On to the meat of the matter.
Is the suspense building yet?
A good Italian Beef rests on a foundation of two things - gravy and beef. Tender beef, with good flavor, be it herbs and spices, a lovely rich beefiness, or a combination. A rich and flavorful gravy that really tastes like beefy juice with seasoning to compement the meat.
Put it together on a roll, and you have Italian Beef bliss.
Johnnies, with their process and attitude, refuses to give us gravy on the side, so we can only deduce that it is rich, well-seasoned and made from scratch. Chickies ranked a 7.5 to lead the pack, with their beefy, herby gravy. Normally it also has flecks of spices and almost a hungarian, peppery style, but the spiciness was way down this time. Even so, the base is good enough that it was excellent. Patio came next with a 7, for their "beefy, slightly greasy (in a good way)" version. It also seemed to be light on seasoning, and could be great with a little salt. Pops. Max's and
Al's followed with 6.6, 6.5 and 6.3 respectively. All well done, and enjoyable, though Al's distinctive anise-flavor is disagreeable to many. Uncle Johnny's brought up the rear with a 5.8 - they clearly relied a bit too much on bouillion as a base. Too bad, since they used real beef.
Which brings us - drum roll, please - to the sandwich.
Going from worst to first:
Pop's earned a 6.4. Not a destination, but a decent sandwich. It is, we all agreed, a simple, beefy sandwich. No glaring flaws, but it cries out for seasoning. Even with the additon of the very good giardinera, it still needs more seasoning, whether it is the common, italian style or the more unusual seasoning of some of the other finalists. Based on my experience, I would equate this with a Mr. Beef overall. A good choice if one is in the south/soutwest suburbs.
Unlce Johnny's was a hair better with a 6.5. It was a big beefy sandwich at a good price. Good, thicker roast beef, and the saltiness of the gravy worked well. Overall, the effect may be more of a French Dip sandwich, than Italian Beef, but it is good. Tip for the sports fan - if you want to eat nearby for a Sox game, this place has cheap good sandwiches (breaded steak and meatball, too), made on premises. Avoid Jimbos, go to Johnny's.
Max's was a definite step up, earning a 7. Solid beef flavor and good Italian seasoning (if overly strong on oregano this day) light up with the giardinera. No obvious flaws, just not the magical combination of the best for most of us.
Another jump up to two places that finished very close to each other, not so concidentally. Patio earned a 7.6. More finely chopped than most, slight touch of vinegar, good seasoning. This sandwch is becoming increasingly similar to Al's, its neighbor down the street, but without the anise, fennel or whatever it is. Al's placed slightly ahead with a 7.9. For me, there is a magic in the combination of Al's finely chopped beef, sweet and vinegary gravy and great giardinera. It seems fitting that Patio and Al's are so close, and getting closer in every way. However, I think Patio has a more attractive flavor to most, and the price is much more reasonable than Al's. Me, I prefer Al's, but by less than I used to.
Another small jump to the top, where it was not quite a tie. Neither Johnny's or Chickies were at their best this day: Johnnies beef was not as rich as usual, and Chickies was less spicy, but they still stood out.
When each part is done well, and the seasoning is harmonious and oh so delicious, it is hard to go wrong. And that, most often is the case with these two places. Chickies received an 8.2, and Johnnies an 8.3. For every taster, one or the other is the favorite.
If you like Italian Beef, you should make a point of trying all of the top 4 - each is distinctive and damned good. Al's and Johnnies have the benefit of excellent, grilled Italian Sausage, so they are the choice for combos. Chickies has those wonderful fries and that unique seasoning (most of the time, anyway) with flecks of pepper and herbs in the beef and gravy. And I just want to be adopted by the family that runs the Patio.
I look forward to lots of people pointing out all the great places we missed, and the reasons why our judgements are wrong.