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