You know those hyper-regional dishes so pervasive in their area of origin that locals all assume they’re universal? For me, a person who never set foot on a plane until age 18, it was Chicagoland’s beloved Italian Beef. Like Dennis Farina in these radical Old Style ads, I always just assumed people from other places were constantly trying to spirit away our most delicious resources. And yes, a lot of us are just local meatballs with blinders on (myself included), but the fact remains that Italian Beef is absolutely the perfect fast-food sandwich, and its scarcity in other parts of the country is baffling.
Even as a wisened older dad, having eaten a world of different regional favorites, Italian Beef remains whatever fire-based emoji or gif the kids are using today. And right now, I miss Italian Beef. And the communal experience of visiting a beef stand. So let’s bring some of that love home.
The Italian Beef sandwich is thin-shaved hot roast beef cooked with jus, sometimes served with giardiniera or roasted sweet peppers, slipped into a sliced French bread roll (usually from an Italian bakery—it’s an oddity deserving of its own essay). The sandwich is either splashed with or dunked in the beef gravy, depending on your preference. It started in the 1920s as the centerpiece of working-class Italian-American weddings in the region, where families would provide their own food and a local bakery would provide both the bread and a right-sized oven for cooking a honking slab of meat. Eventually, people other than Italian-Americans caught on and popularized it, because that is more or less the culinary story of this whole damn delicious country.
Even as the world’s pickiest kid eater (bless my sainted mother), Italian Beef was pure endorphins: a rich meat bomb with sharp, crunchy, spicy pickle and a soft, warm bread component that never gets in the way of the main attraction. When I was growing up in the ’90s, Chicago had (and continues to have) a healthy local industry of indie beef shops, both mini chains and mom-and-pops. A reasonable facsimile was (and still is) also sold in frozen buckets at grocery stores throughout the region, which would cover your graduation parties, your baptisms, your Bulls watch parties, you name it.
What the Italian Beef is NOT is a French Dip, which features a boulder of a roll, a chewier texture, and a dainty saucer of polite dipping jus. By contrast, the Italian Beef is, for lack of a better term, a juicy oncoming beef train with peppers. I say this with love.
While it’s a linchpin of our culinary lives in the place I call home, it’s never become a national headliner in the manner of hot dogs, jibaritos (for your cool-kid food writers), or the endless, exhausting, literally-no-one-who-lives-here-gives-a-shit debates about deep dish pizza.
Which is a shame, because the Midwestern excess of the beef really represents the Bacchus-inflected id of the metro region’s appetites better than any of the more familiar dishes. Honest to god, my freshman year at college in the South, I showed up to campus and asked the first friendly face, “What’s the best Italian Beef stand around here?” The look of empty non-recognition was a horrifying Twilight Zone moment.
Well, that’s the thing. Typically, you don’t. Even I, a guy who writes about food and does very impractical things just to see what’s up, know that a beef (this is the one time/place you can refer to beef as a singular entity) is best enjoyed at your favorite stand. Ideally, with sleeves rolled up and torso held at a solid 45-degree angle or greater. I did engineer a recipe for a cookbook once, and it was a colossal (but delicious) pain in the ass that 85% of people would never undertake at home.
The typical M.O. for your classic Italian Beef is a big-ass roast rubbed with a ton of dry spices, garlic, and onion, heated in beef stock, cooled, then sliced whisper thin. You then heat the slices back up in the jus and assemble many, many sandwiches. It’s a decent amount of work, meant to feed more than a decent amount of people.
But all that effort isn’t necessary to enjoy a beef. I recently revisited the idea of DIY Italian Beef, because ordering one at a slightly elevated formica counter with well-worn elbow divots is just not an option at present. So we gotta do something that’s halfway between the grab-and-eat we miss and the huge to-do of roasting a big ol’ hunk of beef and running it through a razor-sharp slicer.
Enter: CHEATER BEEF.
If you consider its humble history, the key to Italian Beef isn’t exacting fealty to tradition or method. It’s meeting people halfway between authenticity and convenience with two fistfuls of rich, beefy power. It’s creating something better than you’d expect from less than you’d maybe want.
So this recipe is for the beef artisans who don’t feel like leaving the house for more ingredients. We could all use a comforting pillow of beef right now, so let’s scrounge the pantry and cuddle the fuck up.
Please, if nothing else, consider this recipe adaptable. Want to use chicken stock instead of beef stock or bouillon? Not a problem. Different dry spices than I have? Yes, who cares. Add cheese, add your tinned casserole onions, add whatever makes you happy. I will say, over several batches, the common secret ingredient seems to be the carrot, followed very closely by celery (or at least celery salt) and wine. Italian beef isn’t right unless you swipe a forearm across your juice-coated face at some point and go “mmmmmmmm.”
Make this sandwich! Feel better for at least a few minutes! This is an order from your ninth-favorite Takeout writer!
Makes 4 sandwiches
- 1 lb. deli roast beef, shaved as thin as possible
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 rib celery, diced
- 1/4 cup diced carrots
- 2 cloves garlic, shaved thin
- 2 tsp. tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp. beef bouillon concentrate
- 1 qt. water
- 1 tsp. granulated onion (or whatever onion substitute you’ve got, or an actual onion half)
- 1 tsp. Italian seasoning
- A splash of that wine you have open because time is meaningless
- Hot or mild giardiniera (I’m a Marconi guy, but Vienna Beef makes some nice stuff too)
- 4 breads (see note below)
Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in a large saucepan and add the carrot and celery. Cook for 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook another 60-90 seconds, until the paste starts to just darken.
Add the bouillon concentrate and water and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently until everything is incorporated.
Add the dry spices and your wine and stir. Taste for seasoning, and know that while I’d never tell my Granny this, I usually tip the scales with some MSG at this point.
Warm your bread in a 200-degree oven directly on the rack or on a pizza stone while you get the beef ready.
Add the beef to the pot on the stove and adjust the heat to a low simmer. Cook 5-7 minutes, until the beef just starts to curl.
Play some appropriate ecclesiastical music while you wait.
Kill the heat, grab your bread, and portion the beef evenly. Splash or dunk in jus, add your topping(s), and go nuts. Standing over the sink is the Michelin Inspector Approved way to eat, despite those cowards refusing to award me a star.
Bad bread can harpoon even the most exciting sandwich. One of my favorite aspects of Italian Beef is that dousing or dunking is the great equalizer between bread options. Commercial bread, even the varieties you’d usually turn your nose up at, is a good option here if you don’t want to bake. Crusty artisan loaves are not a great idea.
While I’ve made my own sub rolls like a guy begging to get yelled at on Twitter, it is absolutely not the thing you need to do with your Cheater Beef. In fact, I spent most of my recipe development time testing out various breadstuffs, and I offer you the following incomplete ranking, none of which are less than delicious:
- Italian sub rolls
- French rolls
- Brat/sausage rolls
- Hawaiian rolls
- Grocery store French or Italian loaf, sliced into sandwich rolls
- Bagel (toasted/dunked)
- Sliced grocery wheat bread
- Pocketless pita or naan
- Sliced grocery white bread
- English muffin
- Steamed bao
Don’t read too much into this arbitrary ranking, though—this beef would be delicious served on a roofing shingle.
You might as well absorb the whole Italian Beef subculture while we’re here. I’m more welcoming than Farina, and you need information. Please enjoy these delightful variations on a theme:
- The Combo: Same as above, with a grilled Italian sausage tucked into a loving beef nest.
- The Cheesy Beef: Mozzarella or provolone added.
- The Beefy: Per my mother’s friend, Mrs. Carey, an Italian Beef roll dunked into the juice, sans anything on the inside. A lunchroom favorite of the economically challenged Catholic school kids of her time.
- People are Weird: Fries replace the beef, juice does the regular thing. No idea why, but I am here to report the truth.
- The Garlic Bread: What it sounds like. As delicious as it sounds. We’re not making diet food here.
- The Ortolan: You add mayo to the sandwich and consume it with your head underneath a napkin. This is to hide from God. My wife does this.