Food & Drink

How the Italian Beef Became the Iconic Sloppy Sandwich of Chicago

Al's Beef, Italian Beef Sandwich
Courtesy of Al's Beef

With all due respect to the Chicago-style hot dog and deep-dish pizza, no food is more "Chicago" than the Italian beef sandwich. While it was most famously glorified by Jay Leno and playfully mocked by the Super Fans of Saturday Night Live, Chicago’s essential culinary invention stems from inauspicious (and sometimes shady) origins on the city’s West Side dating back nearly 100 years. Who invented the Italian beef? Depends who you ask.

How the Italian beef came to be

When tracing the history of the Italian beef, all roads lead through Al’s #1 Italian Beef on Taylor St. According to longtime Al’s owner Chris Pacelli, the sandwich's story starts around the end of World War I with a Chicago street peddler named Anthony Ferrari. Ferrari would drive around the city making deliveries of cold sandwiches and other lunches he cooked in his home to blue-collar workers at various locations around the city. One day he went to a local wedding and the course of Chicago culinary history was changed forever.

Anthony Ferrari, Al's Beef
Courtesy of Al’s Beef

While many in the beef business claim to have invented the Italian beef, the common ground is that its origins lie in the Italian-American immigrant tradition of the “peanut wedding” prevalent among Italians who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1900s. Because the new immigrants didn’t have much money, wedding receptions would be held in homes and church basements where peanuts and other cheap foods designed to feed as many people as possible were served. This included cuts of beef.

Pacelli says beef sandwiches at peanut weddings in the early days were originally cut rather thick and Ferrari noticed that if you slice the beef thinner and cook it in its own juices, you could feed 35-40 people instead of 15-20. The thinner cut came to be known as the Italian beef sandwich and afterwards Ferrari continued to provide the service at local weddings sporadically in addition to making to his usual lunch deliveries for the next 20 years until his son, Al, decided to make a business out of it. This is when things really get interesting.

Al Ferrari, Al's Beef
Courtesy of Al’s Beef

“It started as a front for a bookie operation,” says Pacelli (better known to neighborhood locals as “Bones”), whose father Chris Pacelli Sr. started the business with Bones’ uncle Al Ferrari in 1938. The original Al’s -- originally called Al’s Bar B-Q -- located at Harrison and Laflin St, was little more than a small outdoor patio (or “stand,” as there was no seating) where the family would take food orders out front while the gambling took place inside the restaurant in the back. “[Al] said, ‘I’ll do the beef stand, you guys take orders in the back,” says Pacelli.

Interestingly, both Pacelli’s father and Al worked other jobs during the day, Pacelli Sr. worked for a streetcar company and Ferrari drove a truck, so the stand would only open at night after they were done with their day shifts. The original Al’s operated this way for a couple of years until Al, seeking to turn it into a more legitimate business, as the Italian beef sandwich was growing more popular around the neighborhood, kicked out the gamblers.

As a sign of the growing popularity of the beef sandwich, Pacelli says crowds of 30-40 people would line up outside the beef stand just before midnight on Fridays as observant Italian-American Catholics living in the neighborhood, who couldn’t eat meat on Fridays, waited for the clock to strike midnight so they could indulge in their beef-soaked gluttony.

Al's Beef, Al's Beef Chicago
Courtesy of Al’s Beef

While certainly fun, Al’s account of history is disputed by some longtime heavy hitters in the local Italian beef scene. Pat Scala, whose grandfather Pasquale Scala founded Scala Packing Company in 1925, is one of the leading skeptics. The elder Scala, like Anthony Ferrari, was a peddler in Chicago’s West Side selling cold cuts and sausages out of a cart around the same time as Ferrari. Scala’s main business was selling beef, and he sold some of the roasts that were used at local peanut weddings around that time and, according to Pat Scala, his grandfather Pasquale would also slice the beef thin at weddings so more people could be fed more economically.

According to Scala, many different people around the neighborhood were engaged in this cooking process at the time, not just Al’s, and it’s impossible to prove who actually did it first. As Italian sausage was initially the bigger business at Al’s in the early years, Scala is skeptical that they’ve been serving Italian beef since 1938 as their web site claims. Scala says Al’s was probably selling sausage back then and that the Italian beef sandwich didn’t really take off in Chicago until after WWII when it was made available at several different beef stands in the neighborhood. (To this day, Scala Packing Co. continues to provide wholesale beef to many Italian beef stands around the city.)

Al's Beef, Al's Beef Chicago
Courtesy of Al’s Beef

Sandwich milestones and local legacy

The Italian beef sandwich grew in popularity in the ‘50s, at a time before deep dish pizza and the hamburger were widely popular and the Chicago hot dog was the main Chicago working man’s food staple. Scala says that while competing beef stands began popping up after WWII, the Italian beef sandwich remained primarily a neighborhood thing until the ‘70s, when the USDA began inspecting the meat and wholesalers like Scala began selling their beef at grocery stores, thus introducing it to a wider consumer audience.

But the Italian beef sandwich didn’t really hit the national stage until the ‘80s, largely thanks to a then-unknown comic named Jay Leno. At that time Mr. Beef on Orleans was the only beef stand Downtown, and Leno, who was regularly doing standup around town as a struggling comic at places like Zanies, would come into Mr. Beef for his fix. Often.

“We took care of him,” says Mr. Beef owner Joe Zucchero, who at the time doubted Leno’s ability to make it in comedy yet still let him “mooch” off of Mr. Beef. “He didn’t have any money,” says Zucchero. “I felt sorry for him, just as I feel sorry for homeless people.” Leno, who was extremely grateful, reportedly told Zucchero, “If I ever make it big, I’m gonna put you everywhere.”

And Jay kept his promise. One night in the ‘80s, Leno was booked to appear on Late Night With David Letterman, and he handed out Mr. Beef sandwiches to the crowd, even going so far as to eat one on the air. Leno would often profess his love for Mr. Beef, and, when Jay got his own show, the comic would continue to sing Mr. Beef’s praises. This, according to Zucchero, brought the Italian beef sandwich more national prominence while bringing Mr. Beef a steady influx of celebrity patrons from Jim Belushi and Paul Newman to Joe Mantegna and Christopher Walken. He credits Mr. Beef’s downtown location and its access to celebrity media for pushing the Italian beef sandwich to the next level.

The ’85 Bears and the “Super Bowl Shuffle” helped shine more of a national spotlight on Chicago, and the Italian beef gained further notoriety in the early ‘90s when the Saturday Night Live Super Fans helped popularize Chicago food and dialect thanks to the now-iconic sketches by Second City vets like Chris Farley, Mike Myers, and George Wendt.

More recently, beef stands like Al’s continue to capture the media world’s attention with appearances on shows like Food Wars, Man v. Food, Good Morning America, and The Today Show alongside national press. Al’s even recently brought on Ditka himself as its “official spokesperson.”

While initially gaining popularity because it was cheap food for immigrants and the working class, the sandwich has endured to this day as a reflection of the city’s culture. “It’s a staple product in Chicago,” says Carm’s Beef and Italian Ice owner Steve Devivo. He's watched generations of Chicagoans and their families go in and out of his Little Italy stand over the decades. “I think it goes hand in hand with the city.” It also helps that there is no other sandwich on Earth quite like it.

Johnnie's Beef, Italian Beef Sandwiches
Mike Gebert/Thrillist

The nuances of the Italian beef

The Italian beef sandwich starts with a 10-13lb roast with lots of marbling. A sirloin tip roast or top round roast will do, but it needs lots of fat which is essential to its flavor development. About half of the roast is lost in the cooking process when the fat melts off and turns into the sauce (also called gravy) that is essential to a good Italian beef. Then comes the seasoning.

“The meat is typically seasoned with dry herbs (oregano, basil) and spices (red pepper, black pepper, sometimes nutmeg, cloves, etc.) and fresh garlic or garlic powder, then roasted slowly, partially submerged in beef stock,” Anthony Buccini writes in the upcoming book Food City: The Encyclopedia of Chicago Food, co-edited by Bruce Kraig of the Culinary Historians of Chicago. “Once cooked, the beef is cooled in order to facilitate slicing, then the very thinly sliced meat is bathed in the reheated broth and cooking juices (‘au jus,’ ‘juice,’ ‘gravy’). To form the sandwiches, forkfuls of the soaked beef are placed inside the bread (cut length-wise); according to individual preferences.”

seasoned beef, Italian beef
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Then come the peppers. An Italian beef sandwich with “sweet” is topped with peppers and a beef “hot” is layered with giardiniera. Sweet peppers are typically green (but also red) bell peppers cut into fat, long chunks that you can lay across the length of the sandwich, tossed with olive oil, fresh garlic, salt, and pepper. The "hot" in an Italian beef comes from giardiniera, a pickled relish of spicy peppers and vegetables. Most bigger beef stands make their own giardiniera, a process that many say is more complicated than actually making the beef.

And finally comes the bread. “The bread used for beef sandwiches is of a type that old Italian bakeries in Chicago called 'French bread' and is distinguished from basic Italian bread in having a longer, narrower shape, thinner crust, and a softer, hole-less crumb,” writes Buccini. “Small Italian bakeries and large-scale Italian bakeries of Chicagoland (Turano, Gonnella, D’Amatos) are favored sources for this bread.”

Devivo says the key to a good Italian beef sandwich is the seasoning, the way you slice the beef during prep (you want it really thin “but not shredded”), and the peppers. “Anyone can take a piece of raw meat and cook it,” he says. “The spices that you use differentiate your Italian beef from another place. It all comes down to the customer’s preference.”

Italian beef sandwich
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

The peppers vs. giardiniera choice and overall sandwich sogginess aren’t just subtle nuances of the Italian beef, they’re essential elements of the ordering process. There are four common ways to order a beef sandwich, most of which have to do with how wet you want it. The regular beef sandwich comes with juice on top of the meat, “dry” is served after shaking off the juice, “dipped” is where the whole sandwich is dipped quickly in the gravy, and “wet” is where the sandwich is submerged in the juice for a longer period of time.

“There's not many other sandwich traditions that revolve around soaking wet bread,” says Maxx Parcell of the Italian beef Beef-Off competition held in Chicago last fall. “So as I see it, better to embrace the tradition.”

Adam Bufano, head beef guy at Al’s, says other beef sandwich variations include the adding of cheese (usually provolone) to the beef to make what is called a “cheesy beef.” Al’s does offer this but they do not recommend (it is pretty much considered a capital offense akin to putting ketchup on a hot dog). If you add cheese “it becomes a grinder,” says Bufano. “It should just be appreciated for what it is. When you add cheese, it becomes a whole different thing it wasn’t meant to be.”

It should go without saying, but another big no-no is eating your beef with a fork and knife. “Not even sure why anyone would consider it,” says Parcell, “but is arguably grounds to be immediately deported from Chicago city limits.” He adds that when eating an Italian beef, one should “expect to get sloppy.

Other variations of the sandwich include the “combo” with a link of grilled Italian sausage added to the beef sandwich and the more rare “potato sandwich” -- a meatless bun filled with fries and drenched in juice. Pacelli adds that in the early days when he was a kid and beef sandwiches cost 30 cents, Al’s would also sell “gravy sandwiches” (bread dipped and wrapped) to local schoolchildren at 10 cents a pop.

As for eating, there’s really only one way to do it correctly. You would be wise to heed Pacelli’s advice and indulge in “The Italian Stance” when attempting to take down one of Chicago’s finest culinary monstrosities. “Put your feet back 15in from the counter with your elbows on the counter,” Pacelli says, “so all the juices end up on the floor, not on you.”

In this matter, there is clearly no dispute.

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Jay Gentile is a Thrillist contributor and he wouldn’t mind crashing a peanut wedding, as long as Italian beef is involved. Follow @innerviewmag