Who knew that a sleepy summer hit on Hulu about a struggling family-owned restaurant would dictate the culinary tastes of the nation? Such is the power of good TV—and good Chicago cuisine.
The Italian beef has long been Chicago’s unsung signature sandwich, and its majesty often gets lost in the cacophony of bad jokes about Chicago’s other famous food, the deep dish pizza. But interest in the sandwich is spiking now that images of greasy, drippy, wax-paper-wrapped beefs are filling living rooms across the country—and beef stands across Chicago (and beyond) are reporting an increase in demand.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Gino’s East, a chain of restaurants founded in Chicago with locations nationwide, has been selling twice as many beefs at its Los Angeles location than it was selling before the premiere of The Bear—300 per day compared to 150 per day. That matches the Google Trends data for searches related to Italian beef, which roughly doubled after the series’ June 23 premiere.
It’s a phenomenon that’s also been clocked at Buona, a Chicago-area chain of fast casual restaurants specializing in Italian beef. Joe Buonavolanto III, VP of Franchise Operations at The Buona Companies, spoke with The Takeout about The Bear’s influence on ordering patterns.
“I thought it was very entertaining,” Buonavolanto said of his experience watching The Bear. “I thought there were some components that were accurate, some that were maybe a little far-fetched for businesses like ours.” Still, its portrayal of the sandwich itself was rightfully reverent.
“For years, it was a regional item, and unless you visited the greater Chicagoland area, odds are you’d never even heard of it,” said Buonavolanto. “[On The Bear], there’s just so much appreciation for Italian beef—the way they made and maintained it—that it got people to say, wow, look at this sandwich!”
Natives of the Chicagoland area might not even be aware, but some ingredients in a classic beef generate “a lot of intrigue,” Buonavolanto says, because consumers aren’t even aware they exist.
“Giardiniera—a lot of people in other regions of the US have never had much giardiniera, which is a Chicago staple,” he explained. “Obviously, the show was a success and brought a lot of awareness to Chicago’s original beef stands. We’re selling a lot of Italian beef sandwiches, for sure.”
Buona has a partnership through Goldbelly that allows customers nationwide to order its Italian beef sandwich kits in various sizes. Additionally, the company will soon be launching a franchise program, expanding its restaurants across the Midwest and select states nationwide—a move serendipitously timed with the release of The Bear and the craze it kicked off.
“For diners who have never had an Italian beef, hopefully they’ll see one in their communities in the next few years,” said Buonavolanto, who recommends ordering the sandwich “baptized,” aka fully dipped in the gravy, bread and all.
If you can’t find a beef stand near you and lack the patience for a Goldbelly shipment or the construction of a new restaurant in your neighborhood, you can always do what no actual Chicagoan does and try making your Italian beef from scratch. Or better yet, just take a few strategic shortcuts.