How to order an Italian beef in Chicago

Nice-looking beef, but that bun could use more jus.
Nice-looking beef, but that bun could use more jus.
Photo: bhofack2 (iStock by Getty Images)

The Takeout is proudly based in the Midwest, with our headquarters in the big great city of Chicago. We’re endlessly excited to tell you about our iconic hometown dishes, like deep dish pizza (just kidding), the jibarito (have you ever had one?), our dragged-through-the-garden hot dogs, and our most deceptively simple-sounding sandwich: the Italian beef.

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At its core, an Italian beef sandwich is simply thinly cut roast beef that’s been long simmered in a seasoned beefy au jus (some natives call it “gravy”), generously piled into a soft and chewy hinge-cut French roll. But, like a Philly cheesesteak, there’s sort of a secret language when it comes to ordering a proper one. It can be a little intimidating if you’re in a fast line full of people who already know what they want, but they are particularly patient at chain restaurant Portillo’s, which serves a lot of curious tourists, so you shy ones can try ordering one there to start.

If you’re visiting Chicago, or are just plain new to this classic sandwich, here’s an easy guide to ordering Italian beef like a pro.

First question: Sweet or hot?

If you order a beef (that’s what many of us call it—just “beef”), you’ve got the option of two types of peppers you can add, referred to as “sweet” or “hot.”

Sweet: Refers to slivers of green or red bell peppers (typically green, but I’ve seen both) that have been roasted until soft. Sometimes they’re simmered with the beef up until the moment they’re put on a sandwich.

Hot: Refers to hot giardiniera, a spicy mix of pickled serranos, jalapeños, carrots, celery, green olives, onion, garlic, and cauliflower (or some variation on all of these) steeped in some form of vegetable oil. The oil left behind is absolutely delicious—do not feel guilty about enjoying this delicacy straight up.

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You can order either of these toppings on your beef sandwich by saying “sweet,” “hot,” or, if you like both, you say “sweet and hot.” There are no judgements when it comes to your choice of peppers (or lack thereof) on a beef.

Second question: Cheese?

By default, beef sandwiches don’t come with cheese on them. Not too many people order cheese on them even when it’s an option. But if you’re in the mood for cheese, it’s typically just mozzarella (or, in rare instances, provolone). There’s no code for cheese, so if you want cheese, just ask for cheese or “mozz.”

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There is a variation at the aforementioned Portillo’s that I’ve never tried that some people swear by, and it’s a beef and cheddar sauce sandwich served on a croissant. This is not a common menu item anywhere else, though, and while it sounds incredible, it’s not really an Italian beef in the classic sense.

Third question: Dry, wet, or dipped?

This is the most important part of any Italian beef order, and the one that most perplexes my out-of-town pals when they’re faced with the options. Think of it this way: How soggy do you want your sandwich to be while you eat it? You’re being given the choice upfront. I had a friend visit one time who said he didn’t understand the appeal of a soggy sandwich, but later complained that his beef was too dry. See? We know what we’re doing.

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Dry: The beef is plucked straight out of the au jus, held in the tongs to let it drip dry for a moment, then plopped into your sandwich. The bread won’t have any additional gravy and will remain dry (flavorless, if you ask me!) for the entire time you’re eating your sandwich. The only benefit here is that you’re left with non-greasy fingers and less potential for mishaps and ruined outfits.

Wet: The beef isn’t given a chance to drip dry, meaning you’ll get a nice juicy sandwich from all the au jus carried along with the meat. They’ll usually splash some extra gravy onto the meat, too, so that it soaks into the interior of the bread. If you don’t eat it fairly quickly, the bread will begin to disintegrate. That’s okay. This sandwich is a mess, everyone knows it’s a mess. Have some napkins at the ready, and enjoy.

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Dipped: This is the way I always order it. They take the entire sandwich, grip it in the tongs, and dunk the whole goddamn thing right into the au jus with the sliced beef. The bread will practically be melted by the time you rip open the deli paper, and you’ll be left with this glorious soggy disaster that will drip down your hands and sometimes your forearms if you don’t do what we’ve jokingly dubbed “The Chicago Lean,” where you instinctively hunch the front end of your body over the counter to avoid getting meat shrapnel and juice all over your entire being. Embrace it. Embrace not only the mess, but also the fact that you don’t even have to chew the bread to enjoy your sandwich.

Note: It is possible to get a cup of au jus on the side for dipping, controlling any potential drippage. I’ve never tried this, nor will I, because this is not a French dip sandwich. But some of my friends highly recommend it. If you do want to go this route, make sure you ask nicely. (In my mind this robs you of the true Italian beef experience, but this is your life, and I say I won’t judge you, but I am judging you.)

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Variation: The Combo

Right beneath Italian beef on the menu board, you’ll see an option labeled simply as an “Italian beef combo,” or simply “combo.” This isn’t some sort of value meal. It actually refers to the addition of an entire Italian sausage to the sandwich. If you choose the combo, prepare yourself physically, mentally, and spiritually for the dramatic amount of meat you’re about to consume. It’s an entire sausage, plus a fat tong-load of beef on top—but surely you can handle it. This is Chicago, after all.

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Bonus: Gravy bread

This item now appears to be a relic of the past, because I haven’t seen one on a menu in years now. But if you see an item labeled “gravy bread” on the sides menu, you’re in for an obscure treat.

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Gravy bread is just a French bun dunked in the au jus until it’s falling apart. That’s it. No fillings, no toppings. And it’s amazing. The soggy bread is actually my favorite part of the sandwich (again, why would you order it dry?!). But gravy bread appears to have fallen off of most menus, so if you see it, you’re probably in an old-school place that deserves to be cherished.

Pop quiz, hotshot

Okay, everyone. Here’s my favorite way to order an Italian beef: Hot and dipped. What did I just order?

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Maybe I’m in the mood for a sweet and hot, wet, with mozz. Or I’ve got a business meeting, so, how about a dry beef, but with a side of gravy bread for later to make up for it. Perhaps a sweet and dipped combo, because I’m feeling oh so frisky. Oh, I know, maybe a triple crispy double decker blasted smothered slam-dunked—gotcha! Some of you were paying attention in class.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

In April I will have been in Chicago for 10 years, and while this is the city of my soul, I just cannot learn to love Italian beef. I feel like there’s a certain something in the seasoning that I just don’t prefer, but whenever I look at actual recipes for Italian beef seasoning, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it might be...there are no obscure herbs or spices in there.

Chicago has definitely changed my mind on square cut pizza, even though I’m getting very tired of everyone yelling about how deep dish isn’t the “true” Chicago style pizza,(there’s plenty of room for both!) and has shown me the light when it comes to Italian sausage in general, but I just can’t find Italian beef that I think is anything other than fine.