An Italian beef is a sandwich, originating in Chicago, composed of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, simmered and served au jus (known by locals as 'gravy') on a long Italian-style roll. The sandwich's history dates back at least to the 1930s. The bread itself is, at the diner's preference, often dipped (or double-dipped) into the au jus the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called "hot") or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called "sweet").
Italian beef sandwiches are commonly found at many area hot dog stands, pizzerias and Italian-American restaurants in northeastern Illinois, southeast Wisconsin (notably Kenosha), Northwest Indiana, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis. In recent years, Chicago expatriates have opened restaurants across the country serving Italian beef.
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 medium heat (≤350°), which contributes to the sandwich’s famous ‘jus’ or gravy. This process can result in as much as a 45% reduction in yield. The beef is then cooled, sliced thin using a deli slicer, and then reintroduced to its reheated beef broth. The beef then sits in the broth, typically for hours. The inefficiency of this process, however, has started to concern many larger Italian beef producers and retailers. In response, some attempt to achieve higher yields by lowering the cooking temperature and placing the beef into food-grade polyester and nylon cook bags, which changes the outer appearance of the beef. Though this reduced time is sufficient for cooking the beef all the way through, it does not allow the jus to be harvested fully. Because traditional Italian beefs are dipped in the jus from their own roast, when this more efficient method is used, the sandwich’s potency is affected. Some companies even add MSG, phosphates and other additives in attempts to reach for higher yields.
The exact origin is unknown, but many believe it was created by Italian immigrants who worked for Chicago's old Union Stock Yards in the early 1900s. They often would bring home some of the tougher, less desirable cuts of beef sold by the company. To make the meat more palatable, it was slow-roasted to make it more tender, then slow-simmered in a spicy broth for flavor. Both the roasting and the broth used Italian-style spices and herbs. The meat was then thinly sliced across the grain and stuffed into fresh Italian bread.
According to Scala's Original Beef and Sausage Company (formed in 1925), this meal was originally introduced at weddings and banquets where the meat was sliced thinly so there would be enough to feed all the guests. It rapidly grew in popularity and eventually became one of Chicago's most famous ethnic foods: the original Italian beef sandwich.
The recipe was popularized by Pasquale Scala, and a group of his associates who started small beef stands in Chicago and used similar recipes, perfecting Chicago’s original Italian beef sandwich. Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris (Baba) Pacelli, founded of Al’s Beef in 1938, and Mr. Beef on Orleans co-founders Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and his Tony (“Uncle Junior” to the Buonavolantos) Ozzauto each set up shop.
Other Italian beef purveyors likewise set up shop in the 40s, many obtaining their beef from Scala Packing Company of Chicago. Chris Pacelli (Baba) (founder of Al’s Beef in 1938), Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and Tony Ozzauto (co-founders, Mr. Beef on Orleans in 1961), were among the group.
By 1954, a local restaurant Al's Beef was advertising its "Pizza, Spaghetti, Ravioli, [and] Italian Beef Sandwiches" in the Chicago Tribune.
Mr. Beef’s founder helped his brother, Joe Buonavolanto, open one of the first Italian beef stands outside of the city limits.
There are varying degrees of juiciness, depending on taste. Nomenclature varies from stand to stand, but wet or dipped means the bread is quickly dunked in the juice; juicy even wetter; and soaked is dripping wet.
Most Chicago beef restaurants also offer a "combo," adding a grilled Italian sausage to the sandwich. Different eateries offer hot or mild sausage, or both.
Typical beef orders are:
Some order the "triple double," which consists of double cheese, double sausage and double beef. Other even less common variations include substituting Italian bread with a large croissant or topping with marinara sauce.
The Italian beef sandwich was featured in a late 2008 episode of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food, when host Adam Richman (who focused his restaurant visits on Chicago in that episode) visited Al's No. 1 Italian Beef to try the signature sandwich.
The sandwich was mentioned in the 1999 History Channel documentary American Eats: History on a Bun as an example of the specialty sandwiches found in different cities in the United States. Chris Pacelli, owner of Al's No. 1 Italian Beef, is shown demonstrating how to eat the sandwich with the "Italian stance."
The 30 Rock episode "Sandwich Day" features "secret" sandwiches with dipping sauce from an unknown Italian delicatessen in Brooklyn. It has been theorised that this sandwich is based on the roast beef sandwich from an Italian delicatessen in Hoboken, New Jersey, which appears to be an Italian beef sandwich.