(photo copped from Gary Wiviott's great neighborhood restaurants page--thanks, GWiv!)
I grew up in the Chicago area and can remember eating Italian Beef sandwiches with my dad on the weekends. We made a lot of ritual pilgrimages to various temples of Chicago food excellence--Jim's Original for Maxwell Street style Polish, Kaufman's on Dempster for bagels, Big Herm's for hot dogs, and Walker Brother's for apple pancakes and Dutch babies, for instance. But my all-time favorite was the trip to Luke's on Rand Rd. for beef sandwiches and those enormous grease-stained bags of their skinny, crispy, slightly-too-salty fries.
I'm not sure that I've got anything to say about the classic Chicago Italian beef sandwich that hasn't already been written. Quite a few food writers have waxed rhapsodic about how eating a beef at a dive like Al's or Johnny's represents the quentissential "big shoulders", greasy-fingers, blue-collar Chicago experience. But watch out for the out-of-towners (they're usually big-shot magazine writers from New York) that get it wrong. One guy talked about how the beef on the Al's sandwich was "chopped". Another described giardiniera as a "fermented vegetable relish". (I am not kidding--read the links)
Anyway, I'm not going to let the fact that I've got nothing new to add to the dialog stop me from popping off.
First off, here's what a beef sandwich should not be; it should not have cheese on it, in any form. Sorry, but no. It should not have red sauce (marinara). The beef should be sliced, but the slices should not be readily identifiable as slices. Instead, it should be sliced thin enough that when it's heated up in the gravy, it should disintegrate into a kind of clumpy, shreddy mass. Never order an Italian beef that has to be brought to you by a waiter. (credit to eatchicago, over at LTH forum for that last one)
Oh, and forget looking up recipes and trying to make it at your house. You can't. Doing it right involves a professional deli slicer and a steam table. You don't have those at your house, so just forget about it, ok? There are some things that are not meant to be made in your home kitchen. Fried calamari is one. Beef sandwiches are another.
I've eaten a lot of bad beef sandwiches in my day. It's counter-intuitive to think that something that's soaking in brothy juice could be dry, right? Nope. Wrong. Don't make the mistake of ordering a beef from a hot dog place or a sandwich shop that also sells beef sandwiches. If you're going to eat a beef in this city, where we're blessed enough to have so many wonderful beef stands, then do yourself a favor and go to a beef stand that may or may not also sell hot dogs and sandwiches.
More stuff to avoid; a beef sandwich should be served on Italian bread. Not a hoagie or a torpedo roll. The bread should have blunt sides, indicating that it was sliced off of a long loaf. It shouldn't be glossy or shiny. Watch out for places that wrap your beef sandwich in foil or (god forbid) put it in some kind of plastic baggie (yes, I swear that I've seen this). A properly prepared beef sandwich is wrapped in paper, which allows some of the steam and heat to escape and helps prevent the sandwich from getting overly soggy.
I know, I know...it's a bit of a contradiction since what is a beef sandwich, after all, but a big soggy gravy-soaked bread bomb? But that's why the wrap is important. There's a fine line between a perfect dipped beef sandwich and an inedible sogged-out mess.
Have I mentioned the "Chicago lean" yet?
This goes back to the places like the original Al's on Taylor, which offered no seating, but do thoughtfully provide a thin ledge of a shelf that goes around the outer edge of the restaurant so you can cram your juicy sweet down while you stand there watching the shady Taylor St. goings-on and wonder whether you'll have room for an Italian ice at Mario's after you're done (you will). Don't forget to pick up some lupini or monkey nuts while you're there.
Anyway, the "Chicago lean" refers to the technique that Chicago's true beef connoisseurs employ so as to avoid getting any beef or grease on their clothes while they're partaking. It's a lost art, since most places have opted to provide seating and tables for their customers, although it does work equally well while eating your beef sandwich off the hood of your car--you just kind of have to lower your stance some.
As for my favorite beef stand, well, what happens is that the ones I go to regularly tend to shift, depending on where I live or work. I love beef sandwiches, but I'm not going to drive way far out of my way to get one. I did that once, after reading on LTH forum over and over again about how great Johnny's in Elmwood Park was. Drove like an hour down there just to try it and I got a combo with a burnt piece of sausage, some pretty good beef, fries that I watched the guy take out of the freezer and open the bag, and a lot of attitude. Not worth the hassle.
So I stay close to home. Back when I lived on Taylor and Racine, I went to Al's and sometimes Patio. When I lived in Jeff Park, my go-to beef stand was Roma's on Cicero, which has acceptable beef, but their sausage and fries (ask for them well done) are the real stand outs. I would also utilize Duke's on Central as an acceptable backup (good beef, mediocre sausage, avoid the meatball sandwich).
Nowadays, I'm up in Park Ridge, and I've got an Al's right down the street from my house. Walking distance. Very dangerous. But it's one of those franchised Al's, so it's hard to know where you stand. Some of those are just downright bad. Al's has done their brand a significant disservice by not maintaining standards among their franchisees.
Luckily, my local outpost of Al's is really excellent. In fact, it's one of the better beefs I've eaten consistently in the Chicago area. They offer three sizes (4", 6", or 8"), which is kind of a nice option, and they do everything correctly. The beef is always shredded right, flavorful, and juicy, the bread is right, and the giardiniera is one of the best I've had. When done correctly, a beef--dipped, hot gives you this incredible study in textures, with the chew of the beef, the soft juicy collapse of the bread, and the crunch of the giardiniera, as well as this complex warm mix of flavors--spicy, sweet, savory with oregano, garlic, and hot peppers, a warm backnote (is that a bit of nutmeg or clove I detect?), and this great overarching flavor of concentrated beef that you can only get from cooking one ingredient multiple ways (braised, roasted, broth) and then combining them all in the same bite.
Their fries are also really excellent; a great example of a fresh-cut, double-fried fry. How did I ever get so lucky?
I haven't been to Luke's in a few years, and I must admit that I'm a bit confused by the split that resulted in Tore & Luke's vs. just plain Luke's. And is this the same family that's also involved with the whole Portillo's/Brown's Chicken feud? I'm not sure, but I'd just as soon stay out of it and not take sides. I've got enough headaches dealing with my own family, thankyouverymuch.
Besides, I've had beef sandwiches from Portillo's quite a few times (they're consistently ranked as the best in Chicago) and they're just average. Possibly below average. The Portillo's beef sandwich hype is simply due to the fact that they're everywhere. It's exposure. Nothing more.
I did have a beef from the Luke's on Rand a few years back and found it to be just ok. Not as good as Al's or even Roma's. "They've gone downhill," I thought to myself. It's funny how we always remember things we ate as a kid as being the greatest, the most perfect shining example of what that item could possibly be, and then, after we've ventured out into the world, when we re-visit these places and they're not as good as remembered, we blame the establishment rather than our own over-idealized memories and relative inexperience, which conspired to build the whole thing up into something that couldn't possibly ever be replicated. These sort of food taste memories are way more about the specific time, place, and how we're feeling than they are about the actual food we're eating.
It's really only kids that can experience things in such a pure, non-jaded, raw-enthusiasm sort of way. Of course, my kid will only eat a grilled cheese sandwich at Al's, so this might not be the best tangent to explore. He does get really excited about that grilled cheese, though.
Nonetheless, I'm sticking with my inaccurate idealized memory of those Sunday-afternoon beef sandwiches with my Dad and brother at Luke's as being the best ever.
But their order of fries has definitely gotten smaller....