Last week I did a few pieces for Newcity for their Italian Beef Issue, below you’ll find my individual write-ups on some favorite places.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef
Featuring more than thirteen herbs and spices, owner Chris Pacelli likes to joke that his beef has two more flavors than the Colonel’s secret recipe over at KFC. Whatever the other twelve are, one of them is most definitely nutmeg, making this the most distinctive beef in town. Add a thin giardiniera mix studded with paper-thin celery and red pepper and you’ve got a beef with personality that draws a sharp dividing line. Many detractors can’t stand the sweet aromatic they associate with Christmas cookies. Devotees on the other hand consider it the best beef in town. Love it or hate it, there’s nothing better than bellying up to the stainless-steel counters, unwrapping a beef, assuming the “Italian stance” (legs wide apart, elbows akimbo and gut sucked in to avoid dripping juice on your clean clothes) taking a bite and watching the summertime masses jockey like Merc traders for Italian lemonade across the street at Mario’s.
1079 West Taylor, (312)226-4017
The deep fryer and surrounding appliances wear a patina of black grease stains, the lighting is low and the staff is straight-up South Side. This is the Johnny Cash of beef stands, an old stalwart punk shop slinging a shredded, braised-style Italian beef that kicks ass and takes names. On the surface, Chickie’s sandwiches, served on Gonnella rolls and piled high with Scala’s beef, look like a standard-issue sammie, but one bite yields a beefy gravy explosion of note. Ordered with hot peppers, the sub packs a fruity and spicy perfume from a diced combo of jalapeno, cabbage and celery. Unlike big-personality one-note spiced beefs, Chickie’s beef is a study in balance.
2839 South Pulaski, (773)277-2333
If Chicago ever got its own “Seinfeld,” the glowering countermen at Johnnie’s would inspire a “Beef Nazi” episode. You want a cheesy beef? Better move to Wisconsin. If you can’t spit out “sweet-beef-dipped” without stuttering, head to the back of the line. This white brick shack holds about seven customers at a time, which means three quarters of the ubiquitous lineup of clamoring patrons snakes around the building. If it’s summer, you wait and dream of the lemon ice. If it’s winter and you’re waiting outside the plate-glass entry door, you’ll be tempted to open it and stand half inside the warm beefy air of the store and half out in the chill. Heed the printed warning on the door and keep it closed. Should a draft fall upon the grill man, you’re asking for a smackdown. The beef itself is one of Chicago’s best, a lean oregano and garlic-tinged number.
7500 West North, Elmwood Park, (708)452-6000
Max’s Italian Beef
This West Rogers Park institution has been a South Beach or Atkins dieter’s nightmare since 1957. The parking lot features a herd of rusty steel cattle sculptures, and when you walk inside, the interior walls are covered with an all-encompassing mural of sky and the Chicago cityscape. In a local game of “Where’s Waldo?” Max’s logo—a cow that looks like a Cubs bleacher bum clad in baseball cap and sunglasses—is littered throughout the acrylic renderings of the Smurfit Stone, Prudential and Aon Center buildings. While regarding cheese on Italian beef is still open for debate. Max thumbs its nose at purists, offering a great cheddar-laden version. They also score points with free giardiniera, a potent orange-tinged oily mix of garlic, red and sport peppers served in plastic tableside tubs. The beef is shaved in translucent sheets and is one of tenderest and leanest cuts around. Once you order up a side of their Ghetto Fries, thick-cut spuds oozing with a dollop of Merkt’s cheddar cheese, a drizzle of Italian beef gravy, onion slivers, sweet barbecue sauce and the giardiniera, you might stop going anywhere else.
5754 North Western, (773)989-8200
Pop’s Italian Beef
Located in Chicago’s Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, Pop’s is so far south, you’ll be able to make a claim for honorary Hoosier citizenship after making the trek to procure a beef. This takeout-only joint, with its sloped roof, looks more like a slushie shack than a storefront greasy spoon. It’s definitely a community-gathering place where soccer moms and their grass-stained shin-guard-wearing offspring suck down post-game ice cream and beef. Served on a fat Italian roll, the hot-peppered slices of sirloin here are laced with celery, green and red pepper. French-fry freaks who press their noses to the glass can time things right and score fresh-out-of-the-deep-fryer spuds that surpass the splendor of the Golden Arches.
10337 South Kedzie, (773)239-1243