The only way this beef crawl was going to attain legitimacy was if I hit them all. So over the past few weeks, I checked off 31 beef stands. For now, I present my top three in the suburbs.
PHOTOS: Hungry Hound's Top 31 Chicago Italian beef
Every order began the same way: "Could I get a beef, sweet, hot, juicy please."
My number three pick in the suburbs: Frangella Italian Market in Palos Park. For more than 20 years they've been making Italian specialties, including one heckuva beef. They roast it, slice it to-order, then dunk it in a flavorful jus for about a minute, but not too long.
"I don't do that because if you leave it there long enough, too long, it'll dry out," said owner Francesco Frangella.
Piled into D'Amato's bread, topped with both sweet hunks of bell pepper and a giardiniera jammed with olives, cauliflower, jalapenos and celery, it's huge, and it's a juicy, delicious mess.
"Most people like it juicy, tastes better."
"Hello, could I get a beef, sweet, hot, dipped..." I asked at the Original Mr. Beef.
My number two resides in Homer Glen, at the Original Mr. Beef. Carl Bonavolanto III has been making Italian beef for 17 years, using the same recipe his father and uncle used when they opened Mr. Beef on Orleans in 1963.
"When I was 15, about 15 years old was when they started to let me do the cooking, the slicing the preparing and I've been doing it ever since," said Bonavolanto.
Carl roasts his beef, cools it overnight, then slices the next day.
"My pride and joy..." he said, referring to his slicer.
Dunked into the jus for just a minute or two, he stuffs it onto Liborio Bakery bread, adding a homemade giardiniera with serranos, celery and black pepper, plus bell peppers that aren't green - a major departure in this category.
"I like red and orange and yellow. To me they're sweeter," he said.
My top beef - and frankly, not a huge gap between one and two - is the legendary Johnnie's in Elmwood Park. Since 1961, they've made a consistently great beef, with a jus that is positively ambrosial. Stuffed into Gonnella bread, the sweets here are finely-chopped with onions and oregano, while the giardiniera has the perfect blend of carrots, cauliflower and sport peppers.
"You can order it juicy, or dipped with a fork, take the fork, submerge it in there it comes out in a mess and you wear it when you're done eating it," said owner Frank Stompanato.
7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park
The Original Mr. Beef
12320 W. 143rd Street, Homer Glen
11925 S. 80th Avenue, Palos Park
And if you're wondering how your favorite beef stand came out, the Hungry Hound has ranked all 31 of the Italian beef joints he visited:
7500 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park; 708-452-6000
$4.32 for sandwich + .37 for sweet peppers + .37 for hot peppers
Opened in 1961, the legendary store in Elmwood Park typically has a line snaking out the side, especially in the summertime. On a chilly weekday, I walked right in and got the usual, with a small lemon ice (a must). The thing Johnnie's does that no one else bothers to is to beautifully space the sweet - a mixture of finely-chopped green bell peppers and onions sprinkled with oregano - evenly, throughout the sandwich; a hot giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers and cauliflower is arranged over a messy, juicy, thinly-sliced, perfectly seasoned beef sandwich, containing that perfect ratio of bread to beef to peppers. You know you're in for a pleasurable experience when you unwrap your meaty gift on the counter, and the fat/grease soaks through the paper (see picture, above). But that's what the Italian lemonade (ice) is for - the sweet creaminess against the fatty richness and mild heat is one of life's great culinary combos.
2. The Original Mr. Beef
12320 W. 143rd Street, Homer Glen; 708-645-0456
$6.50 for sandwich + .40 for sweet peppers + .40 for hot peppers
Bread: Liborio Bread (River Grove)
Honestly, the difference between #1 and #2 on this list is negligible. Johnnie's has lemon ice (the best in the business I might add), Mr. Beef does not. But Mr. Beef also has killer meatballs and nonna's red sauce, which Johnnie's does not. The beefs are equally impressive. In a way, the Mr. Beef saga in Chicago is like the bizarre twists and turns of the Mueller clan in Austin. A family business (Mr. Beef on Orleans) starts in 1963 by Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and Tony Ozzauto. Years pass, they sell out in 1980, but then success ensues and a cult following is born. Things change on Orleans, the name is used elsewhere (Mr. Beef & Pizza on Harlem) but Carl Bonavolanto III ends up in Will County of all places, planting his flag with the original recipe. In a strange way, it's sort of like Lou Malnati - that former cook who worked under Ike Sewell at Pizzeria Uno - opening his own place in Lincolnwood with the original recipe that made Uno's famous. A great story is one thing, but all I care about is taste, and The Original Mr. Beef delivers on all fronts: paper-thin beef - trimmed of all fat and gristle - suffused with the richness of its own fat from the drippings that are loaded with garlic; an amalgam of serrano peppers, crunchy celery and black pepper in a giardiniera that offers the slightest amount of heat, pairing extremely well with the surprising addition of red or yellow bell peppers that are actually sweet. Stuffed into sturdy, flavorful Liborio loaves that no one else in the region seems to use, it's a juicy, hot, beefy mess that I couldn't put down, even after I had already nibbled on three beefs previously that day.
11925 S. 80th Avenue, Palos Park; 708-448-2598
$5.99 for sandwich, includes peppers
This to-go only deli is stocked with a great selection of Italian groceries and a nice amount of homemade dishes in the case, such as arancini, sauces and pasta dishes. It's easy to pick up dinner from here. The long deli case features the usual Boar's Head products, but they also do Italian beef everyday. The D'Amato's bread (among my favorites in town) holds up really well to the jus, and the giardiniera is fantastic: crunchy knobs of cauliflower and jalapeos mixed with habaneros and olives, swimming in oil and oregano; a few "sweet" green peppers are tucked into one side of the sandwich, ensuring a small taste with each bite. The beef is roasted about two hours in garlic and oregano, then cooled overnight. Sliced to-order, it's reddish-pink inside, weighed to about a third of a pound, then bathed in the extra hot jus for only about a minute, which finishes cooking it. Their theory is by not letting the beef sit in the jus all day, it doesn't get overcooked. I couldn't figure out how it was possible that it would retain so much flavor, but I guess if you cook the right piece of meat the proper way, slice it the proper thickness and make a jus that has the requisite seasoning, a brief bath in that richness (combined with the flavors absorbed into the bread) beats a long steep in mediocrity.
4. Bob-O's Hot Dogs
8258 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-625-9840
$4.95 for sandwich + .50 for sweet peppers + .50 for hot peppers
Don't let the title fool you. Yes, Bob-O's started as a literal hot dog cart/trailer (like Portillo's) in the Northwest suburbs. But they also make their beef in-house, and they know how to slice it and soak it in jus just long enough without over cooking. My sandwich was jammed with beautifully tender beef covered with four fairly large strips of cooked green peppers and a knockout giardiniera of textural excellence: celery, cauliflower, carrots and sport peppers held together with plenty of oil. The pool of meat juice in my basket was a gentle reminder of what I could be doing with my hand-cut fries (which were among the best on the quest).
5. Joe Boston's Italian Beef
2932 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago; 773-486-9536
$6.00 for sandwich +.50 for sweet peppers +.50 for hot peppers
In business since 1949, this little joint occupying a triangular wedge near the Metra Line tracks does some serious beef. Mine arrived steaming hot, smooshed into a soggy Gonnella loaf oozing with oregano and spices; the beef was as shredded and tender as Scatchell's, but with more umami/savoriness like at Buona. Finally, someone besides Johnnie's goes to the trouble of slicing their green peppers into thin, bite-sized pieces, draping them just so, then piling on the homemade giardiniera of celery, sport peppers and carrots, dressed in a spicy oil that lingered for exactly five minutes on my tongue after I was done eating. Bravo.
6. Mr. Beef & Pizza
3917 N. Harlem Avenue, Chicago; 773-283-7444
$5.50 for sandwich + .50 sweet peppers + .50 hot peppers
When I walked in, I saw the pics of Jay Leno and friends, so I figured this was connected to the Mr. Beef on Orleans. When I asked, the surly dude behind the counter said "Nope." When I asked what was the difference, he replied, "we're the one you go back to." Gee, any family strife there? If you need some electrical work or construction, just come here at lunchtime to see all of the contractors stuffing their faces with beautifully cooked beef, almost disintegrated in a richly-flavored jus brimming with oregano and garlic. Sport peppers and celery are flecked with chili flakes for ample heat, while three big pieces of cooked green pepper add absolutely nothing to this sandwich. Sure, I would go back here (but I'd also go back to the other two Mr. Beefs as well).
7. Freddy's Pizza
1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero; 708-863-9289
$5.99 for sandwich + .50 for sweet peppers + .35 for hot peppers
Old. School. Freddy's is one of those places frozen in time. Not far from where Capone used to have a house in Cicero, the neighborhood has turned more Hispanic than Italian, but Freddy's endures. The daily selection in the front case is tempting beyond belief. The day I went, they were trying out a new baked pasta dish called Timballo di Pasta, which we couldn't stop raving about. The beef here is delicious. Covered with two strips of green pepper and two strips of red (that are actually sweet) their giardiniera is the best in Chicago: homemade each day with olives (!), carrots, sport peppers and celery, it adds just the right note of crunch and heat to this juicy, wet creation. While we thought it was juicy on the outside, it wasn't totally soggy on the inside, which made it possible to pick up and set down without it falling apart; frankly, a surprise, since I'm not a huge Turano fan.
8. Luke's Italian Beef
215 W. Jackson Boulevard, Chicago; (312) 939-4204
$5.95 for sandwich + .45 sweet peppers + .45 hot peppers
This was, frankly, a surprise to me. My friend Andres, who came along on Day 2 of The Crawl, suggested it. Full of tourists on a Saturday afternoon, looking for deep dish and a beef, but taking all day to figure out how to order one, I asked for a "beef, sweet, hot, juicy" and unfurled one of the larger sandwiches on the quest. There was practically an entire green pepper (meh), steamed, intact, plus a giardiniera of feisty sport peppers and chopped celery seasoned with oregano. The sandwich was plenty big enough to share (I brought along an 8" serrated knife to make splitting easy), and the half I had was properly wet, messy, with the shredded, seasoned beef that lingered a few seconds on my palate after devouring each bite. I loved how the butcher paper was loaded with spices and drippings as I ate, and yet each bite wasn't as hot as, say, Al's, which could overwhelm you.
9. Scatchell's Beef & Pizza
4700 W. Cermak Rd., Cicero; 708-656-0911
$5.35 for sandwich + .50 for sweet and hot peppers
Stubby and Eddie Scatchell opened their eponymous joint in Cicero in 1953. The neighborhood has changed quite a bit - there are a lot more taquerias and Mexican grocery stores today - but the basic sandwich hasn't changed much. First off, it's huge; mine was stuffed with finely shredded/shaved beef that was easy to chew, along with three green peppers and a nice hot mix of celery and red chili flakes to give each bite some crunch. The bread was thoroughly soaked, and my friend remarked that once you pick this sandwich up, you're committed, because once you set it down, it will disintegrate. We thought the beef lacked the umami-like savoriness of a Buona, but this baby, consumed at the counter facing Cermak, was a joy to eat. (Side note: the lemon ice is smooth and creamy, like Johnnie's, but not quite as good).
10. Mama D's
12420 S. Archer Ave., Lemont; 630-243-1212
$4.95 (for 6" sandwich) + .50 sweet peppers + .50 hot peppers - but if you get both, they only charge .50 extra
The family behind Mama D's was relentless. Every time I posted a picture of a beef from somewhere, they would challenge, dare and plead with me to stop in to try theirs. It was hard to ignore. My visit came literally at the end of my Crawl. After eating my fourth or fifth of the day at Freddie's in Bridgeport, I plugged the address into Google Maps: 25 miles and some 44 minutes away in the sleepy 'burb of Lemont, this no frills diner in a strip mall is decorated with '80s movie posters and can rightly be proud of their Italian beef. Well-trimmed, thinly-sliced beef is jammed into Mazzeo's loaves (only one other spot on this list carries this Elmwood Park bakery's bread) covered in a sweet-hot garden of thinly-sliced green bell peppers and an assertive but not-too-overpowering giardiniera (homemade) containing carrot matchsticks, sport peppers, cauliflower and celery. The sandwich is properly juicy, and the bread soaks up all of that wonderful, aromatic jus. The bonus? Having the aroma of the garlic and oregano-scented jus linger on my fingers for the long ride home.
11. Al's #1 Beef
1079 W. Taylor St.; 312-226-4017
$5.99 for a regular sandwich; .60 for sweet; .60 for hot
This is one of the legends in Chicago. Started around The Depression, a result of those Italian "peanut weddings" where immigrants used the drippings and trimmings from expensive beef and made sandwiches out of them, dipping them to add heft (sounds like a debris po' boy from NOLA), Al's has one of the best spokespersons in the form of Chris Pacelli, a Chicaaago guy, dere indeed. I find the problem with Al's - like Buona and Portillo's - is consistency. Since they each have so many locations now, spread all over the place, the sandwiches you'll find at one location rarely match another (see: Buona). I went to the original location on Taylor, in Little Italy, where my regular-sized beef came with 2 big hunks of bell pepper (yawn) and a giardiniera featuring just celery flecked with red chili flakes, giving the top of the sandwich an odd reddish hue. The beef (made in-house, unlike those little satellite franchises) was tender, pliable and shredded like Johnnie's. There were hints of garlic and oregano and it was certainly dipped adequately. But the chew seemed a little off, and I couldn't get past the giardiniera, or lack thereof, which was missing peppers, carrots, and more importantly, a good balance of sweet, hot and crunch. I realize this is probably closer to the form the original took some 80 years ago, but the sandwich as a whole doesn't work as well as others in town, at least for me. (Side note: Mario's ice across the street is as overrated as the city's long-term parking meter deal. More like frozen chunks of hard ice at Ferro's on 31st, than the soft, smooth and slightly creamy ices at Scatchell's and Johnnie's).
12. Mr. Beef on Orleans
666 N. Orleans St., Chicago; 312-337-8500
$7.00 for sandwich, includes peppers
This is another one of the legendary Founding Fathers in Chicago, having made the rounds on national TV and being BFFs with the likes of Joe Mantegna and Jay Leno. I do think one of the reasons for this is that when national TV shows/hosts come to town, they stay nearby and they don't have time to schlep anywhere. Case in point: when I was a guest on "Food Wars" on the Travel Channel, I told the producers they had to go to Johnnie's. They said there were tight on time, so Al's on Taylor and Mr. Beef on Orleans were going to have to do. I regress. This Mr. Beef spawned two other locations - one related by family (the owner's son opened a space in Homer Glen 17 years ago) the other, not so much (Mr. Beef & Pizza on Harlem Ave.). But they still use top sirloin here, roasting in house, cooling, then slicing extremely thin each day and letting it bathe in the richly-flavored jus - which was among my favorites in town (I had written down "yum" in my notebook). My sandwich arrived with a strip of bell pepper and a hot giardiniera featuring celery flecked with chili flakes and sport peppers. They realize that you can't let the beef sit too long in the jus, on the steam table, otherwise it will cook too much and get tough - a sign of experience. But my problem here was the size of the sandwich. Just too skimpy, and easily below the 4 oz. standard they shoot for. When I asked the owner about it later, he told me the guy who works on Saturdays tends to be more inconsistent than the weekday guy. "Come back during the week when he's working here, and I promise it'll be a little bigger; we're still working with our weekend guy," he told me. I think consistency is a huge issue in the beef community, as I had the same problem with a less-than-juicy beef at Buona, in Hillside: Mr. Buonavolanto himself (via his publicist) invited me back to the Berwyn location anytime to personally make me a "properly dipped beef" after he saw my Instagram post. (I didn't take him up on it). But therein lies the conundrum: a great beef joint has to have a consistently great beef sandwich.
100 W. Ontario St.; 312-587-8910
Menu they hand you while waiting in line and online lists sandwich as $5.45, but they've raised the price to $5.69 for a sandwich, probably as a result of their being sold to an investment group recently +.60 sweet peppers + .60 hot peppers
With 38 locations - 33 of which are in Illinois - Portillo's has become more of a theme park than a true "joint." Each location has a theme, such as "30s Prohibition" or "50s and 60s Retro" and I couldn't help but feel, as I waited in a snaking line at the Ontario location, that I was in a sort of Disneyland for people who wanted to eat Chicago-style food, but didn't actually want to travel anywhere in Chicago that wasn't more than 10 minutes from their hotel. They use one of my least favorite breads, but they certainly know how to make beef. The texture was nice and soft, and the "juicy" lived up to its billing - my sandwich was totally wet, allowing me to taste the oregano in every soggy bite. There were two huge slices of green pepper, steamed like most and not worth the .60 upcharge, but the giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers, celery and cauliflower saved it. If you don't have a car and it's the most convenient to you in Batavia, Bolingbrook, Crystal Lake, etc., then this is a fine sandwich, but not in my top 10 overall. (Side note: don't waste the calories on the overrated chocolate cake; better to get it mixed into a shake).
14. Buona Beef
2135 S. Wolf Rd., Hillside; 708-236-0575
$5.60 for sandwich + .50 for sweet peppers + .50 for hot peppers
With 13 locations in Chicagoland, stepping into a Buona feels like ordering at Potbelly, which is a shame, because part of the joy of eating Italian beef in Chicago is leaning against a counter (Johnnie's, Al's, Scatchell's, etc.) and navigating an icon without staining your shirt. They still have the original in Berwyn if you want to go for the old school feel, but I wanted to see if they're consistent, so I hit the west suburban Hillside location (eating inside, not drive-thru). Served in a paper wrapper on a real plate, my heart jumped at the sight of three slightly charred green peppers; to the best of my knowledge, Buona is the only place that chars them. This adds some complexity, and the giardiniera of sport peppers, carrots and celery added even more. The beef had a good balance of seasonings - oregano, garlic, salt - maybe a little too much salt, but the beef was both shredded and soft. My only "beef" if you will, was that it wasn't anywhere near the "juicy" I had asked for. In fact, I remember adding "wet" to my request, and still, the sandwich arrived barely half dipped, which you can see in the picture. Like the hot peppers at Chickie's and the size of the sandwich at Frannie's, excuses were made after-the-fact about employees who maybe hadn't been trained enough yet or who usually work weekends or it's a situation they're working on...but in the end, to make the top 10, you have to be consistent.
15. Fabulous Freddie's Italian Eatery
701 W 31st St.; 312-808-0147
$5.95 for a small sandwich ($7.95 for regular, $9.95 for large) + .55 for sweet peppers + .55 for giardiniera
Freddie's is a machine. Still tucked into a corner spot on 31st and Union in Bridgeport, it's so close to The Cell, you can imagine they held a wake the day Paul Konerko retired. They've updated the kitchen, churning out much more than just beef these days. I saw a pulled pork sandwich topped with onion rings while waiting for my "beef, sweet, hot, juicy," and while I love that they use Biondillo bread, I now know why the only other place on this list that carries their bread - Riviera - doesn't totally dunk theirs either (unless you ask): it just doesn't hold together under the weight of the wet jus. My open-faced sandwich had almost an entire green pepper splayed across the top, in several strips, plus a giardiniera featuring bits of carrot, sport peppers, cauliflower and red pepper. The jus was full of flavor, actually better than the beef, which leaned too much to the chewy side, but I had to pick at it with a fork after two bites, since the whole mess just fell apart.
16. Frannie's Beef & Catering
4304 River Rd., Schiller Park; 847-678-7771
$5.25 includes peppers
The owner here is the nephew of Bob Bailey, former owner of the legendary Chickie's in Little Village. I liked how the sandwich guy spooned some of the jus onto the inside of the bread before he stuffed it with shredded beef that had both excellent texture (soft, paper-thin shards) with a flavor-jammed gravy. I didn't love the pepper situation, however. An all-green canvas of chopped bell peppers, celery and jalapenos resulted in bites that featured mostly just green pepper, resulting in an oddly vegetal-tasting bite with zero contrast. This was also one of the smallest sandwiches on the tour, and while I'm fine with that if the ratio works - I'm all for quality over quantity - I thought in this case, it seemed a tad light.
17. Riviera Imported Italian Foods
3220 N. Harlem Ave.; 773-637-4252
$5.50 (includes peppers)
This is one of the most charming little Italian groceries I've ever shopped in. The family is as cute as a new Vespa and they keep the aisles in immaculate shape. Known for their subs and their homemade Barese-style sausages, they also make beefs. I liked how they sliced them thin, and the beef, which takes six hours to make, had quite a bit of flavor from the garlicky jus; tucked into some of the best bread on this quest, I would have preferred it wetter, but they opted to serve it a little drier, and then gladly gave me extra jus on the side. Carrots, celery and sport peppers made up a fine giardiniera, and even the "sweet" pepper, a chopped up green, wasn't half bad. This was more of a French dip than an Italian beef, though.
18. Pop's Italian Beef & Sausage
10337 S. Kedzie Ave., Chicago; 773-239-1243
$4.99 for sandwich, no extra charge for peppers
Bread: Michelle Baking (Franklin Park)
I had no idea there were 14 locations throughout the region, but this location, in the Evergreen Park/Mount Greenwood area on the far South Side, was, to my knowledge, the mothership. After I placed my usual order of "beef, sweet, hot, juicy" they repeated it back "beef, sweet, hot, wet" which I liked. The sandwich arrived with three strips of green pepper and a giardiniera containing just celery and thinly-sliced jalapeos showered with red pepper flakes (I noticed a theme among beef joints down South that they took a more spartan approach to giardiniera, although they did offer a milder version with the usual suspects of carrots and cauliflower upon request). The jus had a fortifying, beefy flavor and the beef was finely shredded; the bun was soaked but intact, although it had an odd chew to it and we both thought the beef could have been more tender; it tended to have the same, semi-tough texture as Jay's and Tony's.
19. Carm's Beef and Italian Ice
1057 W. Polk St.; 312-738-1046
$6.60 for sandwich +. 50 for sweet peppers + .50 for giardiniera
Located just a few blocks from the original Al's Beef on Taylor, Carm's sits in the heart of the neighborhood, on Polk St., across the street from Fontana's Subs, another outstanding Italian deli. They've been in business since 1929, about as long as Al's, but I can't imagine the sandwiches have always been made this way. Like Frangella, the beef here is sliced cold, kept cold, then dunked into the jus for about 30 seconds, to cook it through and add the requisite garlicky, peppery notes. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of bits of fat in my sandwich, which didn't make for a pleasant chew. The jus is very good, but unfortunately, the hot giardiniera - consisting mainly of jalapeos, more jalapeos and celery (see pic) just completely obliterates any work that went into making the beef or jus taste good.
1503 W. Taylor St., Chicago; 312-829-0454
$4.90 for sandwich, includes peppers
Since 1948, The Patio has been a mainstay in the old 'hood, part of the original Little Italy. The dogs are all Vienna Beef and the Italian beef apparently comes from Greco & Sons in Wisconsin, according to the big sign on the front window. I feel bad for the people who cling, ever so stubbornly, to the idea that this is among the best beefs in Chicago. It is the best bargain, that's for sure, but the five thin slices of green pepper and "giardiniera" of celery and chili flakes did little to improve upon a thinly-sliced beef that had plenty of connective tissue/fat on it; the fact the beef just sits in the jus all afternoon probably doesn't help, as my sandwich turned out to be pretty chewy.
21. Michael's Beef House
6747 W. North Ave., Oak Park, IL 60302; 708-848-8080
$5.49 for sandwich +.39 for sweet peppers + .39 for hot peppers
Bread: Mazzeo Baking (Elmwood Park)
A lot of people chimed in when they saw I was doing a North Ave./Harlem Ave. run, and I'll admit, the first few times I drove by Michael's I was tempted to pull over, but for some reason, my visit came near the end of The Crawl. Like Novi's they get their bread from Mazzeo's, which is admirable, but the beef here just didn't have a lot of flavor (despite being made in-house). That was odd, because the jus had quite a bit of flavor, and the giardiniera - replete with carrots, celery and sport peppers, added quite a welcome punch, despite the soggy, ineffective hunks of bell peppers. I would have been happy to eat a debris sandwich, made from the drippings, the gravy and the hot peppers, but sadly, the beef sank it.
22. The Original Chickie's Beef
1801 S. Wolf Rd., Hillside; 708-449-1000
$6.00 for sandwich +.50 for sweet peppers + .50 for hot peppers
The Original Chickie's was actually located at 28th and Pulaski in the Little Village neighborhood on the SW Side. It was opened in 1962 by Bob Bailey, who named it after his wife, who went by "Chickie." Bailey sold it to one of his employees, but the place eventually shut down. Bailey's grandkids opened up this store in the western suburb of Hillside about two years ago, in the former Carm's Beef stand. We hit this shop on Day 4 of The Crawl, shortly after they opened. The beef - moderately tender, sliced paper-thin, wasn't quite fully dipped (a common problem among beef stands; you need to really clarify with a "half-dipped," "spoon of juice," "soaked") and the real disappointment came in the pepper situation. The four strips of green pepper were ample, but the "hot" here meant only sliced jalapeos. When I asked the owner later about it, he said there is, indeed, celery mixed in among the jalapeos (as I remembered from the original stand on Pulaski) but for some reason the person making the sandwiches didn't mix up the bowl enough before dipping their spoon in. Again, this theme of consistency arises frequently, as it did at Buona with the "juicy" request. Had the beef been exquisite, it might have moved the sandwich up a few notches, but the sad state of the "hot" peppers unfortunately moved it down. (Side note: amazing hand-cut fries I would stop in again to get on their own).
3301 W. Main St., Skokie; 847-677-7911
$5.79 for sandwich, includes peppers
Started in Skokie in 1972, the Greek family that owns Dengeo's also has a location in Buffalo Grove. Now before you say "hey, they're Greek, what do they know about Italian beef?" Let me say that they ironically put more effort into their beef (they make it in-house, roasting, cooling and slicing it on-site) than they do with the gyros, which are purchased from an outside vendor. That said, my "beef, sweet, hot, juicy" arrived on a nice big oval plate, served open-faced, allowing me to see the wonderful (albeit purchased) giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers, celery and cauliflower. Four strips of green pepper were included as well. I thought the jus was exemplary, but so much of it overwhelmed the Gonnella, causing the hinge to disintegrate since it sat in the well of the oval plate, making the sandwich more of a knife-and-fork affair. Also, the beef was just plain tough; thinly-sliced but too chewy and not enough seasoning spread throughout the sandwich.
24. Bombocigno's J & C Inn
588 Van Buren St., Chicago; 312-663-4114
$6.99 for sandwich + .55 for sweet peppers + .55 for hot peppers
Bread: From a guy (but likely D'Amato's)
The most expensive Italian beef sandwich in Chicago lives in an historic spot. I know why people like this place. It's tucked away in a time capsule of a building, hidden away in the SW Loop, in the shadow of Lou Mitchell's and a bunch of fast food crap. You walk in, and it feels like you've stepped back to the 1920s, the long bar along the wall and the compact kitchen all the way in the back. There are a few checkered-topped tables to sit at while you eat your lunch, but I'm not sure I'll be going back here for an Italian beef. First off, what's with the bread? I asked the surly manager/owner behind the counter if it was D'Amato's, since I saw they carried their sandwich bread, but all he would say was "we buy it from a guy." Dude, if it's from D'Amato's, brag about it! Second, the giardiniera comes on the side, in one of the smallest thimble-sized plastic cups I've seen since Jay's (see picture). It barely holds the celery and sport peppers swimming in chili-laced oil, and .55 for it seems like a gouge. The two small pieces of bell pepper were similarly unhelpful, but the most jarring aspect was the amount of oregano on this sandwich. You can see it in the picture too, all over the peppers. The bread may be great, but if the beef is tough and it's dominated by one spice, then you've got a problem that's only exacerbated by the fact it comes in the city's priciest package.
25. Jay's Beef
4418 N. Narragansett, Harwood Heights; 708-867-6733
$5.99 for sandwich + .70 sweet peppers + .70 hot peppers
They have locations in Wicker Park and Schiller Park, but the Mothership has always been at the corner of Montrose and Narragansett, in Harwood Heights, on the Northwestern cusp of the city. One friend in particular was raving about this place, as were several people on Facebook, who, I'm convinced, all grew up within a mile of the place. The request for a "beef, sweet, hot, juicy" arrived almost completely dry, and the peppers - two hunks of green, plus a homogenous medley of celery and sliced jalapeos dressed with chili flakes - offered little contrast to one of the toughest, chewiest beefs we had since Tony's. To the people proclaiming Jay's supremacy in Chicago, I ask this simple question: have you ever been to Homer Glen or Elmwood Park?
7007 S. Pulaski Rd., Chicago; 773-284-6787
$5.25 for sandwich + .35 for hot peppers (arrive on the side)
With locations in Palos Park and the Southwest Side, there was a lot of chatter about Tony's while I was running around the city on Day 1 of The Crawl. What a huge disappointment. This was the first stop on Day 3, and so we were there relatively early in the day, before the lunch rush. Not only was the bun barely dipped, but the beef turned out to be chewy, bordering on tough, with just average seasoning. The giardiniera of carrots, sport peppers, chili flakes and celery arrived in the smallest plastic cup possible, making it difficult to cover an entire sandwich; the three green pepper slices added little, if anything in the way of sweetness. The sandwich is big, by the way, but I would have gladly taken half the amount for a beef that was tender and flavorful.
27. Dukes Drive-In
8115 S. Harlem Ave., Bridgeview; 708-599-0576
$4.95 for sandwich, includes peppers
Opened in 1975, weekend nights during the summertime are when the Drive-In looks like a scene from "American Graffiti." Lined with hot rods and fast cars, it's a total throwback, and most of the customers get a beef. The beef here is HUGE, and a real deal for less than $5 including peppers, but here's the problem: it's not only too big, it's also weakly seasoned. Mine came with three big pieces of green pepper, a couple of jalapeos sliced lengthwise with celery embedded with a few bits of red chili flake. Not only was the beef too unwieldy to eat, it had the oddest texture, bordering on rubbery. The sandwich was soaked alright, to the point where it just fell apart in my hands.
28. Novi's Beef
6746 Ogden Ave., Berwyn; 708-749-0895
$6.15 for sandwich, includes peppers
Bread: Mazzeo Baking (Elmwood Park)
Since 1966, Novi's has been to Berwyn what Paradise Pup is to Des Plaines and Poochie's is to Skokie: dat joint you go to to get a dog, a beef, a shake, what have you, and get out for under $10. I can appreciate the lore and the significance a place like this plays in its community. But I can't recommend their beef (ironically, the day I was there, they had signs everywhere - on the big board outside, behind the counter - that "Chicago's Best" was going to be featuring them. What, exactly, is the criteria for getting on that show?) The hot peppers here come in a tiny plastic container to spread as you wish, but it barely covers the length of the sandwich (see picture). It's essentially a deep red blend of finely-ground celery and chili oil. The "sweets" here are two to three chunks of green pepper, and the beef is just plain dry. You can see in the picture, despite the fact the bread is wet on the outside, the inside is juiceless and there's nothing oozing off of it. It's certainly a big sandwich, but take a bite: the hot chili oil completely overwhelms your mouth, and all you taste is hot oil on top of dry beef. I made a remark in my Beefee's synopsis about not taking any advice on where to eat from Fox News; you can add WGN/CLTV to that list now too.
29. Nottoli Italian Foods
5025 N. Harlem Ave.; 773-631-0662
$6.50 includes peppers
They've been making sausage and selling Italian food to the neighborhood since 1947, so I have to give this family-run operation a lot of credit for the great sandwiches, namely the meatball, that they produce without fail. The beef is another matter. First of all, there was way too much beef (see also: Dukes). Even if I loved the beef, there's a limit to what works in terms of beef-pepper-bread ratio. This one was way out of whack. I didn't love seeing the deli worker slice the roast beef behind the counter then give it a brief bath - the result was a weakly seasoned sandwich. There were a few green peppers, some mildly hot sport peppers with carrots and celery as well, but even the fine D'Amato's bread, normally a stalwart, couldn't contain the over abundance of beef jammed into it, and fell apart into a soggy mess #BrokenHinge.
30. Serrelli's Finer Foods
6458 W. North Ave.; 877-385-2333
$5.98 includes peppers
I was a sucker for the "Home of the Original Italian Beef" sign out front, so I pulled my car over, practically into a snow bank, so I could run inside and try one of their "famous Italian roast beef sandwiches." They do sell quite a lot of it, by the pound, in plastic containers, along with the gravy on the side. But I had to teach the guy making the sandwich what a "sweet, hot, juicy" meant - he initially left off the hot giardiniera - and when I walked outside to eat it on my trunk, since there's no seating, I was met with a tougher-than-acceptable beef sandwich with very little seasoning from the jus. Probably because when I saw them make it, I noticed they don't place the beef into the jus until an order comes in, and even then, it's only for a few seconds. The cauliflower-celery-sport pepper giardiniera is fine, but unfortunately, the beef is far too chewy.
5846 W. North Ave.; 773-745-0414
$5.45 (includes fries - not handcut, frozen)
They proudly claim they serve the "Best Italian Beef in Chicago," and have it printed on their T-shirts, but that's according to Fox News. Remind me never to take food advice from Fox News. This beef was one of the few not made in-house; rather, it comes from Devanco Foods Co. The cook told me they "grill it" (huh?), and add seasoning, but I found it somewhat chewy and lacking in any seasoning whatsoever. There is quite a bit of heat in their giardiniera, which has sport peppers, carrots and the extremely rare banana peppers, and the loaves hold up pretty well when soaked. Like pretty much every restaurant on the West Side, there's nowhere to sit and eat, save for four chairs in the waiting area out in front of the bulletproof glass partition.
Bari Italian Foods*
1120 W. Grand Avenue, Chicago; 312-666-0730
$6.00 for sandwich + .50 for sweet peppers + .50 for hot peppers
Bread: Upper Crust Baking Co.
*The reason this is not ranked, is because it is not one of the Essential Italian Beef options in Chicago. It is, however, the one that served as the catalyst for this Beef Crawl. They also make Italian subs. Best to go that route.