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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Get ready for ‘The Bear’ with some hearty, flavorful Italian beef sandwiches

These quick and easy Italian beef sandwiches pay homage to the Chicago classic, ready in a fraction of the time compared to traditional methods.

FX’s “The Bear” introduced many viewers to the iconic Italian beef sandwich, a beloved staple of Chicago cuisine. In the show’s debut season, Carmy (played by Jeremy Allen White), a trained fine-dining chef, returns to his hometown of Chicago to manage his family’s beef stand following his brother’s passing. The series eagerly awaited for its third season premiering this Wednesday, offered an intimate portrayal of a restaurant dedicated solely to crafting these meaty, succulent sandwiches.

For Chicago natives like myself, the Italian beef sandwich holds a place of honor alongside deep-dish pizza and the uniquely adorned hot dog. It has been cherished for generations, served not only at renowned establishments like Al’s #1 Italian Beef and Mr. Beef (which inspired the show’s restaurant) but also at gatherings and, yes, even school cafeterias.

Sometimes referred to simply as “Italian beef,” the sandwich features thinly sliced roast beef piled onto a roll moistened with the beef’s flavorful cooking juices, often complemented with giardiniera, an Italian pickled vegetable relish. While there are various origin stories, historians attribute its creation to Italian American home cooks. According to Anthony F. Buccini and Michael Stern in “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia,” its evolution can be traced back to community events where working-class Italian American families would serve sandwiches filled with wet-roasted beef.

The preparation of Italian beef sandwiches varies widely. At one extreme, you can have a “dry” sandwich where the beef is served without its juices, while at the opposite end, a “dipped” sandwich is briefly submerged in the cooking liquid for maximum flavor infusion. Customizations abound, with options ranging from adding cheese (considered sacrilegious by purists) to incorporating roasted bell peppers, though true aficionados swear by Chicago-style giardiniera for its vibrant crunch and ability to balance the rich flavors of the meat and jus.

Chicago-style giardiniera differs from its Italian counterpart, featuring finely chopped pickled vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots, celery, and chile peppers packed in oil. Its availability outside the Chicagoland area is limited, making it a worthwhile purchase online or a homemade endeavor for those seeking authenticity in their sandwiches.

Chicago-style giardiniera features vegetables that are packed in oil after they’ve been pickled. 

In crafting a more accessible version of this beloved dish suitable for weeknight dinners, I focused on key elements: thin, quick-cooking shaved steak from the grocery store replaces slow-roasted beef, cooked swiftly in a skillet. For the savory jus, I fortified store-bought beef broth with beef bones and seasonings, ensuring it enhances the sandwich without lengthy preparation times.

Regarding the bread, traditionalists may insist on a specific type favored by old Italian bakeries in Chicago, often dubbed “French bread” for its elongated shape, thinner crust, and soft crumb. However, any sturdy white roll, toasted briefly in the oven, serves admirably to support the sandwich’s robust flavors.

Admittedly, my approach takes liberties with the traditional method to streamline preparation for busy weeknights. Yet, the result remains true to the essence of the Italian beef sandwich, evoking nostalgia and satisfaction with every bite. The combination of thinly sliced beef, rich jus, and zesty giardiniera harmonizes beautifully, offering this displaced Chicagoan a delicious taste of home, messy and all.


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