Al’s #1 Italian Beef (Chicago, IL)

You know, we all have those food items we crave, that we always look forward to being able to have again. They aren’t always fancy. I particularly crave, amongst other things, Waffle House hashbrowns, Pepe’s Pizza, and Chicago-style Hot Italian Beef sandwiches. Alas, none of these can be had around my corner of rural New Hampshire. In the case of some items, I’ve learned to cook them myself, but for some items that’s not really possible. The Hot Italian Beef, that Chicago delight of shaved beef on a crusty Italian loaf, swimming in juice and giardinera, is one of these; the local economy even lacks the ingredients for making these. Sure, we’ve got beef. But we don’t have the right sort of crusty Italian loaves. And we certainly don’t have condiments like hot giardinera available here (although I have a healthy supply in my own cupboard, sent by a friend in Illinois). I have tried my hand at it, with reasonable results, but this was mostly like methadone; it softened the withdrawal. But, mostly, I satisfy my cravings with a stop at Gold Coast Hot Dogs on one of my many, many connecting flights through Midway, since they have a reasonably serviceable sandwich.

So when the Chicago Death March was in planning, a key stop for me was one of the iconic Italian Beef stands. And, helpfully, the route that Kevin came up with delivered very nicely. Stop #3 on the Death March was on Taylor Street, at Chicago’s oldest Italian Beef stand: Al’s #1 Italian Beef. It’s also the place that allegedly invented the sandwich, and while this claim has some of the squabbling that other, similar origin claims have (I’m thinking of how half the times I mention Lombardi’s or Pepe’s, the topic comes up about the history of pizza in America…), I don’t see a whole lot of people worked up over it, people (mostly) seem to recognize Al’s as the founding father of the Italian Beef sandwich (although for competing theories, you can read up on it here).

This wasn’t my first trip to Al’s, that was back in 2003 IIRC correctly, when I had to wait in a fairly substantial line in the rain to get my sandwich, and then hunker down outside under the building eaves to eat it without getting soaked. This time, there was a lot less drama. We got to Al’s early enough in the day to avoid the lines. Heck, we got there a good half hour before they actually opened, so we spent about half an hour looking around (including Martin looking for a fairly well hidden geocache), look at the local stores, and talk to some of the local folk. The last of these was rather interesting, since 15 minutes of wandering around and taking random pictures of Taylor Street, Mario, the owner of Mario’s Italian Lemonade stand (I’ll probably do another post on Mario’s) got curious about who the touristy folks with the cameras worked, and came over to chat. We had a nice chat about the neighborhood history (how it used to be Italian, how Al Capone used to own the buildings across the street, and how UIC was deliberately placed to break up the neighborhood), neighborhood food (his long-standing symbiosis with Al’s, with much of the Al’s customer base also coming across the street for Italian Ice), his permit squabbles, and his approach to competition (he steadfastly refuses to do any sort of food competitions with other Italian Ice vendors, since he’d rather just get along). Rather nice guy, so I was glad we had a chance later to visit his place after it opened.

In any case, after 10:00 rolled around, we were able to get inside and order without a line. The great thing about an Italian Beef place is that they generally have relatively simple menus, and Al’s is no exception. The menu is basically three items: Italian Beef sandwiches, Sausages, Hot Dogs, or combos of those. Like the somewhat similar sandwich, the Philly Cheesesteak (which I often order as a “wit prov”), ordering a Hot Italian Beef sandwich has it’s own lingo. How messy you want it (“dry”, with just the beef from the juice, “wet”, in which they get a little more of the juice on it, and “dipped”, in which they basically soak it), and what you want on it (“hot” for giardinera, “sweet” for grilled green peppers, and “motz” for cheese). Deciding that if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it messy (hey, we brought wet naps!), I went for a “beef, dipped, hot.”

The result is one of the messiest meals on the planet—messy enough that there’s an accepted technique to eating it, the hunched-over “Chicago Lean” that keeps the drippings off of your clothes. But this is a good sandwich. The meat is nicely thin and tender, without being dry (some places sometimes slice it too thickly). The juice is very flavorful, and thick, meaning that it’s absorbed some protein from the meat. The meat hasn’t started to curl up (a sign that it’s been in the broth too long). The giardinera is sharp and tangy. And the roll, despite being dipped, is still got just a bit of tooth to the crust. Sure, my hands smelled like Italian Beef the rest of the day, but it was worth it.

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