JayPo’s Penalty Boxed Lunch: The Italian Beef Sandwich

Everyone should experience a real Italian Beef if they visit Chicago.

JayPo’s Penalty Boxed Lunch: The Italian Beef Sandwich

Welcome to JayPo’s Penalty Boxed Lunch where we explore food from around the country! This week’s 14th official entry comes from Illinois, but more specifically the Chicago-area with the Italian Beef sandwich.

Food History!

I love when a sandwich has unknown origins, but we can peg it down to the 1930s-ish era in which Pasquale Scala popularized the recipe and then many family off-shoots opened their own shops with their own interpretations of the delectable sandwich. The beef's official preparation is as follows:

Italian beef is made using cuts of beef from the sirloin rear or the top/bottom round wet-roasted in broth with garlic, oregano and spices until cooked throughout. The meat is roasted at ≤ 350 °F (177 °C); this results in up to a 45% reduction in weight, but also yields the sandwich's famous ‘jus’ or gravy. The beef is then cooled, sliced thin using a deli slicer, and then reintroduced to its reheated beef broth.

The beef is then assembled on a french roll and topped with giardiniera (think pickled veggies) which can be "sweet" or "hot", depending on your preference. Most establishments will then ask you if you want the sandwich "dry" (no au jus), "wet" (slathered in au jus) or "dipped" (you guessed it, the entire thing, roll and all, is dipped in the au just).

How I Made It!

Was honestly very nervous making this one before I didn't want to mess it up as it is just iconic as the cheesesteak and roast pork is to Philly. I'm not trying to anger the Second City. I took a top round roast, properly seasoned it, shoved whole garlic cloves into the beef and then put it in a pan with a beef bouillon/water mixture. We roasted that for a few hours until it came to temp before taking it out and then wrapping it to put in the fridge overnight. You keep the juices (which there is a lot!) so you can use them to reheat the beef the next day. Said next day I sliced the beef as thin as I could without a meat-slicer. It didn't take long for the tender beef to start falling apart in the heated au jus. From there I put it on my french roll and topped with more au jus and giardiniera. I've since made this multiple times, not just for this sandwich journey.

What Does A Local Think? (Thanks to Dave of Second City Hockey)

Do you think the Italian beef represents your state accurately?

The whole state? Probably not. If you stray far enough from Chicago it gets awfully rural rather quickly, save for a few scattered cities like Champaign and Springfield. The Italian beef probably isn't a good rep for that part of the state.

But the Chicago portion of it? Definitely. With adequate preparation, it's something that can be enjoyed on any part of the calendar. Failing to prepare is a recipe for disaster, though. And I'm saying that as a foot of snow falls outside my window.

How do you make your sandwich?

I'll be plainly honest here, Jason: I've never actually attempted to make Italian Beef from scratch. And now you've given me a personal project to pursue.

The main area of debate here that I'd like to focus on is the dampness of the sandwich overall, ranging from dry to dripping with the au jus (which, per a Google search, simply means "with juice). A totally dry Italian beef sandwich is a borderline felony. At minimum, the beef needs to be tender and juicy enough that it dampens the bread. And that's why a sturdy French roll is essential to keep the whole operation from falling apart.

How did I do?

You've certainly passed the eye test. The beef looks delicious and there's enough au jus there to keep it moist. Topping it with giardiniera is a veteran move, although most of the giardiniera I see around these parts is sliced into much smaller pieces. But that's easily amended. The real question is whether or not the data supports the eye test: although your data appears to line up with it.

Where do you order your favorite italian beef?

Let's not overthink this: it's Portillo's.