I was 16 when I stumbled upon a personal High School culinary habit. In Elgin, Illinois, where state highway 31 turns into Dundee Avenue stood a rather plain and unimpressive white and red concrete block building which offered adequate burgers, boiled hot dogs and greasy fries. But they also had an Italian Beef Sandwich which became a habit. Perhaps a year later, I sampled an Italian Beef at Al’s Beef in Chicago, and it was clear that I would never have a sandwich as good. A couple of weeks ago, I made a batch of Italian Beef for dinner. I had forgotten exactly how good this was.
Immigration to America has presented the largest influx of food styles and taste found anywhere. And with that immigration push, the foods which we enjoy today are a culmination of flavors and styles which have married over the passage of time. French fusion, the blending of classical French technique, flavors and style, and blending with other cuisines, have highlighted food trends for years. But it’s not only French. Early in the 1900’s, when Cuban immigrants came to Tampa to work in the American cigar factories, an effort was made to make the workers feel at “home” and a version of a sandwich available in Havana was prepared to be served to the workers. The Cuban. Terrific sandwich. Ham, roast pork, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard all served on Cuban bread. The blend of flavor and texture is special. And, much like the Cuban, it was with the surge of immigrants coming to Chicago and working at the Chicago Stock Yards which produced the Italian Beef Sandwich.
It was in the early 1900’s when those Italian workers began taking home the tough, less desirable cuts of beef. To bring the beef to a more edible state, it was slow roasted and braised in a spicy broth. The beef was rubbed down with salt, spice and herbs and cooked in liquid, to produce a savory gravy and tender beef. When thinly sliced and served on a crusty bread, along with onion, peppers and slathered with the sauce, it became a popular and inexpensive food for weddings, large functions and family gatherings. Sausage and hot dog stands were popular on the streets of Chicago in the 20’s and Italian Beef sandwiches were quickly added to the street fare. It was in the 30’s when brick and mortar eateries began featuring the sandwiches. Although many beef providers and chefs claim to be the originators of the sandwich as it is today, it’s said to have been popularized by Pasquale Scala who introduced it to those street stands. However, most give credit to Al’s #1, on Taylor Street in Chicago for truly launching the sandwich’s local popularity. The Italian Beef Sandwich really hit the big time in the 80’s, thanks to an unknown comic.
According to Thrillist.com, Jay Leno was struggling to make it doing standup in Chicago. During this hard time, Leno would frequently visit another Chicago beef shop, Mr. Beef in downtown for a nightly “fix”. Owner, Joe Zucchero, let Leno “mooch” off of his store because Leno had no money, was basically homeless and Zucchero admittedly felt sorry for him. Leno reportedly told Zucchero, “If I ever make it big, I’m gonna put you everywhere.”
It was an evening in the 1980’s when Leno was invited to appear on the David Letterman Show. Leno arrived with Mr. Beef sandwiches, which he handed out to the crowd and then sat on the set and ate his own sandwich. He proceeded to praise Mr. Beef and the Italian Beef Sandwiches. That promotion opened the doors of Mr. Beef to the likes of John Belushi, Paul Newman, Joe Mantegna and Christopher Walken. A promise made; a promise kept!
To make this from scratch, plan on a two days preparation to include a day of dry marination and a day of roasting.
Ingredients: 12 large sandwiches
- 5# Bottom or Chuck Roast//Salt to coat//Olive Oil
- 4 T Butter// 4 Garlic Cloves – chopped//Herbs:1 T Celery Salt//1 T Black Pepper//2 t Red Pepper Flakes//1 T garlic powder//2 t Coriander//1T Fennel//1 T Smoked Paprika//1 T Dry Basil//1 T Dry Oregano//1T Dry Thyme//1 T Rosemary – chopped//Beef stock as needed// Bay Leaves, separate from blend.
Dry the beef with towels, remove large fat caps and silver skin. Coat the entire roast with a good layer of coarse Kosher Salt and Olive Oil. Place on a rack in a roasting pan, uncovered in the fridge for 24 hours.
To cook, combine all spices and mix, set aside. Heat a large pan to medium high with a high heat oil and sear the beef on all sides. When browned, remove the beef, turn off the heat and deglaze the pan. Return heat to medium low and add the butter. When melted, add the spices and cook 1 – 2 minutes. Add garlic for 1 minute, add roast and turn to coat in herbs. Add the stock and Bay and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat and place into a 325-degree oven. Roast 3 – 3.5 hours to a 195 F temp. Remove the beef and jus and let it rest for an hour. Place in the fridge overnight to make it easy to slice.
Service: Thinly slice the beef and warm it with the jus. Slice an Italian roll and layer with lots of beef. Spoon as much jus as you’d like over the beef and top with sauteed onion, bell peppers and giardiniera and enjoy!