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Italian Beef: I Don't Get It

Italian Beef: I Don't Get It
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  • Italian Beef: I Don't Get It

    Post #1 - January 16th, 2009, 3:27 pm
    Post #1 - January 16th, 2009, 3:27 pm Post #1 - January 16th, 2009, 3:27 pm
    I am a transplanted Californian who loves the food and variety Chicago offers (although I still mourn the superior sourdough). I would gladly sing the praises of Chicago food over anything Berkeley or SF can offer. I've even learned to like some of the charming local specialties, like that pizza casserole thing and a proper Chicago dog.

    However. I have tried several variations on the Italian Beef theme and all I can come up with is...I don't get it. Why is this sandwich so popular?

    I've eaten it at Candlelite, Portillo's, and most recently, Herm's Hotdog Palace after a 4 1/2 mile walk in deep snow. While that rendition was significantly better than the first two, it was nonetheless a pile of boring, unseasoned, kind of unpleasantly chewy beef, topped with sweet peppers, and all of that on top of an inoffensive bun soaked in au jus. It was edible, it was maybe even borderline tasty, but I have to ask, if this is the best Italian Beef the city has to offer (as I was confidently assured it was) then what exactly is the appeal? I'm no Italian Beef expert, clearly, but IMHO this is a pretty boring sandwich. It's got nothing on a classic Chicago dog or even...a pizza puff.

    There. I've said it. The gauntlet is down. :lol:

    So please do tell me, LTH, am I missing something? Or is there some appeal to the Italian Beef that I simply cannot grasp, given my granola origins?
    As a mattra-fact, Pie Face, you are beginning to look almost human. - Barbara Bennett
  • Post #2 - January 16th, 2009, 3:29 pm
    Post #2 - January 16th, 2009, 3:29 pm Post #2 - January 16th, 2009, 3:29 pm
    I am in the same camp. I have never tried one that I wanted to eat again.
  • Post #3 - January 16th, 2009, 3:40 pm
    Post #3 - January 16th, 2009, 3:40 pm Post #3 - January 16th, 2009, 3:40 pm
    maybe an acquired taste.

    I would have to say the places you visited are probably near the bottom or middle of the pack in regards to IB sandwiches in Chicagoland from my tasting experience.

    When done right(Johnnies, Pauls, etc), it is one of the best things around(juicy, tender, and great giardinera). When done poorly(many places in Chicago, & some Portillo's locations) it is terrible(overcooked meat, stale bread, etc) & forgettable.

    The above coming from someone who eats probably an IB sandwich or combo every week, loves Chicago style hotdogs, but cant stand Chicago style Pizza Casserole.
  • Post #4 - January 16th, 2009, 3:46 pm
    Post #4 - January 16th, 2009, 3:46 pm Post #4 - January 16th, 2009, 3:46 pm
    Well, if those were the places that I had my intro to IB, then I'd probably not be interested either.

    --Candlelite is for pizza (and they're not so good at that anymore). Never order an Italian Beef that has to be brought to you by a waiter.
    --Portillo's does a lot of things moderately well, some things very poorly, and excels at nothing.
    --Herm's is for hot dogs.

    Get a beef at Al's on Taylor St. or Johnnie's to taste the difference.
  • Post #5 - January 16th, 2009, 3:50 pm
    Post #5 - January 16th, 2009, 3:50 pm Post #5 - January 16th, 2009, 3:50 pm
    Suzy Creamcheese wrote:I've eaten it at Candlelite, Portillo's, and most recently, Herm's Hotdog Palace after a 4 1/2 mile walk in deep snow.

    As Ronnie Milsap once said, you're looking for love in all the wrong places. :D

    Get thee to Al's on Taylor Street for an exemplary rendition. If you don't like that one, chalk it up to 'different strokes for different folks' and never look back.

    =R=

    Al's #1 Italian Beef
    1079 W Taylor St
    Chicago, IL 60610
    312 226-4017
    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #6 - January 16th, 2009, 3:58 pm
    Post #6 - January 16th, 2009, 3:58 pm Post #6 - January 16th, 2009, 3:58 pm
    eatchicago wrote:Get a beef at Al's on Taylor St. or Johnnie's to taste the difference.

    I've had both and can definitely appreciate the difference. But even a good Italian beef is not something I'm ever likely to crave. I think it's the kind of thing you need to have grown up eating to really enjoy. Kind of like Bill McNeal and his sandwiches....
  • Post #7 - January 16th, 2009, 4:03 pm
    Post #7 - January 16th, 2009, 4:03 pm Post #7 - January 16th, 2009, 4:03 pm
    Never order an Italian Beef that has to be brought to you by a waiter.


    ooh. good one.

    wouldn't have thought it'd have to even be stipulated, but good one nonetheless. i'm going add that to my recent blog entry about italian beef.

    to reiterate what others have said; those places you tried it at suck. go somewhere that specializes in italian beef.
    http://edzos.com/
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  • Post #8 - January 16th, 2009, 4:06 pm
    Post #8 - January 16th, 2009, 4:06 pm Post #8 - January 16th, 2009, 4:06 pm
    I'm not certain that I'd recommend Al's as an "if you don't like this, you just don't like the sandwich" location. Al's is rather polarizing, even among IB devotees -- count me among those who is obsessed with IB, understands the appeal of Al's, but doesn't particularly share it. I would consider Johnnie's and Pops much safer choices for a "try it here before you decide you don't like it" visit.

    Also, Suzy, it's worth noting that like BBQ, IB is a notoriously finicky and inconsistent beast. The places -- even good ones -- that are really great from every day are few (though I count both Johnnie's and Pops among them). Even my personal favorite, Chickie's, is prone to an off day every now and again. I know there's nothing more irritating than the fourth or fifth round of "no, wait, you must not have had a good one... try again!", but it's worth bearing in mind that if your sample is small, you might just be unlucky.

    But though I was born and raised in Chicago, I'm the counterexample to the theory that you have to have been raised on it. I had them on rare occasion while growing up, but didn't really discover and learn to appreciate them until my early 20s.
    Last edited by Dmnkly on January 16th, 2009, 4:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #9 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm
    Post #9 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm Post #9 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm
    It seems that trying one of the top rated places from one of the Beefathons would give you a better idea if you like this sandwich. IIRC, wasn't Max's Italian Beef rated highly? As a fellow north-sider, it could be worth the trek. I like Italian Beefs, but I grew up with them.

    Max's Italian Beef
    5754 N. Western Ave.
    773-989-8200
    -Mary
  • Post #10 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm
    Post #10 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm Post #10 - January 16th, 2009, 4:11 pm
    Dmnkly wrote:I'm not certain that I'd recommend Al's as an "if you don't like this, you just don't like the sandwich" location. Al's is rather polarizing, even among IB devotees -- count me among those who is obsessed with IB, understands the appeal of Al's, but doesn't particularly share it. I would consider Johnnie's and Pops much safer choices for a "try it here before you decide you don't like it" visit.

    True but I cannot, in good conscience, endorse a non-favorite. :)

    But between Al's, Johnnie's and Mr. Beef alone you'd get a pretty good sampling of the top of the deck.

    =R=
    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #11 - January 16th, 2009, 4:12 pm
    Post #11 - January 16th, 2009, 4:12 pm Post #11 - January 16th, 2009, 4:12 pm
    Dmnkly wrote:I'm not certain that I'd recommend Al's as an "if you don't like this, you just don't like the sandwich" location. Al's is rather polarizing, even among IB devotees -- count me among those who is obsessed with IB, understands the appeal of Al's, but doesn't particularly share it. I would consider Johnnie's and Pops much safer choices for a "try it here before you decide you don't like it" visit.

    Also, Suzy, it's worth noting that like BBQ, IB is a notoriously finicky and inconsistent beast. The places -- even good ones -- that are really great from day to day are few. I know there's nothing more irritating than the fourth or fifth round of "no, wait, you must not have had a good one... try again!", but it's worth bearing in mind that if your sample is small, you might just be unlucky.


    Ditto, but if you do decide to visit Al's trot down Taylor to The Patio for another excellent version. Also, I cannot remember anyone who enjoyed the sweet peppers during any of the Beefathons. By the Beefathon finals I believe our basic order was a beef dipped with hot.

    Flip
    "Beer is proof God loves us, and wants us to be Happy"
    -Ben Franklin-
  • Post #12 - January 16th, 2009, 4:17 pm
    Post #12 - January 16th, 2009, 4:17 pm Post #12 - January 16th, 2009, 4:17 pm
    The GP wrote:It seems that trying one of the top rated places from one of the Beefathons would give you a better idea if you like this sandwich. IIRC, wasn't Max's Italian Beef rated highly? As a fellow north-sider, it could be worth the trek. I like Italian Beefs, but I grew up with them.

    Max's Italian Beef
    5754 N. Western Ave.
    773-989-8200


    I love Max's, but I consider it far more polarizing than Al's.
  • Post #13 - January 16th, 2009, 4:19 pm
    Post #13 - January 16th, 2009, 4:19 pm Post #13 - January 16th, 2009, 4:19 pm
    Flip wrote:Ditto, but if you do decide to visit Al's trot down Taylor to The Patio for another excellent version. Also, I cannot remember anyone who enjoyed the sweet peppers during any of the Beefathons. By the Beefathon finals I believe our basic order was a beef dipped with hot.

    Flip


    This is...not the same as the Patio Beef near the Edgewater Dominick's, right? Just checking.

    I doubt I'd enjoy the hot peppers over the sweet, just because I dislike them in general. This thread is rather heartening, though - I had been confidently reassured that Herm's IB was the best! ever! and a representative example. Hungry as we were (did I mention we'd walked 4.5 miles to get there - on empty stomachs, no less?) we both considered it just OK.

    I will be watching this thread for a consensus. No pressure :twisted:
    As a mattra-fact, Pie Face, you are beginning to look almost human. - Barbara Bennett
  • Post #14 - January 16th, 2009, 4:23 pm
    Post #14 - January 16th, 2009, 4:23 pm Post #14 - January 16th, 2009, 4:23 pm
    Suzy Creamcheese wrote:I will be watching this thread for a consensus. No pressure :twisted:

    LMAO . . . yes, that could take a while :lol:

    =R=
    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #15 - January 16th, 2009, 4:27 pm
    Post #15 - January 16th, 2009, 4:27 pm Post #15 - January 16th, 2009, 4:27 pm
    eatchicago wrote:
    The GP wrote:It seems that trying one of the top rated places from one of the Beefathons would give you a better idea if you like this sandwich. IIRC, wasn't Max's Italian Beef rated highly? As a fellow north-sider, it could be worth the trek. I like Italian Beefs, but I grew up with them.

    Max's Italian Beef
    5754 N. Western Ave.
    773-989-8200


    I love Max's, but I consider it far more polarizing than Al's.


    I should have noted that I have not actually had a beef from Max's -- I know Suzy lives up north and Max's isn't too far away. Didn't it rate well on a Beefathon? (I can't find the link right now.)
    -Mary
  • Post #16 - January 16th, 2009, 4:38 pm
    Post #16 - January 16th, 2009, 4:38 pm Post #16 - January 16th, 2009, 4:38 pm
    Suzy Creamcheese wrote:I will be watching this thread for a consensus. No pressure :twisted:


    You won't get one (a consensus, that is), other than Al's and Johnnie's are typically considered to be the best of class of their respective styles. Dipped with hot is the way most people like it, with a smattering of those who like the sweet peppers or both. Do a search for "Beefathon" or "Beef-athon" and you'll find lots of info to read. We did a pretty exhaustive survey a couple of years back.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #17 - January 16th, 2009, 4:48 pm
    Post #17 - January 16th, 2009, 4:48 pm Post #17 - January 16th, 2009, 4:48 pm
    Suzy: I too feel your pain. I never, not once, have had an actual craving for an italian beef sandwiches.

    To add another data point to the "had to learn to love it as a kid" argument, the only IBs I ever really experienced when I was young was the kind where Mom opens the big plastic bucket, heats the big bag of meat, puts it in some over-hard rolls and tops them off with big ugly slimy peppers. That, and the catered Browns Chicken pans of leather-tough make-your-own-beef-sandwich kind at Cub Scout dinners and such.

    I've had numerous beefs and combos over the years, but I can't say I ever really developed that soft spot in my heart for the sandwich. Maybe it's because the texture of soggy bread is revolting to me? I don't know. I just don't really get the appeal.

    Strangely enough, I adore italian beef on pizza.

    Suzy, I think we should start a support group. Non-Italian Beef Eaters and the People Who Love Them. Non-IB-Anon.
    Writing about craft beer at GuysDrinkingBeer.com
    "You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now." ~Ebert
  • Post #18 - January 16th, 2009, 5:22 pm
    Post #18 - January 16th, 2009, 5:22 pm Post #18 - January 16th, 2009, 5:22 pm
    whiskeybent wrote:I've had numerous beefs and combos over the years, but I can't say I ever really developed that soft spot in my heart for the sandwich. Maybe it's because the texture of soggy bread is revolting to me? I don't know. I just don't really get the appeal.

    Probably has a lot to do with it, and I know others who feel the same way. Personally, I think ordering an Italian Beef dry completely defeats the purpose, so if you can't stand soggy bread, I can see how it just isn't going to work for you.
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #19 - January 16th, 2009, 5:47 pm
    Post #19 - January 16th, 2009, 5:47 pm Post #19 - January 16th, 2009, 5:47 pm
    whiskeybent wrote:Suzy, I think we should start a support group. Non-Italian Beef Eaters and the People Who Love Them. Non-IB-Anon.


    Well, all right. I don't like pepperoni, either; can I throw that in for kicks?
    As a mattra-fact, Pie Face, you are beginning to look almost human. - Barbara Bennett
  • Post #20 - January 16th, 2009, 6:32 pm
    Post #20 - January 16th, 2009, 6:32 pm Post #20 - January 16th, 2009, 6:32 pm
    [quote="Suzy Creamcheese"]

    This is...not the same as the Patio Beef near the Edgewater Dominick's, right? Just checking.

    quote]

    Suzy

    I hope that someone else can answer this for you. I have no idea where the Edgewater Dominick's is, or any affiliation with the Patio on Taylor.

    Flip
  • Post #21 - January 16th, 2009, 6:48 pm
    Post #21 - January 16th, 2009, 6:48 pm Post #21 - January 16th, 2009, 6:48 pm
    Flip wrote:
    Suzy Creamcheese wrote:This is...not the same as the Patio Beef near the Edgewater Dominick's, right? Just checking.

    I hope that someone else can answer this for you. I have no idea where the Edgewater Dominick's is, or any affiliation with the Patio on Taylor.

    I don't know if they're affiliated, but while I haven't been to the Taylor location, my folks live near the one up north and my father says their beef is awful. Single trip, but take that for what it's worth.
    Dominic Armato
    Dining Critic
    The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com
  • Post #22 - January 16th, 2009, 6:50 pm
    Post #22 - January 16th, 2009, 6:50 pm Post #22 - January 16th, 2009, 6:50 pm
    I certainly didn't grow up with Italian Beef in Connecticut. One of my favorite lines was, after my first stint in Chicago and learning to love IB, I commented to a co-worker in CT how much I wished I could get one for lunch. He replied, "What the heck is Italian Beef?!? Is that some sort of porno?"

    Count me in as one that loves Al's sandwich. I do, however see why it is polarizing. I think the seasonings in both the beef and the gardinera are unique from most anything else out there. I would describe it as having a more herbaceous quality and a slight fennel taste. I think Dmnkly is correct that Al's isn't the definitive "if you don't like this, you don't like the form" but if you haven't liked others, you should give it a shot before you writing if off forever. Like Philly cheese steaks, there are many styles and, of those some are both very good and very bad but it is worth shopping around because once you find one you like, it can be sublime.
  • Post #23 - January 16th, 2009, 6:53 pm
    Post #23 - January 16th, 2009, 6:53 pm Post #23 - January 16th, 2009, 6:53 pm
    I haven't had very many beefs in my day -- my first was within the last few years, at Johnnie's -- but it wasn't a taste that needed to be acquired for me. And I like Johnnie's and Al's, but am not that fond of Tore's.
    Ed Fisher
    my chicago food photos

    RIP LTH.
  • Post #24 - January 16th, 2009, 7:19 pm
    Post #24 - January 16th, 2009, 7:19 pm Post #24 - January 16th, 2009, 7:19 pm
    I've been in Chicago for something over 15 years. Arrived as an adult from the land of Cuban sandwiches. Never understood IB at all for about 5 years. I too had tried them from pizza places and hot dog stands. That's the problem, probably. You need a specialist. I'd start at the top and head out to Johnnies, the most "accessible" of the well-loved places. It's one of those foods that is great when it's good, terrible when it's not, and usually not.
  • Post #25 - January 16th, 2009, 7:20 pm
    Post #25 - January 16th, 2009, 7:20 pm Post #25 - January 16th, 2009, 7:20 pm
    i never got italian beef either. i like johnnie's but overall prefer gyros as a sandwich
  • Post #26 - January 16th, 2009, 7:50 pm
    Post #26 - January 16th, 2009, 7:50 pm Post #26 - January 16th, 2009, 7:50 pm
    Suzy Creamcheese wrote:
    whiskeybent wrote:Suzy, I think we should start a support group. Non-Italian Beef Eaters and the People Who Love Them. Non-IB-Anon.


    Well, all right. I don't like pepperoni, either; can I throw that in for kicks?


    Now you're just talkin' crazy-talk. :wink:
    Writing about craft beer at GuysDrinkingBeer.com
    "You don't realize it, but we're at dinner right now." ~Ebert
  • Post #27 - January 16th, 2009, 7:52 pm
    Post #27 - January 16th, 2009, 7:52 pm Post #27 - January 16th, 2009, 7:52 pm
    SuzyCreamcheese wrote:I doubt I'd enjoy the hot peppers over the sweet, just because I dislike them in general.



    food for thought -
    I wonder if most of the folks who really like ib are also proponents of hot giardiniera. I do like ib, but it certainly just is NOT an excellent ib unless my nose is sweating. Sure, the beef is obviously an integral part, but the salty/oily/hot contrast that the giardiniera brings makes the sammich sing for me. An ib with weak or bad or no giardiniera is really kinda uninspiring. The sweet peppers are NOT a substitute, imo. Might be part of the reason I like Tore's so much. The beef is not as heavily salted..er, I mean um, seasoned, but the giardiniera will sizzle you.

    Might just be, however, ms creamcheese, that IB is just not for you, No big deal. More for us. I have a few things that I kind of have to keep to myself. I can't stand polish sausages, and most encased meats are usually on my "whatever" or GAH!" list. I'm the black sheep of the family in that respect. :oops:
    Last edited by seebee on January 16th, 2009, 8:45 pm, edited 1 time in total.
    We cannot be friends if you do not know the difference between Mayo and Miracle Whip.
  • Post #28 - January 16th, 2009, 8:09 pm
    Post #28 - January 16th, 2009, 8:09 pm Post #28 - January 16th, 2009, 8:09 pm
    You just have to get it right. I like Mr. Beef or Al's and I always get it a little dry with triple extra hot. I'm not sure I'd even like Italian Beef sammiches if it weren't for all the hot gardeneria. In fact, you could probably give me the bread with the hot peppers and I'd be happy without the beef at all.
  • Post #29 - January 16th, 2009, 8:29 pm
    Post #29 - January 16th, 2009, 8:29 pm Post #29 - January 16th, 2009, 8:29 pm
    The GP wrote:
    eatchicago wrote:
    The GP wrote:It seems that trying one of the top rated places from one of the Beefathons would give you a better idea if you like this sandwich. IIRC, wasn't Max's Italian Beef rated highly? As a fellow north-sider, it could be worth the trek. I like Italian Beefs, but I grew up with them.

    Max's Italian Beef
    5754 N. Western Ave.
    773-989-8200


    I love Max's, but I consider it far more polarizing than Al's.


    I should have noted that I have not actually had a beef from Max's -- I know Suzy lives up north and Max's isn't too far away. Didn't it rate well on a Beefathon? (I can't find the link right now.)


    Max's did rate well during Beefathon III, but not overwhelmingly loved.
  • Post #30 - January 16th, 2009, 9:21 pm
    Post #30 - January 16th, 2009, 9:21 pm Post #30 - January 16th, 2009, 9:21 pm
    Suzy - I encourage you to find a nice Southern Italian family who makes it from scratch, fries their own peppers, jars their own giardiniera or buys Bari / Riviera / Marconi, and puts the sandwich together for you. Then, when you see the commerical abstraction, you can appreciate it, especially those that aim for real quality.

    Alternatively, start with a beef and sausage combo. You like Italian sausage, yes? Try Johnnie's combo (dipped, and loaded with peppers), and then the next time order it with no sausage.

    The least preferable path is ordering a Portillo's Beef-N-Cheddar Croissant, which has Italian beef dressed with peppers and shredded high-fat cheddar on a butter croissant. The fats enrich the beef flavor (most people who don't like Italian Beef find it dry), and through this unholy gateway I guarantee you'll start craving Da Beef (product, not poster, but who knows). Dick Portillo is an evil genius, and that's the reason this has stayed on his menu for two decades.

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