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June 09, 2010

I Need Help

Italian Beef @ Chicago Hamburger Co. Dominic Armato

I... uh... get a little riled up about Italian Beef sometimes.

Let me be the first to state that this is my problem. At the risk of repeating myself, the Italian Beef is a noble foodstuff, pure of form yet deep in its subtle complexities. It languishes in the shadow of pizza and hot dogs in Chicago, where I've encountered lifelong natives who have never tried one. Italian Beef sandwiches bring me joy. It's a joy I wish to share. Which I suppose makes me something of an Italian Beef evangelist.

So last week, a review of the new-ish Scottsdale Al's, which I hit myself a couple of months ago, graced the New Times. It was not well-received. I can buy that. While I thought Al's Scottsdale was entirely worthy, it's not up to the original Al's on Taylor in Chicago. And even Al's in Chicago, though a venerated city institution, is something of a lightning rod among Chicago beef enthusiasts. Most good beef places put their own little spin on the sandwich... a subtle shift in seasoning, an atypical giardiniera, an unconventional roll... you have to make your mark somehow. But Al's stretches some of the conventions awfully far, and their Italian Beef is known as a love it or hate it thing.

So I'm thinking, okay, it didn't go over with the author, who apparently spent some indeterminate amount of time living in Chicago, and that's all fine and good, even if I thought a couple of the criticisms were a little odd. But the piece closed by recommending Chicago Hamburger Co. as an alternative. The same Chicago Hamburger Co. that I completely wrote off for Italian Beef on -- quite literally -- my fourth day here in Phoenix, before we'd even moved into the house. So let me start this off by saying, Laura Hahnefeld, if you're reading this, I owe you an apology. I tried to send it via e-mail, but it's getting bounced for some reason. Floored by a piece that put CHC above Al's -- way above Al's -- I posted a rather lengthy comment that I'd intended to be feisty but friendly, and I think it was... right up until the sentence fourth from the end, which was really uncalled for. And in all seriousness, I'm sorry for that. It wasn't a very nice thing to say.

Cup of Juice?Dominic Armato

And partially by means of apology, I went back to give them a second shot. It's true that even the best Italian Beef joints sometimes have consistency issues, and I figured that in light of a strong buy from somebody who calls herself "fry girl," I'd better give it one more go. And I'm upgrading my assessment! But not much. The beef I had today was, indeed, leagues better than the one I had the first week of January. But it's still a pretty lousy beef sandwich. The strongest point on this pass was the beef itself which, though not roasted on-site, was perfectly edible. Far from the peak of beefiness, tender if a little dry, but of decent run-of-the-mill quality. (As a side note, there are some pretty good beef stands in Chicago that don't roast their own, but it's a steeper hill to climb, and the best do it in-house.) But really, the rest was so very, very wrong.

You need look no further than the photo above for the first major problem. I ordered my beef sweet, hot and wet, and both times, my wet arrived in a cup on the side. This is not a French Dip, people! Pouring or dipping bite by bite is not a substitute for dunking the entire sandwich in a vat of juice that's been simmering for hours! But it was immediately evident why it was done this way, because the roll is a weak piece of fluff by Italian Beef standards. You say Al's bread went gummy when saturated with juice? Actually, I consider that a good thing. But even presuming that you don't, gummy beats liquid, which is what happens with CHC's roll. It completely falls apart with the introduction of even a modest amount of juice. If the sandwich were held with a pair of tongs and dunked in a tray of juice as is the convention, I'm betting half the sandwich would be left behind in the tray. And it's a roll with two ends, which is wrong. This, incidentally, is one of the things that Al's in Scottsdale gets wrong as well, though at least their roll has body. An Italian Beef has to soak up the juice, and when it's made from a single roll, the sandwich resists the moisture rather than wicking it right up. Again, in the case of CHC, this might actually be a good thing, because I don't think the bread could take it. It couldn't take half of that little plastic tub of juice without completely going to pieces, much less go for a swim like its Chicago brethren. And the juice. Better than I remember it, but still weak, and absolutely overpowered by black pepper. The complaint was levied that Al's juice cloaked the traditional Italian seasonings. But they aren't cloaked at Al's. It's that Al's doesn't do the "traditional" seasoning. Never did. Not even at the Al's on Taylor in Chicago. The exact blend of what's in there is a closely-guarded secret that I imagine is guarded even more closely now that they're franchising, but while cloves are generally accepted as one of the wonky spices you'll find only on an Al's Italian Beef, cinnamon has been floated, cardamom, and a horde of others. Yeah, it's a weird, atypical sandwich that isn't garlic and oregano heavy. That's what Al's is and always has been. But for what it is, I think it's very good... it mostly depends on how much of a purist you are. And the fact that Al's is one of the pioneers of Italian Beef makes it difficult to say they're somehow doing it wrong, even if they march to their own beat, so to speak. Back at CHC, however, my sandwich was supposed to have sweet peppers, and I suppose it did, but they were teeny tiny little specimens and total mush. And the giardiniera that you seem to love, Laura... well... I just don't get it. It's made in-house, and that's great, except it's bad. It's crudely chopped (and I don't equate coarsely with crudely) with very little oil and waaaaaay too much vinegar. Giardiniera is, admittedly, one of the primary ways for an Italian Beef stand to make their mark with something distinctive, but if you ask me, going the heavy vinegar route is just a bad, bad call. It kills the flavor of the beef. It dominates the flavor of the beef rather than complementing it. An oily giardiniera carries the heat, carries the beefy flavor and add succulence to the sandwich. This was like taking my Italian Beef with a vinegar chaser.

Now, lest I give the impression that I think poor Bob Pappanduros, CHC's proprietor, should be dragged out in the street and shot, I really like Chicago Hamburger Co.! They make a pretty darn good dog and the sliders, even if I'm not sure how they're a Chicago thing, are great. It's tough to do Italian Beef well unless you're doing a lot of it. And it's hard to do a lot of it unless that's really your thing. And at CHC, it's one of many, many things. With Italian Beef, it's almost impossible to do it halfway. I'm sympathetic to Mr. Pappanduros' plight, even if it doesn't change my opinion about the sandwich.

So what's a beef evangelist to do? Resurrect the Beef-Off, that's what. I'd hoped to spend at least a year exploring the local foodstuffs before seeking out the comforts of home, but as with places I encountered in Baltimore and Boston, it hurts me to know that for many, this is the local standard-bearer for the Italian Beef sandwich. So after I clear my plate of a couple of other grub-related projects I'm trying to work my way through, a-beefing we will go.

To that end, I'm taking requests. I've found five or six places just driving around, but I need at least ten. Better to have a dozen. And I know there are more out there. Good, bad... doesn't matter. If a place serves an Italian Beef sandwich, I want to know about it, and I'd greatly appreciate any help folks would care to provide in making a comprehensive hit list.

I'll check back in a couple of months. And if you'd care to join me, Fry Girl, drop me a line... really! :-)

Chicago Hamburger Co.
3749 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Mon - Sat10:30 AM - 8:00 PM


so, living in arizona really does make one crazy, doesn't it?

Try the Italian beef at Lobby's in Tempe. I've been there a couple of times for lunch and both times the beef has been consistently juicy and flavorful, unlike Al's where I experienced the dreaded 'dry' beef..

Interesting. Being from the South, I have never visited Chicago and never heard of an Italian Beef until until last week when I watched a show on Food Network that featured Al's and another joint (sorry don't remember the other name, but maybe Mr. Beef?). And now in the second time in a week, I am being educated about the Italian Beef.

One thing I vividly recall is that the giardiniera at Al's contained no vinegar. That really surprised me that a relish like that did not contain vinegar, but apparently it works.

Anyway, I look forward to reading the results of your Beef Off! :)

Can you recommend anyplace in New York for Italian Beef? I've never had one and your posts are beginning to make me think that this is a gaping void in my life.

Sorry, rab01, not a clue. IB is extremely difficult to find outside of Chicago. I'm only getting it here because of a weird Phoenix/Chicago connection that I don't fully understand. I only found one or two places in Baltimore and Boston, and they ranged from so-so to rip my tongue out awful.

When I lived in Phoenix, I used to go to Luke's a lot, at 16th st and Indian School. It was just across he street from work, and great for a quick and tasty lunch.

Interesting. I'm a little perplexed about concern about the "two ends" on the bun. That seems like a quite trivial concern, especially when you dunk the whole thing. Personally, I always like my Italian-style sanwhich items to be in a roll that is a set, baked size, not a cut in half version of a bigger size.

Anon Man... I guess all I can say is trust me... it makes a big difference :-)

I'm only getting it here because of a weird Phoenix/Chicago connection that I don't fully understand.

I think Phoenix:Chicago as Florida:New York; I lived there for a year and half the people I met had moved down from Chicago. Anyway, this is making me sad I wasn't aware of Italian Beef at that time.

The benchmark is Portillo's in Chicago, with sweet and hot peppers and a Tom-Tom tamale on the side. Just ONE loc in Tempe is all I ask

Tom's BBQ at Baseline/Mill does a "decent" beef. Nyro's Gyros at Elliot/48th St seems to be trying to rebrand themselves as a Chicago style place. I wasn't too impressed with their beef.

The Phoenix/Chicago connection has everything to do with the Cubs. My grandparents started coming for spring training games decades ago. My grandmother and aunt are long time booster members who come out for a week every year in March for games and to get away from the winter. And this year over a dozen current and former Illinoiseans from the family came in waves. I made it my permanent home 7 years ago

btw, AJ's Foods in Chandler carries frozen Gino's East deep dish, which is sadly better than most pizza places in the valley



The way I always describe Portillo's to people is that you'll never get a nine or a ten, but they're very good and incredibly consistent and you'll always get a solid seven or eight. I send first-timers there a lot because you know they won't get a clunker and be turned off.

Tom's and Niro's added to the list :-)

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