What is an Italian Beef?
An Italian beef sandwich is 100% Chicago. Invented (in a country other than Italy) at least as early as the 1930s, the Italian beef contains very thinly sliced beef roast that has simmered for a long time in a flavorful Italian seasoned au jus (often called gravy in Chicago). The beef is heated up in the gravy prior to being draped into a sliced French-style bread roll. You can enjoy a beef with just meat, gravy, and bread, but most diners will choose spicy giardiniera or roasted bell peppers incorporated in the sandwich.
This week I’ve written about the experiences I’ve had making my own Italian beef sandwiches. Your biggest challenge with making your own Italian beef at home is getting the meat sliced thin enough. There’s a real texture issue if you are eating thick slices of beef, vs the Italian beefs that you can buy at a restaurant. You can shell out 150+ dollars for an electric meat slicer, or you can just be very patient and slice as thinly and carefully as possible. I made all of mine without an electric meat slicer and you can too.
If you want to read more about Italian beef sandwiches, check out a couple of posts from the Sandwich Tribunal about beefs. This is more descriptive about what an Italian beef is, and this links to a French Dip vs. Italian beef post with a bit more history.
How to order an Italian Beef
My friend, Dennis Lee, a celebrity food writer over at Food is Stupid, wrote a rundown on how to order an Italian beef for The Takeout earlier this year. Go read that if you want. But please come back. I have a lot of photos and words down below.
Basically, if you’re ordering an Italian beef, your options are to choose the amount of beef au jus/gravy you’d like on your sandwich, and then you must pick the toppings for your meat. Here are the options:
Beef: this really isn’t an option. You just don’t have to say the whole phrase, “Italian beef.” Simply saying the word “beef” is enough in Chicago.
Dry: this option means your sandwich will have very little of the au jus/gravy on it. I personally wouldn’t suggest this for your first beef experience.
Wet: if you say wet, the sandwich maker will not shake off the au jus when transferring the meat from the liquid to the bread. They sometimes will spoon a little extra gravy on the bread as well. Wet is what I would suggest if you’re ordering a beef for the first time.
Dipped: if you order your beef dipped, the cook will dunk the whole sandwich, bread, and all into the au jus. This makes for a messy but deliciously soft sandwich.
Sweet: strips of tender, roasted green (or possibly red) bell pepper will be added to the sandwich along with the meat.
Hot: if you choose hot, you will get a few spoonfuls of spicy, oil-coated giardiniera tossed into the sandwich with the meat.
Note: you can order both sweet AND hot if you want.
Example order: “Gimmie a beef, wet, sweet, and hot.”
My typical order: beef, dipped, hot.
The main consideration you should have prior to ordering an Italian beef is that you’re setting the stage for the rest of your afternoon.
|Beef Question:||Beef Answer:|
|Got a big afternoon with a lot of work planned later?||You should eat a salad.|
|Got a slow afternoon of work coming up?||Ok, maybe it’s beef time.|
Don’t order an Italian beef unless you’re ready for some less productive time soon.
I’m not an Italian beef connoisseur or anything, but I do enjoy beefs a few times a year. Mr. Beef, Al’s, and Jay’s are three of my favorite non-homemade beef experiences I’ve experienced.
Just for testing purposes, I visited Portillo’s recently to get a baseline beef for this blog post.
Portillo’s is probably the most well-known restaurant serving Italian beefs in the United States. This is not due to quality, but it is because they are a chain that has locations in at least 8 states.
This is not to say that Portillo’s has a bad beef sandwich. I think it’s pretty good actually. The beef/meat itself is salty and a bit plain; you can taste oregano in the beef and the giardiniera is a little spicy and is chopped into large chunks. Portillo’s beef is not the best Italian beef, but it is a solid sandwich.
The main reason I made the visit was to test the bread. I knew Portillo’s uses Turano Baking Co. bread and I wanted to get it another time to get one last baseline sampling before I attempted to make my own bread.
Turano’s and Gonnella’s are the two most well known bread bakers making rolls for Italian beef sandwiches. I wanted to model my bread recipe off of one of them so I chose Turano’s.
If you watch this video, you’ll hear the Turano folks say how French their bread is, and then you look at the ingredients and see that it’s not really very much like a baguette. True French baguettes are made with no sugar and no fat in the dough.
I have made some “French” bread recently with no sugar or fat and it is considerably different from the Turano rolls that I’ve had. So instead, I have worked on a recipe that does have some sugar and oil, but it also uses an overnight sponge that contributes more flavor to the final bread. Since these aren’t quite French rolls, I’m calling them Chicago-style sub rolls.
This recipe also uses bread flour instead of all-purpose flour (you can use all-purpose for this recipe in a pinch, but it’s better with bread flour). Bread flour contains higher protein which contributes to a chewier bread. This is a big deal when you are eating a sandwich that receives a ton of moisture from the au jus/gravy.
In sourdough-type boules (those big round breads), you score the top of the dough so that the bread has an expansion area that you control. In some dough, these shallow slices are like the cracks in the pavement over a bridge, allowing the bridge to safely expand with temperature changes. Otherwise, without the slice on top, the dough would rise in the oven and potentially burst out wherever it could. In rolls like these, knife scores are pretty much just for looks.
Giardiniera is awesome. It’s a pickled, spicy, and oily condiment that brings a ton of flavor to an Italian beef. Giardiniera is fantastic on pizza and pretty much any savory sandwich that could use an injection of flavor and texture.
Some folks will disagree with olives in giardiniera or red bell peppers, or cauliflower, but the main takeaway here is that if you make your own, you can add or subtract whatever you want. Add pickled serrano peppers if you want it extra spicy, use red bell pepper instead of green, if you like things to be colorful. Basically, you just want to keep the mass of veggies similar. For example, if you drop the olives, add a little more celery or something else.
As I said earlier, the big difference in what you can do at home vs what can be done in a restaurant will be the slicing of the beef. You can roast and season as well as a restaurant, but without an industrial meat slicer, you’ll be hard-pressed to slice it as thinly as they can.
Italian beef meat is not a roast that is cooked to rare or even medium-rare. You can cook the roast to a pink hue, but when you add it to the au jus to warm up for sandwiching, the thin slices will fully cook and there should be no visible pink. Because the beef is cooked until tender and then finished in the gravy, there should be plenty of moisture and tenderness.
Here’s my Italian beef recipe
I guess it’s time to get down to beef business.
This is the most Chicago of all sandwiches. You want an Italian beef and you can't get to Illinois? This is the beef recipe for you.
Ingredients:Italian beef and au jus
- 2 to 3 pounds eye of round (or top round/bottom round)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon beef base
- 4 cups beef broth
- 1 cup water
- 6 to 8 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- very thinly sliced Italian beef (from above)
- giardiniera (2 tablespoons per sandwich - optional)
- green or red bell peppers, roasted (optional)
- French bread rolls
Season your beef liberally with salt and pepper.
In a large Dutch oven or oven-safe pot, brown all sides of the beef over medium-high heat. Once the meat is browned, move to a to plate to rest while you get everything else ready. Do not clean out the pan.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F (162 C).
Add beef base and 4 cups of beef broth together in the pot that you used to brown the beef. Add all the spices and herbs.
Add beef back to the Dutch oven. Make sure the liquid is at least half of the way up the side of the beef. If it is not, add up to one cup of water.
Roast beef for 2 to 2.5 hours adding more broth or water as needed to keep the liquid at least halfway up the beef. Add more stock or water if needed.
Remove pot from oven and allow the beef to cool off on a cutting board for at least half an hour. Once the meat is cooled a little, wrap it up or add to a large container and place it in the refrigerator to cool fully. Cool beef for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Strain the broth into a container and store it in the refrigerator as well.
When the beef has fully cooled in the refrigerator, remove it and place it on a cutting board. Using a very sharp serrated knife, slice the beef as thinly as possible. Be very careful and patient and shave the meat as thin as you can.
Prep for 1 sandwich (double or quadruple for multiple sandwiches): In a small pot, bring 3/4 to 1 cup of au jus up to a simmer.
Add a big handful of sliced beef to the au jus/gravy in the pot. Warm beef in the pot for 3 to 5 minutes until everything is warm.
Place beef in sliced roll and top with giardiniera or roasted green peppers.
Dunk the whole sandwich in the au jus if you prefer your sandwich "dipped" or using a spoon scoop and drizzle au jus directly onto the roll.
Now that you’ve seen the recipe, check out some other Italian beefs that I made and ate this week.
Get ready for some extra beef because there will be more Italian beef content coming later this week.
Later next week, we’ll be getting comfortable with a sandwich and its natural side.