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January 19, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter I - Al's

Dominic Armato
The Italian Beef is a Chicago institution. We're known for the Chicago-style hot dog and deep dish pizza around these parts, but the Italian Beef is an equally worthy, if lesser known, member of the Chicago-centric food pantheon. Not only did it most likely originate here, but it's also nearly impossible to find a good one outside of Chicago. As such, Chicago native and Italian Beef lover that I am, I feel that I should endeavor to make myself an authority on the subject. Of course, there are hundreds of establishments in the city that serve Italian Beef, everybody has their favorite, and I'm no exception. But as someone who once changed a very strongly held beef allegiance, I've recently felt compelled to cast a wider net. With this mandate, I present the first chapter in my 2006 quest to make myself a Chicago Italian Beef aficionado.

But first, some history.

I was always an Al's guy. My mother would drive me to auditions in the city, and then we'd fall into the Ontario location for a beef and some supremely (read: wonderfully) greasy fries. As such, when my father and good friend both suggested three years ago that Mr. Beef was far superior, I picked up the Al's standard and went off to war. This battle for beefy supremacy took the form of The Great VinCenzo Beef-Off, and the results came as a shock. Not only was Mr. Beef the winner in a landslide, but even I, Al's champion, was forced to admit that Mr. Beef's was the superior sandwich.

The results haunted me. How could I have been so wrong? It isn't as though I'd never had Mr. Beef going into the Beef-Off. I was fairly well-versed in both, and had chosen my favorite in an educated fashion. So, even though the Beef-Off had the pleasant result of providing me with a new favorite establishment, I could never shake this vague feeling of uncertainty. As such, I read with great interest a post over at LTHForum.com, which detailed how Al's Ontario outpost had been suffering from quality issues so severe that the folks at the original Taylor location had booted the Ontario management. This, combined with the significant amount of Al's love over at LTH, convinced me that I needed to visit the flagship location on Taylor. I'd tried the Ontario Al's on a couple of occasions since my conversion to the Church of Mr. Beef and been underwhelmed, but it was time to give my old love one last shot.

Today, I was running around the city on a number of errands, I had camera in tow, I wasn't too far from Taylor and a beef sounded mighty tasty, so I decided to fall in. In terms of atmosphere, Al's is the real deal. Greasy tile floors, steel counters lining the windows, and autographed photographs and dollar bills haphazardly pasted on every available wall. The counter service was appropriate as well... not quite surly, but not out to impress, either. I ordered my standard, which is a beef with hot and sweet peppers, dipped, and parked at the counter to consume.

Dominic Armato

Just like the surrounding building, Al's beef looks the part. Hard roll soaked in juice, thinly sliced beef, sauteed bell peppers and hot gardiniera. The giardiniera is perhaps one of Al's most unique features. Most commonly, you'll find pickled hot peppers of the green variety, possibly with chunks of carrot, celery and cauliflower, swimming in spicy olive oil. Al's, on the other hand, goes red. It's mostly comprised of very thinly sliced bits of vegetable in a hot oil that's been infused with dried red chiles. In fact, I'd always considered the giardiniera to be one of Al's best features. So after a long hiatus, it was with great gusto that I dove into my first Al's beef in quite some time.

In short, while it was a good beef, I definitely couldn't call it excellent, or even great. The first thing that struck me was an unusually strong dried herb taste. Of course, all Italian Beef juice involves dried herbs, but here they seemed overly pronounced... a little distracting, even. Upon further sampling, I was also a little let down by the beef itself. The meat in an Italian Beef is always fairly well-done. But here, it was almost crossing over the threshold into dry, tough and chewy terrirory. What's more, while the juice was flavorful, the beef itself was not. It was as though most of the fat had been cooked out, and along with it, most of the flavor. Overall, while the sandwich was bold, something about the flavor didn't seem rounded to me, and it was about halfway through the sandwich that I put my finger on it. The sweetness was missing. I think the component that elevates the Italian Beef from tasty treat to transcendent beefy experience is when you get a bite of ever-so-slightly gooey bread, saturated with the beef's natural sweetness. It's the balance of sweet and spicy that makes a great beef. Al's had the spicy in abundance... both the giardiniera and the herbs... but it was missing the sweet. As a result, the flavor, while good, just felt a little two-dimensional. But the final nail in the coffin was that which I used to consider a strength... the giardiniera. Most giardiniera is pickled, adding a significant tart component to the sandwich, but if Al's giardiniera is pickled, it's only very lightly so. So after three years of Mr. Beef, I found for the first time that I really missed that tartness. It's another layer of complexity that was missing from the Al's sandwich.

In the end, while I suppose I can't fault those who worship at the altar of Al's, it's not for me. I can best describe Al's beef as a spicy beef. If you're all about the spicy, this one's for you. But these days, I require a little more depth from my Italian Beef. And after three years, I'm finally comfortably convinced that this is a depth Al's just can't offer.

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.


Sorry, after 3 years off, you obviously have lost all sense of taste. Al's has been, is and I bet will remain the premier Italian beef sandwich in the world.

Nothing I have EVER tried has surpassed the flavor or texture.

Sorry to disagree with you, but I have to disagree with your current take.

On other days, William, perhaps.

On this day, definitely not :-)

As I mention later in the rankings, I definitely caught Al's on a bad day. But that said, I think it's ridiculous to tout ANY Italian Beef as "the premier". There are so many great sandwiches and they all have their unique character. Of course, some are better than others, but to declare one the undisputed champion of world is, I think, taking a rather narrow view of a foodstuff with a lot of wonderful variations. I see the strengths of Al's beef. I understand why it's the favorite of many, including you. It just isn't mine, and the Beef-Off was always intended as a very subjective, personal take.

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