In the grand scope of things, the Reuben sandwich isn’t exactly rocket science. Take corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and dressing, throw it on some rye bread, slap it on the grill and call it a day. Amazingly, the origin of such a straightforward, if unusual, sandwich is disputed (I probably shouldn’t be surprised). Some believe that it was the creation of a Lithuanian grocer, Reuben Kulakofsky, in Omaha, Neb., in the 1920’s at one of his poker games. Others claim that Arnold Reuben created the sandwich at Reuben’s Delicatessen in New York in 1914, despite his Reuben special not containing half of the main ingredients and skipping the grilling step.
I don’t know which one of those stories is true, or who made the original. But I do know who makes it the way it’s supposed to be made, and that’s Izzy’s, a deli that has been located throughout the Cincinnati metro area since 1901. If you’ve done the math, you know that it’s been in business for 112 years, which says that it’s got to be something really special.
If you’ve really done the math, you also know that Izzy’s predates the earliest Reuben date by 13 years and makes no claim that it’s the original home of the Reuben. That means we can only conclude that Izzy’s didn’t figure to add the Reuben to their menu until it gained widespread acceptance, and since Izzy’s built its reputation on corned beef and still uses founder Izzy Kadetz’s recipes, they somehow never discovered this combination until it had already caught on across the country. If they had, who knows, delis might be serving Izzies today. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t figure it out first.
Despite not being the ones who invented the sandwich, Izzy’s knew a good idea when it saw it and built itself around the Reuben. What resulted was some of the best Reubens around, going far beyond the standard corned beef. For those who want something else, Izzy’s is well-known for much more than just corned beef, offering seven other kinds of Reubens. Turkey, cod, vegetarian, pastrami, beef franks and the Cincy staple goetta are all available, plus a double-decker of the standard Reuben.
From my point of view, this is a very good thing, because that means that whenever Amy and I venture to Cincinnati, she’ll be able to have a Reuben of some kind if she so chooses. Actually, I’m not the least bit surprised by that, because Izzy’s appears to have been designed with Amy in mind, and I mean that literally. There’s a sandwich on the menu called Izzy’s Mex, which normally takes the corned beef and Swiss combo and adds jalapenos and chipotle sauce on rye. However, if you want, you can “try it Amy’s way”, which substitutes turkey for the corned beef and puts it on whole wheat toast. Fits her perfectly.
For me, not having an aversion to beef, I had to go with the original. The special touch comes in the quality of the ingredients and in the dressing. Normally, the Reuben is made with either Russian or Thousand Island dressing, but Izzy’s actually makes their own dressing and keeps it a secret. They give you the dressing along with your sandwich, allowing you to slather on as much as you want to go with the kraut, Swiss and corned beef.
One bite tells you why they’ve been in business since the end of the McKinley administration. The dressing is creamy and flavorful, the Swiss cheese melted perfectly, the kraut provides a nice bite and oh, that corned beef. It’s simply delicious, cut and cured exactly the way it should be done. Izzy’s uses the best brisket around for their corned beef, and it shows. There’s plenty of it on there, and there’s plenty of kraut as well. My aunt Margaret, a lover of Reuben sandwiches, would definitely approve.
But Izzy’s doesn’t stop there. Potato pancakes are a large part of Jewish cuisine, and when Izzy opened up shop, he brought his family’s recipe for the delicacy with him. What happened became a thing of beauty, as every sandwich on Izzy’s menu is served with a large potato pancake (and some pickles, which aren’t bad either). These are hot and crispy, full of flavor and full of potato. For a really different taste, try dipping the pancake in the dressing on the side. It’s pretty good, and it’s just magnificent plain.
With the quality of their Reubens, one could easily forget that Izzy’s is a full deli, not just a Reuben shop. Roast beef, turkey and pastrami all star in their own sandwiches, and all three of them combine to form the “Barry Larkin”, after the beloved Hall of Fame Reds shortstop. There’s even a meatloaf sandwich with mayonnaise and American, which Amy would find absolutely disgusting but I think is quite intriguing.
However, I highly doubt I’ll ever find out if it’s any good or not, even if I were to one day move to Cincinnati. That’s because Izzy’s is so darn good at the Reuben that you can go every day and not get sick of it, especially with enough Reubens for every day of the week. Izzy’s might not have invented the Reuben sandwich, but the Kadetz family has certainly perfected it. They call it the World’s Greatest Reuben, and I think this might fall under the category of it’s not bragging if it’s the truth. As current CEO and non-Kadetz family member John Geisen likes to say, what you get when you cross a Jew with a Catholic (Geisen) is success, and it’s definitely the case for Izzy’s.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner. Izzy’s does have one location that serves breakfast, but you’re not going to Izzy’s for breakfast.
Wait during my visit: None. Being eight hours from Cincinnati, I hit it at around 3:30 p.m. for perfect timing.
Location: The Izzy’s I visited can be found at 1198 Smiley Avenue in Cincinnati, in the Forest Park portion of the city.
Cost: Most sandwiches will cost you between eight and 10 dollars. Not bad at all.
Parking: Depends on the one you go to, as Izzy’s has seven Ohio locations and one in Kentucky, but mine had plenty of parking.
Seating arrangement: Tables and chairs.
Specialty items: Reuben sandwich, potato pancake