Chickie's: I’ve had absolutely outstanding sandwiches from Chickie’s in the past and more than a few Italian Beef connoisseurs have called it the best in town. But on this visit, the sandwich was simply terrible. The shredded beef was dry and virtually devoid of flavor. Three people rated it last and I rated it second to last as I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious and unique fresh and crunchy giardiniera. But that was a mistake on my part; a sandwich with beef this bad was beyond saving.
With my revised vote, Chickie’s last place finish is unanimous. 4 points.
Chickie’s: 2839 S Pulaski Rd Chicago, IL 60623 (map); 773-277-2333
Mr. Beef: Other than Al’s, Mr. Beef gets the most press of any Italian Beef joint out there. The sandwich has a nice pepper but that’s all it had going for it. About a decade ago, I worked a few blocks away from Mr. Beef and ate there with some regularity. The best thing I can say about the place is that it's consistent. Most of the beef was chewy and the giardiniera was completely dominated by celery. Three of us had it ranked second-to-last and one had it in sixth place. 12 points.
666 North Orleans Street, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-337-8500
Freddy’s Pizza & Gelateria: I wrote lovingly about many of Freddy’s offerings when I reviewed it for Slice. Freddy’s was actually on the itinerary for a gelato break but when we realized they have Italian Beefs, we had to give it a shot. The nine-inch sandwich was by far the biggest of the day and at $4.85, it’s enough to cheaply feed two people.
But the extra crusty roll could not handle the dunk in gravy and the thick meat was just not very flavorful. The giardineira was excellent, but the sandwich disappointed everyone. 13 points.
Freddy’s Pizza & Gelateria:
1600 South 61st Avenue Cicero, Illinois 60804 (map); 708-863-9289; freddyspizza.com
Scatchells: If I were in the neighborhood and stopped into Scatchell’s on a day with no other Italian Beefs, I would leave a happy man. But when compared to the other sandwiches we sampled, it was out of balance with too much meat and a celery-heavy giardiniera that was a bit light on heat. A perfectly respectable neighborhood sandwich, but not a destination Beef. Nick had a better experience when he reviewed it, but I suspect it benefited greatly from being tasted alone that day. 16 points.
Scatchell's Beef & Pizza:
4700 W Cermak Rd Cicero, IL 60804 (map); 708-656-0911
Al's Beef (Franchise): While there is a business relationship with the original Al’s on Taylor Street, all of the Al’s franchises are owned by a separate company. The original makes its beef on site but the 13 franchises (7 more coming soon) all get theirs from a central location and then cut them on site. The meat was a little dry and they were stingy with the giardiniera. It had enough of the distinctive flavors of the original to make it a good sandwich but it fell far short of greatness. 17 points.
169 West Ontario Street, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-943-3222; alsbeef.com
Joe Bostons Italian Beef: Barbecue maven Dr. BBQ praised Joe Bostons beef and sausage sandwich on the Food Network’s Best Thing I Ever Ate’s Meat-Fest episode. The combo is always a good sandwich but we limited ourselves to just Italian Beef. The meat was roasted the day before and sliced that morning. The giardiniera from Scala’s was good if a bit spicy for the insufficient beef flavor. It was our first of the day and was a very solid sandwich. 24 points.
Joe Bostons Italian Beef:
2932 W Chicago Ave., Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-486-9536
Connie's Beef: This was an Elmwood Park institution before it closed ten years ago. John Scalzitti, son of the last owner, reopened the place last year and is doing a very solid job. The well-balanced housemade giardiniera had just celery and hot peppers but was particularly good. The beef itself had excellent flavor although a few pieces were a little rubbery. The top four places all scored significantly higher, but despite the lack of dipping we rated Connie’s the best of the rest with a 26 points.
7501 W Grand Ave, Elmwood Park IL 60707 (map); 708-452-6500
The Patio: They've been serving up Italian Beef since 1943 but never attained city-wide notoriety thanks to being a mere four blocks away from the original Al’s Beef. I’ve visited Al’s on Taylor countless times in my life and until Saturday had never been to Patio. I had no idea what I’d been missing. The thick-sliced beef was absolutely delicious and the unique giardiniera that is hot but has some kind of pickling action going on blew all of us away. Every serious Italian Beef eater needs to check this place out. 34 points.
The Patio: 1503 West Taylor Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-829-0454
Johnnie's Beef: There hasn't been a serious discussion about the best beef in Chicago for decades that did not include Johnnie’s Beef. The Elmwood Park institution was our tenth stop and as one person in the group accurately commented, completely rejuvenated us. The celery, carrot and jalapeno giardiniera added just the right amount of kick to go with some excellent beef sliced to a moderate thickness. 37 points.
Johnnie’s Beef: 7500 West North Avenue, Elmwood Park, IL 60707 (map); 708-452-6000
Al's #1 Italian Beef: This is the Italian Beef I was weaned on as a little sparky and it remains my gold standard. Al's is Chicago's oldest and probably best known beef stand, but for some reason nobody else bothers trying to duplicate the flavor it gets from mystery seasonings like nutmeg and/or clove and/or cinnamon along with the traditional spices. The tender flavorful meat and classic giardiniera was enough for Nick and I to vote Al’s #1, but the other two put it in third and fourth place, thereby denying it the crown for the day. 37 points.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef:
1079 West Taylor Street, Chicago IL 60607 (map); 312-226-4017; alsbeef.com
Portillo's Hot Dogs: There are many who dismiss Portillo’s simply because it’s a chain with over 30 locations in the Chicago area and two in Southern California. I was in that camp myself before Saturday. And I was dead wrong.
While my personal favorite was the original Al’s, Portillo’s was the clear consensus choice. It had been years since my last Beef from Portillo’s but it will be a matter of a days before my next one. 42 points.
Portillo’s: 100 W. Ontario, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-587-8910; portillos.com