I grew up in town where St. Patrick’s Day is serious business. The River is dyed a shade of green matching the fast-food chain Shamrock Shakes that harken the beginning of Spring in Chicago. We were all Irish on March 17, and the usual suspects of corned beef and cabbage was served for dinner. But rarely beyond this date does corned beef capture the hearts and stomachs of the citizens of the City of Big Shoulders.
Because in Chicago, the Italian Beef is king. You can’t get it anywhere but Chicago. For those who have never been to the Windy City, it seems like an urban food legend. From my memory, the ‘I-beef’ is made of piles of thinly sliced soft, tender, juicy beef (think ‘steak-ums’ but better); served on an Italian roll, dipped in jus and a spicy mix of pickled vegetables called giardiniera. I never really knew how this Chicago delicacy was made…until I encountered another Chicago urban food legend one fateful summer evening.
Who is Mr Beef? No one really knows. He is supposed to be Italian. He is purportedly the purveyor of the BEST Italian Beef Sandwich in the world. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody who actually worked for him. But we all knew of his existence by the ‘Winner of Chicago’s Best Italian Beef’ signs all over Chicago. The ‘recipe’ existed only with Mr. Beef. He worked cloaked in darkness, by the light of the moon, moving his operations throughout a secret labyrinth of locations throughout the city.
Some people referred to him as a butcher–where could he possibly get such succulent meat? Much like another mythical creature, rumor had it that he could harness the magic of the full moon. And it was only on these evenings that he would surface in the kitchens of Chicago and make his tender perfectly spiced meat.
It was on one such evening that I was working with my sister preparing for the morning’s farmer’s market. We were working the night shift; rolling our Spring Rolls when a stout jovial man with a slight limp came in, a broad (defined here as women in very tight short cocktail dresses and F-M shoes) on each arm. Two younger henchmen, a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft tucked under one arm, pushing the kitchen rack with the other, trailing closely behind. Cranking up the radio with a mix of classic 80’s rock and frat house party music; they drank, danced and unpacked huge slabs of meat. The meat, swimming in what looked like a spiced brine. Quickly before anyone could so much as steal a glance at the mystery spices floating atop the Cambros, the meat was already in trays; the commercial ovens cranked.
They worked quickly and left, after the last beer was emptied. Three hours later they returned; the broads drinking the wine they carried in from whatever bar they had been to. They continued the party as the club music wakened the dead of night that had engulfed the room. Seemingly tipsy, the stout jovial one brandished his knives and cut paper thin slices of the beef. He fed the broads the beefy slices. They lapped it up like Pomeranians, smacking their red lips, juice dribbling down their chins.
Then he shuffled toward me–beef between his thumb and forefinger; juice running along the side of his hand; the other hand cupping beneath, to catch the dripping jus. “You gotta try this,” he said, angling the beef over my face. I opened my mouth and he dropped in a slice of meat so tender it melted on my tongue before my teeth could even sink in. The seasonings salty and rich with a tiny hint of fire and warmth. It melted in my mouth. I turned to thank him and ask his name; and like that, poof! He was gone. The slabs of meat disappearing into the darkness with the henchman; the broads already on the street. All that remained was the smoke curling up the ventilators and the slight scent of oregano and nutmeg.
I’ll never know if that was actually Mr. Beef. I don’t think I’ll ever know. That was his power. The greatest trick Mr. Beef ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Pastrami Italian Beef Sandwich, Chicago-Style
I followed the Pastrami brining recipe and directions in Ruhlman’s ‘Charcuterie’, using a beef brisket.
After spending a few days trying to figure out how to smoke the meat, I settled on a wood plank and my BBQ. Three days of brining later, I smoked my meat for three hours until the meat reached 150 degrees according to the meat thermometer.
I was so excited that I sliced the meat and tasted it–it looked and tasted like pastrami, but it was still tough. When I queried the Charcutepalooza group, Mrs. Wheelbarrow was kind enough to point out that I had skipped the final cooking process, Step 7, oh, and that I might want to slice a bit thinner.
I wanted to try to make an Italian Beef sandwich. My knife skills, not so sharp, I tried to channel Mr. Beef for this exercise. I wound up using a trick that everyone seems to know of freezing the meat and then slicing paper-thin.
I placed the meat in a dish with a combination of pork jelly (broth) and water just barely covering the meat and the following spices: oregano, chili pepper flakes, and a dash of nutmeg. And I let it steam for two hours.
The giardiniera is really what separates the Italian Beef sandwich from a French Dip. Its spices duplicate those of the beef jus and gives it some texture and kick with a blend of pickled vegetables and hot peppers.
Giardiniera Ingredients Cooking Directions
Then there’s the bread. I guess you could use French bread, but the Italian sandwich bread is wider to hold all the meat and giardiniera. And still holds up dipped in jus. The crust on it is cruncy but thin and the inside fluffy.
Luckily, I live near Bay Cities, an extraordinary deli in Santa Monica, where they bake their bread fresh. My son and I shared a quarter of the loaf before we even got home to make the sandwiches. While they weren’t as good as the authentic Chi-cahw-go sang-wiches; they were a very satisfying reminder of the summer of Mr. Beef.