Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef, Chicago
It’s a good thing I got this trip out of the way on my first trip to the Windy City, because it’s the one of Chicago’s three iconic foods that Amy won’t touch because of her distaste for beef. Along with pizza and hot dogs, Chicago is also well-known for Italian beef, a sandwich that is native to Illinois, only venturing outside the Prairie State on rare occasions.
Most of these occasions have been when stands have been set up in Wisconsin or Indiana, as these states are close enough to Chicagoland that having the beef sandwiches there is an absolute necessity for residents of these places. But the sandwich is so popular that Chicago natives, after moving away from the Windy City, have taken it far away from the shores of Lake Michigan and set up shop selling them in places like Florida, Texas and California. There is even a website that tracks where people can find authentic Chicago Italian beef, with the sandwich now being available in 46 states.
So what exactly is an Italian beef sandwich? It’s a roast beef sandwich, with the beef sliced paper-thin, and the sandwich topped with any or all of giardiniera, peppers and beef broth, served on a thick roll of Italian bread. The bread has to be thick by design, because of the broth soaking into the bread, which would otherwise cause it to fall apart, similar to the Thurman Burger or the Polish Girl. The creator of the sandwich isn’t for sure, but the oldest known vendor of the sandwich is Al’s Italian Beef, which has been around since 1938.
Basically, the sandwich traces its roots back to before World War II, and likely comes as a result of rations. The founders of Al’s decided that if they could slice the beef incredibly thin, a slab of roast beef could feed five times as many people. From there, the sandwich was born. There really isn’t a lot to the sandwich in terms of complexity, which isn’t a bad thing at all. Every sandwich at Al’s starts with slow-roasted beef blended with Al’s own blend of spices before it’s sliced and loaded on the roll.
From there, you have the option of going with either a hot or sweet flavor to the sandwich, or even both. For those who like it hot, giardiniera is the condiment of choice. Giardiniera is kind of a mix of relish and mixed vegetables, with a little heat thrown in for good measure. Celery forms most of the base, along with vinegar, while other vegetables and spices are added to the mix to create the flavor. Sweet peppers are also an option, giving you a sandwich topped with a couple of the mild green peppers.
Finally, the sandwich is dipped into the beef broth, creating the need for the thick Italian bread mentioned earlier. Depending on how juicy you like the sandwich, it can be dipped just slightly, multiple times or it can become so juicy that even the Italian bread has trouble staying in one piece. I’m not sure who needs that much broth, but whatever works for you.
For me, what worked was one dip with sweet peppers. It’s a wonderful combination. The thin beef has been cooked to perfection, and when the juice is added to give it extra flavor and help the sandwich go down easier, it’s simply fantastic. Throw in the natural sweet and mild taste of the sweet pepper, and you have a sandwich that stays hot and juicy from start to finish.
I also have to say, you definitely need at least some broth on this sandwich. The beef is good on its own, but it’s the juices that really make this thing stand out. Without the juice, you just have a regular sandwich and fries that you could get at any sandwich store. With it, you have a true taste of Chicago. If beef is something you enjoy, you’ll find a great meal here.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Al’s does have a few locations that are open until well past midnight, but not all of them are. Check before you go.
Wait during my visit: None. Came right after a Chicago Cubs game, and was far enough from Wrigley that ballpark traffic was nonexistent.
Location: Al’s can be found all over Chicagoland. My location was in Wrigleyville, at 3420 N. Clark on Chicago’s North Side. Its site also says locations are coming to Las Vegas and San Jose.
Cost: You should be fine for around $10 here.
Parking: At some locations, there will be plenty. At others, dream on. This one falls in the “dream on” category. Your best bet for those in the city is to take the CTA train (everyone calls it the L for “elevated train”, but that looks confusing in print, so I stick with calling it CTA. Plus, the train isn’t always elevated, as the Blue and Red Lines both go underground. Accuracy counts to me.) to the closest stop and walk from there.
Seating arrangement: It’s chairs and stools here.
Website: Al’s Beef
Signature items: Italian beef sandwich