The origins of Chicago's classic Italian beef sandwich are murky, but Al's #1 Italian Beef (known as Al's or Al's Beef for short) stands by the claim that founder Al Ferreri invented the sandwich back in 1938. The story goes: Ferreri needed a way to stretch a roast to be able to serve 150 at weddings. He sliced the beef thin, dipped it in cooking juices, and put the beef on the sandwich. Thus an icon was born. Ferreri opened a small shop in Chicago's Little Italy which has grown into a franchised chain. But according to Director of Operations Adam Bufano, when it comes to the food, "we have not changed a thing for the last 76 years."
While the origins of the sandwich are a matter of debate, the Italian Beef sandwich at Al's is certainly one of the city's most iconic dishes. Roasted beef drenched in its own jus is piled high upon French bread before the whole sandwich is dipped in the meaty jus, and topped with a spicy giardiniara and sweet peppers. At a busy location, an average day might mean making 400 Italian beefs, with a "crazy day" meaning 600-700 sandwiches. "The reason why our Italian beef is so special is that it's completely different," says Bufano. "It doesn't taste like any other Italian beef sandwich."
Eater Chicago editor Daniel Gerzina agrees:
"Few foods rightfully deserve the designation as a meaty icon in the meatpacking capital of the world — and garner its own eating custom — as the Italian beef. Its composition is flavorful and messy, its backers are fierce, and its history is muddled. What is clear, however, is its permanent place in the Chicago — and national — sandwich stratosphere, whether you like yours wet or soaked, sweet or hot, daily or yearly."
Below, the elements of the Italian beef sandwich at Al's Beef:
1. The Bread
Al's Beef uses a simple French bread that's baked fresh daily and delivered from the Gonella Baking Co. in Chicago. The bakery has been family owned and operated since 1886, making it one of the oldest bakeries in Chicago. "Al's Beef and Gonella bread is a match made in heaven," says Bufano. The reasons why have to do with the bread's structure, which can hold up to being dipped in the beef gravy. "The bread stands up wonderfully, it doesn't lose its shape or disintegrate. It's got the right amount of pull on it, but it's still very soft." The bread is delivered in large loaves, which the team slices to sandwich size and then sends it to the line.
2. The Beef
The heart of the sandwich is the roasted beef. The original location cooks the beef in house while huge quantities of top sirloin roasts are cooked at an off-site, USDA-certified production facility for the franchise locations. The choice to use top sirloin is an unusual one among Italian beef makers, says Bufano. "Most Italian beef is from an inside round and people use it because it's the easiest," he explains. "Top sirloin is complicated, there are different muscles and not many people want to and can deal with it."
The effort pays off, creating the Al's beef signature flavor and texture. The fat is left on the roast which goes into the oven with a cooking liquid made from water, garlic, and a spice mixture that Bufano says is "kept under lock and key" so tightly that not even he knows the recipe. It's a dry roast at a fairly high 375 degrees, giving the thick cut the chance to cook thoroughly over the course of a few hours. At the store, the "beef guy" trims the remaining fat off the beef and passes it through a slicing machine resulting pieces that are "impossibly thin so light passes through."
3. The Gravy
Bufano credits the gravy as the reason why the Al's Beef Italian sandwich stands out in a city known for its Italian sandwiches. "Most Italian beefs taste the same, it's just thinly sliced meat with a jus made from water and beef stock" he says. "Ours is different because it has a distinguishable taste." That taste comes from the cooking liquid used in the roasting process above. The fat from the roast mingles with the cooking liquid as the roast cooks, creating a rich jus. The leftover pan juices are the only ingredients in the gravy; in other words, it's just beef, water, garlic, and spices. Bufano emphasizes that the gravy has no fillers or chemicals ("We spend extra money to not put corn substances in the product.")
There's also a technique to the way the beef guys dip the sandwich. Holding the bun in their left hand, they'll take a fork full of beef, give it a stir in the gravy, and add it to the bread. If a customer orders a sandwich "wet," they'll then ladle the gravy over the bread. If the customer orders a sandwich "dipped" — as most customers do — the beef guy will use tongs to "submerge" the whole sandwich into the gravy.
4. The Vegetables
The final components of the sandwich are the optional add-ons. Most customers will order a sandwich topped with Al's signature giardiniera. Made in house, the giardiniera is yet another secret recipe. Celery and bell peppers are left for three days to marinate in salt, garlic, oil, red pepper flakes, and other secret seasonings. The result has some crunch and a lot of kick, which is traditional of Chicago-style giardiniera. Says Bufano: "It's not the spiciest you're going to find, but it's got plenty of heat to give life to the sandwich."
Another traditional add-on is sweet peppers. Bell peppers are roasted in house, and Bufano explains the key is taking the peppers out of the oven at the right time so that they're not too crunchy and not too soft. "We keep the sweet peppers very plain because we don't want anything to interfere with the flavors of the giardiniera, the gravy, and the beef, otherwise it's not going to be an Al's anymore." There's also an option to add cheese, but Bufano is dismissive. "In my opinion, cheese is not recommended."