In a town that pins so much of its identity on being precise about its most iconic foods, the phrase “vegan Italian beef”—or the even more delightful “Italian Beefless”—might be rather chilling. But rather than being some sort of threat to everything we Chicagoans hold dear, a meatless version of this classic roast beef sandwich with peppers served au jus on a spongy French roll is a beautiful, messy olive branch to extend to the vegetarians and vegans of our city, who, by the way, have contributed as much to our culinary scene as the Billy Goat Taverns and the Chicago Cuts of the world. Non-meat-eaters deserve to enjoy Chicago’s finest offerings as much as the rest of us, and with Buona’s new limited-edition Plant-Based Italian Beefless, they can.
Anyone who enjoys Italian beef knows that a sandwich packaged for takeout is a ticking time bomb; whether you order it wet or dipped, that bun is only going to hold up against the jus for so long. But even if I had wanted to dine in, I had no choice but to carry out—because Buona was packed. In the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, the parking lot overflowed, the shelf of pickup orders was crammed, and every single table was claimed. All around me I heard orders being called for the Beefless. It’s a mini-sensation.
My sandwich held up surprisingly well on the 10-minute drive, and when I unwrapped it at home, I was treated to a river of oil that flowed onto the countertop. Buona is refreshingly upfront about how it designed the vegan gravy: “We added the authentic Italian spices and fresh ingredients of our traditional beef gravy to a vegetable-based broth and used olive oil to help give it that juiciness you would usually get from beef fat,” says a flyer advertising the sandwich. The use of olive oil is smart; vegan substitutions are all about finding the best fats to replace the animal grease. But while this dousing of gravy gets the bun saturated, just how I like it, it’s a bit of a salt bomb overall—maybe 5% too savory. It’s trying just a little too hard to be salty, and the last few bites are a slight slog. That, however, is where my complaints about this sandwich end.
I had my worries about the texture of the “beef,” because seitan, a product made from wheat gluten, can be springy and spongy if served in larger cuts. Indeed, the company collaborating with Buona on the Italian Beefless, Upton’s Naturals, sells some seitan sandwiches through Whole Foods that I’ve found a little rubbery in the past. But the ultra-thin seitan slices on the Beefless were stunningly engineered, and they had the same snapback as a scrap of beef would if you pulled it from the bun with your teeth. The seitan isn’t hiding blandly under layers of oil and hot giardiniera; it has flavor through and through, separate from and complementary to the other elements of the sandwich. I kept some pieces of seitan separate from the sandwich, toweled off their considerable oil, and ate them on their own sometime later. There was still rich, genuine beef flavor in every bite. It’s a marvel.
Normally I don’t count calories (if I did, I would have stayed the hell away from Burger King’s new chicken sandwich), but I know that vegan substitutions often have to jack up the levels of sodium, carbohydrates, and other things you shouldn’t be eating too much of in order to compensate for lost flavor. Surprisingly, the Italian Beefless has about 50 fewer calories than a standard Italian beef, and a lot fewer of those calories come from fat. Every time I braced myself for disappointment, the Beefless kept reassuring me. (Except, I suppose, on the price. I paid $8.85 for my sandwich, which is about $3 more than a classic Johnnie’s beef.)
This sandwich is primarily a great reminder that so many foods that bring us joy are naturally vegan already. The iconic French roll? Vegan-friendly. Chicago’s beloved hot giardiniera? Vegan and gluten-free. A savory shock of olive oil? Plant-based, baby! Obviously, the beef in an Italian beef is important. But replace it with a reasonable imitation that respects our discerning taste buds, and suddenly the beef is just one more option that can be swapped in or out, like trading hot peppers for sweet or going with wet over dipped.
After eating this sandwich, which I did too quickly, I felt completely stuffed, adrift in a haze of salty carbs. I longed for a nap, and my eyelids drooped. And through it all, I was glad, because in this way, the Plant-Based Italian Beefless proved just how much of a dead ringer it can be for the real thing.