Chicago Italian Beef and Taylor Street
What makes Chicago Italian Beef so special? The authentic Italian Beef sandwich we serve at Jonny’s is as good as what you would get today at Italian Beef places all around Chicago. Just check out on our Facebook page what our customers from Chicago say. And it’s the same sandwich I used to get on Taylor Street in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood. Taylor Street ran through the heart of Little Italy. It’s where you found the locals enjoying family run Italian restaurants, beef and hot dog stands, pizza places and, in the summer, the cooling Italian lemon ice stands. The aroma and ambiance of Taylor Street was wonderfully Italian. So who created Chicago Italian Beef? History says it was started in the 1920s by Italian stockyard workers looking to tenderize the tougher cuts beef that they were allowed take home. Because the beef was thinly sliced and easy to serve, it soon became a popular dish at Italian weddings. By the 1930s it had evolved to a sandwich and several shops began to serve it, most notably Al’s Beef on Taylor Street. Soon, the popularity of the Chicago Italian Beef sandwich began to spread throughout the city.
I lived in Little Italy a block from Taylor Street in 1973. At the time the neighborhood was transitioning from its origins as the home of Italian immigrant families to new group of residents who were part of the urban gentrification driven by the UIC campus and medical center district that had surrounded it. My apartment was in a renovated brick row house, but most of people living on my block were still long time residents.
Our street was crowded so cars were often double-parked. If you were blocked in, you learned to just honk your horn. Soon, someone would holler out of a window to tell you they would move their car. There was no anger or animosity; it was just a part of the neighborhood’s life and charm. Back then the neighborhood still had some shady characters related to the Chicago “Outfit”. Nothing violent, mainly gambling related. Occasionally I would see a large black Cadillac parked by my favorite sandwich shop where a “bag man” would be dropping off a paper bag of cash from the numbers (betting) racket. There probably were other illicit activities going on but it wasn’t obvious. In some ways, the presence of these less reputable residents made the neighborhood feel safer. Petty criminals from the outside seemed to know better than to operate in this Italian island. While we can’t give you Jonny’s secret recipe, we can tell you how Italian Beef is made. First, a beef roast is rubbed with spices (that’s our secret) and slow cooked. Then the roast is chilled so it can be sliced thin. The sliced beef is dropped in hot au jus gravy (also our secret) to absorb that delicious flavor and piled hot on an warm Italian bread roll (ours comes from the Turano bakery in Chicago).
Now you have a critical decision: dry, wet or dipped. Wet means we just dip the ends in the gravy; dipped means the whole sandwich goes in. (If you’re not sure, we can give you some gravy on the side.) Finally, you can top it with roasted sweet peppers, spicy giardiniera or both. We’ll put cheese on if you really want, it but we consider it heresy. So that’s my Italian Beef and Taylor Street memory. If you have one, please share it in the comment section. Wishing you Good food, Good memories, Bob Marder