When I moved to Chicago, I wasted little time before devouring all of its iconic dishes. I mean, isn't that what civic pride is all about? My wife and I manhandled a deep dish pizza at Uno's, waited in line for a Chicago-style hot dog at Hot Doug's, and bellied up to the counter for our very first Italian beef at Al's #1 Italian Beef. It didn't take long to figure out that these dishes had one obvious similar trait. Besides embodying a, how shall I say, generous Chicago spirit, they all were spectacularly messy. Condiments crumbled into our laps, cheese stretched for feet, and shirts inevitably picked up stains.
While none of these iconic dishes are even remotely polite, there's no doubt which one required the tallest stack of napkins. That honor went to the Italian beef, one of the most unwieldy sandwiches ever created by man. At first glance it looks like the less dignified cousin of the French dip, but instead of coming with a nice little side of au jus for you to wet the sandwich's ends with, this bad boy is saturated from the start. Ask for it "dipped" and the whole sandwich is dunked in meaty juices, soaking the bread to the core. I know this sounds insane, and if you're talking about the mess, you're absolutely right. There's no respectable way to eat one of these. All you can hope to do is contain the chaos.
The shock of eating one of these for the first time is genuine, but great sandwiches are not built on blunt tricks alone. The true power of the Italian beef is how it takes one of the leanest, toughest, and least flavorful parts of the cow, the lean and boring round, and transforms it into something so unhinged and supremely beefy. If you're looking to try one of these for yourself, it's hard to go wrong with offerings at Al's #1 Italian, Johnnie's Beef, or, my most recent find, Bari. But what if you don't live in the Chicagoland area or just want to make one at home?
What Is an Italian Beef?
First we need to nail down what this beast of a sandwich is, because it's slightly more confusing than it first appears. I've always thought of the sandwich as a spruced up roast beef sandwich, but that's not quite the case. Watch this behind the scenes video at Al's #1 Italian Beef and you'll see they start with an enormous hunk of beef roasted with a fair amount of liquid. You'd think that would make this a braised dish, much like a roast beef po' boy, but that's not quite true, either. The beef isn't cooked to the point where it falls apart like a pot roast. Instead, the roast is cut very thin, and these slices maintain some of their integrity.
Though the sandwich is a bit tricky to define, making one looks simple enough: roast a big hunk of meat with water and seasonings, thinly slice the meat, combine the slices with the the flavorful leftover liquid from cooking, and then serve it all on rolls. This is basically what I did a few years ago when I followed the very good recipe from Saveur. Yet I couldn't help but feel like something was missing from the finished sandwich. While solid, it never quite crossed the line into pure mayhem like the best Italian beefs.
Beefing Up the Au Jus
While it's almost always referred to as au jus, the liquid used with an Italian beef is actually more of a broth. In the strictest sense, au jus (from the French for "with its own juice") only refers to the juices released from the meat. While a vat of this elixir would be pure heaven, a single roast would never release enough natural juices necessary for the sandwich (remember: this thing needs to be dunked). To come anywhere close, you'd have to cook an epic amount of meat solely for the juices, turning what should be a humble dish into an insanely expensive project. Simply pouring water into the roasting pan helps with volume but is nowhere near as potent.
The breakthrough came from James Peterson's What's a Cook To Do?, which honestly has a section titled, "How to get more jus from roast meats." Lucky me!
Peterson's solution is to add inexpensive, flavor-packed stew meat and bones to the pan underneath the roast. It's a method that Kenji uses with his prime rib recipe to produce extra red wine jus. Since these scraps are used solely to deepen the flavor of the liquid, they can be cooked longer to release more of their juices. The stew meat is also cut into strips and cooked until well browned.
What kind of beef should you use for this? There are a number options, so try to find what is cheapest for you. For me, that was beef neck, which, at my market at least, had an even ratio of meat to bones. Of course, this means you'll need to cut the meat off the bones, but that's pretty easy. The rest of my mix was made of oxtails, which are slightly more expensive but add loads of body. Beef shin is also a great option if you can find it.
The only further additions were some aromatics and a few spices, like clove and black pepper, to give it some personality. Simmer everything for about four hours and that's it.
The additional beef scraps accomplished everything I wanted in the liquid, making it richer and more savory. The only problem, oddly enough, was with the roast.
I thought the roast would be the easy part. Almost every source I found online called for using a hunk of round, which comes from the very back of the cow. Sure, it's tough and lean, but it's cheap, and using anything else would kind of go against everything this dish is about. All I thought I needed to do was mimic what they do at Al's: roast it with some liquid, let it cool, and then cut it into thin slices. While this sort of worked, the beef was never quite as tender as I wanted it to be.
The problem? Equipment. Walk to the end of the counter at the original Al's #1 Italian Beef on Taylor and peek into the kitchen. There you'll see a meat slicer that's about the size of a fridge. This hulking machine is what allows Al's #1 to get its beef so thin, almost to the point where the slightest touch breaks each sheet apart. At home, I have to rely on my knives for slicing, and even the best cook in the world will never match an electric slicer for even, thin slices.
I realized that without one of these, I'd never finish the job. On one hand this was great news—this is how to make the meat so tender!—but it left one enormous problem: I don't have an enormous meat slicer at home. So where to go from here?
A number of recipes online recommend a solution to this problem: cooking the beef until it falls apart like a pot roast. This can be utterly delicious, but it's not, strictly speaking, an Italian beef, and I'm going for authenticity here.
No, I just needed to figure out a way to slice the meat more thinly. One method for achieving this is to let the roast cool, and then transfer it to the freezer for an hour or two to firm it up. This does make it slightly easier to cut those paper-thin slices, but no matter how carefully I carved, I could never get the slices as uniformly thin as they needed to be. I worried that this was the end of the line—that I'd have to give up trying to come up with an accurate Italian beef recipe and settle for one that was close. But what's the fun in that?
Giving Up the Roast
I'd always assumed an Italian beef was just a glorified roast beef sandwich, and that the best version would follow the same logic: cook until medium-rare and slice thin. But there is one peculiar aspect of the Italian beef that sets it apart. After it's cooked and sliced, the meat is mixed with the warm au jus. This essentially continues to the cooking process, so even if I did cook the beef to a spot-on 125°F, those slices would eventually have to take a bath in liquid held at a higher temperature, around 140°F.
So if the meat is being cooked by the au jus anyway, why did I need to roast the meat in the first place? I could make of batch of the au jus using scraps and bones, find a butcher to thinly slice uncooked beef for me—thereby solving the thinness problem—and simply add the beef to the au jus, cook for a few minutes, and I'd be done. What a genius idea!
Not exactly. When I tested the idea with some meat that I sliced as thinly as possible, the slices were even tougher than before. Plus, the raw meat clouded the liquid, casting it an unappetizing grey. A quick chat with Kenji confirmed that this idea had some serious logistical issues, namely that with thin raw slices of beef, proteins and other contaminants leak out too quickly into the jus, turning it cloudy and robbing the beef of flavor. Not only that, but I'd have to cook the slices in the liquid for a long time for them to become tender. Besides, it was doubtful I'd ever be able to convince some knife wielding butcher to dirty his or her deli slicer with raw meat.
"But what about using good quality roast beef?" Kenji wrote.
Beef that has been par-cooked through roasting already has its proteins set, meaning they won't leak out into the au jus. The idea of using homogenous grey lunch meat didn't sound appealing, but what about delis that roast their own beef? I knew Whole Foods had nice looking roast beef reading for slicing in its deli section. I just made sure to ask for it to be sliced as thinly as possible.
Taking the Plunge
Now all I had to do was combine the sliced beef and the au jus. You could just warm the au jus on the stove, swirl in the meat, and you'd probably be okay. But I wanted to get an exact temperature. I started the test at 130°F and tried 10 degree increments up to 170°F. The meat was added and left at each temperature for about 30 seconds.
130°F was too low. The texture wasn't quite right, the slices were a bit bouncy, and each still had a light red hue, which I'd never encountered with an Italian beef. There was a big change at 140°F—the meat was far more tender and lost the red tint. At 150°F, the meat was still tender but was starting to look grainier. By 160°F, the slices started to curl and dry out, which meant that at 170°F they started to look truly disheveled. 140°F it is.
Most Italian beefs in Chicago are served on Turano or Gonnella French rolls, which I've always found a bit underwhelming, especially compared to the fresh and flakey rolls often used for New Orleans po' boys or Philadelphia cheesesteaks. But after a few tests, I realized why these rolls are used. The French rolls remain sound and strong after being dipped, unlike extra flaky rolls, which may turn mushy and soft.
While you can use any hearty French roll straight out of the packaging, I found them a little more pleasing if warmed in the oven for a bit. I just simply wrapped them in aluminum foil so the exterior wouldn't crisp up too much.
Hot and Sweet
Italian beefs are topped with "hot" and/or "sweet peppers," which is code for giardiniera and roasted green peppers. You can make giardiniera at home, but that was one step too many for me, especially since I still had a fridge full of options while taste testing the best versions in Chicago. As for the green peppers, they just need to be roasted in the oven for 40 to 50 minutes, then peeled, stemmed, seeded, and sliced.
To Dip or Not to Dip
After loading up your sandwich with beef and topping it with sweet and hot peppers, your last decision is whether you want the whole sandwich dunked. It'll taste great regardless, but I'd like to give you the hard sell to make the plunge. It's the final flourish to the already ridiculous sandwich, and while it leaves your hands messy, it's well worth the mess.
While I admit it sort of felt like cheating to give up the initial step of cooking the beef myself, it's hard to argue with the end results. Finally, a homemade Italian beef that you can make anywhere that actually tastes like the best versions in Chicago.