Chicago’s Iconic Italian Beef Sandwich

Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwich is more than just a meal; it’s a cultural institution, a symbol of the city’s vibrant culinary landscape, and a testament to the immigrant influences that have shaped its gastronomy. Rooted in the Italian-American community, this delectable creation has captured the hearts and palates of locals and visitors alike. With its tender, thinly sliced beef, savory jus, and a variety of toppings, the Italian Beef sandwich embodies the essence of comfort food while offering a unique taste experience that is unmistakably Chicagoan.

Origins and Evolution

Like many iconic dishes, the origins of the Italian Beef sandwich are somewhat murky, steeped in folklore and culinary tradition. According to popular legend, the sandwich traces its roots back to the early 20th century when Italian immigrants settled in Chicago’s working-class neighborhoods. These immigrants brought with them a rich culinary heritage, which they adapted to suit the ingredients and tastes available in their new home.

One prevailing theory suggests that the Italian Beef sandwich was born out of necessity, as a way for Italian-American butchers to utilize tougher, less expensive cuts of meat. These cuts, often from the shoulder or rump, were thinly sliced, seasoned with a blend of Italian herbs and spices, and slow-roasted until tender. The resulting meat was then thinly sliced and piled high on a sturdy Italian roll, creating a hearty and satisfying sandwich.

Key Components

At the heart of the Italian Beef sandwich is, of course, the beef itself. Traditionally, the meat is seasoned with a blend of garlic, oregano, basil, and other Italian herbs, imparting a rich and savory flavor. The beef is then slow-cooked until it reaches a perfect level of tenderness, allowing it to be thinly sliced for optimal texture.

Equally important is the bread, which serves as the vessel for delivering the savory beef and flavorful jus to eager diners. The ideal Italian Beef roll is sturdy enough to hold up to the juicy meat and absorb the flavorful au jus without becoming soggy. It should have a slightly chewy texture and a crusty exterior, providing the perfect contrast to the tender beef.

Another essential component of the Italian Beef sandwich is the au jus, a savory broth made from the drippings of the cooked beef. This flavorful liquid not only adds moisture to the sandwich but also enhances its overall flavor profile, infusing every bite with an extra layer of richness and depth.

Variations and Adaptations

While the classic Italian Beef sandwich remains a staple of Chicago’s culinary scene, it has also undergone various adaptations and interpretations over the years, reflecting the diverse tastes and preferences of the city’s residents.

One popular variation is the “cheesy beef,” which adds a layer of melted cheese to the traditional sandwich, further enhancing its richness and indulgence. Another twist is the “combo,” which combines Italian Beef with Italian sausage, creating a meat lover’s dream sandwich.

In addition to these variations, Italian Beef can also be found in other forms, such as pizza toppings, pasta fillings, and even egg rolls. These creative interpretations allow chefs to showcase their culinary skills while paying homage to the beloved flavors of the original sandwich.

Where to Find Italian Beef in Chicago

In Chicago, Italian Beef can be found at a variety of establishments, ranging from humble neighborhood delis to iconic eateries that have been serving up this classic dish for generations. One such institution is Al’s Beef, which has been dishing out mouthwatering Italian Beef sandwiches since 1938. Another favorite spot is Portillo’s, a beloved chain known for its flavorful beef and vibrant atmosphere.

For those looking to explore the city’s diverse culinary landscape, Italian Beef can also be found at smaller, family-owned establishments and hole-in-the-wall joints, each offering its own unique take on the classic sandwich. From traditional Italian delis to trendy gastropubs, there’s no shortage of options when it comes to satisfying your craving for Italian Beef in Chicago.

If you landed at O’Hare Airport you could find diners on that site which provided you with a taste of this infamous snack food.  Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwich is much more than just a meal; it’s a cultural icon, a symbol of the city’s rich culinary heritage, and a beloved comfort food for generations of Chicagoans. With its tender, flavorful beef, savory au jus, and hearty bread, the Italian Beef sandwich embodies the essence of comfort food while offering a unique taste experience that is unmistakably Chicagoan. Whether you prefer it classic or with a twist, one thing is for certain: no visit to the Windy City is complete without indulging in this delicious culinary delight.

If you want to try it here is our recipe:


For the beef:

  • 1.5 kg (3 lb 5 oz) beef brisket
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

For the sub-rolls:

  • 4 large sub rolls or baguettes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 200g (7 oz) provolone cheese, sliced


1. Prepare the Beef:

  1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F).
  2. Heat olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish over medium-high heat.
  3. Season the beef brisket with salt and pepper.
  4. Sear the brisket on all sides until browned, about 4-5 minutes per side. Remove from the dish and set aside.
  5. In the same dish, add more olive oil if needed, then sauté the onions and garlic until softened, about 5 minutes.
  6. Stir in the dried herbs, paprika, salt, and pepper, and cook for another minute.
  7. Pour in the beef broth, red wine, and Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a simmer.
  8. Return the beef brisket to the dish. Cover tightly with a lid or foil.
  9. Transfer the casserole dish to the preheated oven and cook for 3-4 hours, or until the beef is very tender and falling apart.

2. Prepare the Sub-Rolls:

  1. While the beef is cooking, prepare the sub-rolls.
  2. Slice the sub rolls or baguettes horizontally, but not all the way through.
  3. Mix olive oil, minced garlic, dried oregano, salt, and pepper in a small bowl.
  4. Brush the inside of the rolls with the garlic and herb oil mixture.
  5. Place the rolls on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 5-7 minutes, or until lightly golden.

3. Assemble the Sub-Rolls:

  1. Once the beef is cooked and tender, remove it from the oven.
  2. Using two forks, shred the beef brisket into bite-sized pieces.
  3. Slice the sub rolls open and place a layer of provolone cheese on the bottom of each roll.
  4. Pile the shredded beef on top of the cheese.
  5. Ladle some of the cooking juices and onions over the beef.
  6. Add another layer of provolone cheese on top of the beef.
  7. Place the assembled sub rolls back in the oven for a few minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbly.
  8. Remove from the oven and serve hot.


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