We don’t get it. We’re prepared to admit it. It sounded good. We liked the IDEA of it. We never stopped to really think about it, though. We know people will say, “You didn’t have it at (INSERT FAVOURITE PLACE HERE)” and maybe that’s true, but we went for the top of the list and one that places highly in most “best of” lists. Remember though, we are prepared to admit that this one is beyond us.
High on this list of iconic Chicago foods is the Hot Italian Beef, a sandwich featured on most surveys of Chicago favourites. Debates rage about who makes the best and the best way to enjoy the sandwich. I’ll let Wikipedia do the explaining:
“An Italian beef is a sandwich of thin slices of seasoned roast beef, dripping with meat juices, on a dense, long Italian-style roll, believed to have originated in Chicago, where its history dates back at least to the 1930s. The bread itself is often dipped (or double-dipped) into the juices the meat is cooked in, and the sandwich is typically topped off with Chicago-style giardiniera (called “hot”) or sauteed, green Italian sweet peppers (called “sweet”).”
We selected Al’s Italian Beef as our place to visit for this sandwich. It places highly on “best of” lists, and seems to be the largest. There are some out of the way joints that probably have raised it to an art form, but they are across town.
There is an expectation raised by the idea of the Hot Italian Beef: A rich, beefy filling, accentuated by peppers, and heightened by the dip in the au jus.
What you get is another thing entirely. This may be the point at which we differ from the Chicago natives. What you get is EXACTLY what the hot Italian beef is: Roast beef, sitting in a “au jus gravy ” for who knows how long and then served on bread that’s soaked in said au jus.
Maybe that’s the point at which we part ways with fans of the sandwich. The beef is soggy, the bread is soggy, the peppers are overdone leaving a soft soggy mess unto themselves. There seems to be a point of pride about how incredibly messy this sandwich is, but what’s missing is real, unique flavour. There is absolutely no reason the crave this sandwich and to NEED one the future. Truly GREAT sandwiches demand a repeat performance. This one left us scratching our heads as to why anyone would want one in the first place.
Is our experience sullied by bad execution? Who knows, but the difference would have to be huge to make us order a Hot Italian Beef in the future. It’s all subjective, we know, and this blog entry won’t change the iconic status of this Chicago favourite. We don’t get it, and we’re prepared to admit that it’s our lack of…something, that prevents us from understanding the allure.
After an afternoon of major purchases, a couple of pairs of cowboy boots for Maureen and a Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster for Rob, and then some serious reflection in the hotel bar, we ventured out to Harry Caray’s for steaks – not so much for the Chicago food tradition, but for the Chicago sports tradition. As Canadians who are somewhat removed from the authentic Harry Caray phenomenon, it’s hard for us to separate the real Harry Caray from the outrageous portrayal of him by Will Farrel, given that it’s the only exposure we have.
But, we are ready to go home. It’s been an eventful two weeks. We’ve covered a lot of ground and New Orleans seems like MONTHS ago. Now to start planning the next one!