bulgogi at the Korean-Polish deli Kimski, to halal meat at the 1950s-style fast-food restaurant Slim’s.

If the Italian-beef sandwich mirrors the history of Italian immigrants, these adaptations tell a different kind of story, about a new generation of Chicago chefs mixing the city’s traditions with their own.

In an interview before he died of cancer in December at age 43, the chef Brian Mita said he saw a kinship between Italian beef and niku dofu, a Japanese dish of thinly sliced beef and tofu cooked with soy sauce and dashi.

Like Italian beef, he said, niku dofu is a means of being economical with meat. At his restaurant, Izakaya Mita, niku dofu is stuffed into shokupan, or milk bread, and topped with giardiniera. Mr. Mita introduced the sandwich in summer 2020, making it a permanent addition two months ago because it sold so well.

“Really, it is an amalgamation,” he said. “I am half Japanese, half Chinese, but I grew up here in the States,” in Chicago. “That is a part of my culture, too.”

Chicago was once defined by its discrete immigrant enclaves, said Mr. Kraig, the food historian. “That has all changed, as gentrification has taken place and populations have moved.”

Many neighborhoods now have more diverse populations, he said, and Chicagoans have grown up exposed to a wide array of cuisines, especially as the local restaurant scene has become more multifaceted.

Nate Hoops and Anthony Ngo’s Vietnamese-inspired version of Italian beef at their restaurant, Phodega, felt like a natural outgrowth of their identities as Chicago natives who grew up in Asian American households, Mr. Hoops said.

They layer thinly sliced rib-eye on French bread, and top it with cilantro and jalapeños — classic banh mi fixings. The dish is served with a side of pho broth for dipping. They added the sandwich, called the Pho Dip, to the menu in summer 2020.

“It’s almost like a fail-safe recipe for success,” said Mr. Hoops, 37. Locals love Italian beef, so “you know it is going to do well.”

“I wouldn’t say it is in competition” with Italian beef, he added. “It is definitely a different sandwich.”

Won Kim doesn’t advertise the Ko-Po beef sandwich he created at Kimski as a variation on Italian beef, even though he drew inspiration from the classic dish. His version has bulgogi, sautéed shishito peppers, gochujang butter and a shower of scallions.

Chicagoans love to complain when foods don’t adhere to tradition, he said. “They are quick to judge, so I didn’t want to be even close to calling it an Italian thing.”

And he’s right — people do have strong opinions.

“I am a purist,” said Erick Williams, the chef and owner of Virtue, a Southern restaurant in Hyde Park. “I am sure those sandwiches are probably really good, and I would be interested to try them, but I am in no hurry to replace the original version of an Italian beef.”

He doesn’t make the sandwich at Virtue, but he loves it, and partnered with Al’s Beef in 2020 to serve a special menu that included Italian beef.

Patti Serrelli, the owner of the longtime Italian-beef purveyor Serrelli’s Finer Foods, had a harsher take on these adaptations: “They are kind of bastardizing the original recipe.” At Serrelli’s, Italian beef is made the traditional way, the meat roasted in a secret blend of herbs and spices and dunked in its own juices.

Garrett Kern, the vice president of strategy and culinary for the Chicago-based restaurant chain Portillo’s, said this territorial attitude springs from locals’ desire to protect a dish that feels uniquely theirs.

“A lot of Chicagoans have this chip on their shoulder” because the city doesn’t get as much national attention as other major locales, he said. So they attach outsize levels of pride to Italian beef.

That pride explains why, when Laricia Chandler Baker added a meat-free Italian-beef sandwich to the menu at her vegan restaurant, Can’t Believe It’s Not Meat, in November 2020, she took great pains to ensure that it looked and tasted like the original. She thinly slices soy protein and dunks it in a vegetable broth seasoned with herbs and peppers, then slides it into a French roll.

Khurram Shamim, who sells a halal Italian-beef sandwich at his restaurant, Slim’s, is also hesitant to mess with tradition. Customers want to eat Italian beef while adhering to their dietary restrictions, he said. The sandwich should feel as familiar as possible.

Familiarity has never been a problem for Portillo’s, which is known throughout the city for its Italian beef. This year, the chain went public, and accelerated its national expansion, to states like Arizona and Florida.

But while locals debate over these Italian-beef adaptations, the real challenge for Portillo’s, said Mr. Kern, is getting people across the country to do what Chicagoans do: adore a soggy mess of a sandwich.

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