The top spot on the list of “Chicago foods” is usually a toss-up between deep-dish pizza or the Chicago dog. Both are deeply ingrained in the identity of the city and inspire a great deal of debate over do’s and dont’s. But after the success of Hulu’s Chicago kitchen drama The Bear, the Italian Beef sandwich is enjoying an unexpected moment in the spotlight.
Most out-of-towners had no idea the Italian Beef sandwich even existed, let alone what makes it so special. So let’s break it down here. The foundation is simple, consisting only of thinly sliced roast beef, a hearty French roll, and the delicious broth/juices the beef was cooked in (called “au jus”).
From there, the options depend on personal preference and the degree of authenticity you’re looking for. Cheese is always an option. Giardiniera is a classic topping made from pickled peppers, carrots, and celery that add a satisfying crunch. The sandwich can be served “dry,” where the au jus is just what comes with the beef as the sandwich is made. Most go for it “wet,” where the whole sandwich gets a quick dunk in the au jus. Can’t decide? Just get the au jus on the side and dip to your stomach’s content.
But for such a simple sandwich, the mission to get a good Italian Beef is surprisingly complex. Well-reviewed options are scattered far and wide across Chicagoland, from the suburbs to the heart of downtown. To simplify the process, I decided to sample seven Italian Beefs from restaurants around the downtown area. If you’re visiting Chicago, chances are high that you’ll find yourself within walking distance of at least one of these spots.
To really focus on the core ingredients as well as level the playing field, I always ordered the same thing:
And it’s important to note that although there was one clear winner at the end of this journey, all of the places below will serve you an Italian Beef that leaves you greasy-fingered and satisfied.
Al’s #1 Italian Beef is a Chicago-based chain, and this specific location has a modern, fast-casual feel to it. There’s a fair amount of seating and even a walk-up window for self-service and pick-up ordering. It can get busy around lunch, but the kitchen gets your food out quickly.
As for the sandwich, it checks all of the boxes. The beef is thinly sliced, the bread soaks up the au jus, and the giardiniera cuts through the richness. But upon tasting the jus, I realized the well-seasoned broth is carrying a lot of the flavor. It’s tasty with a certain X-factor I couldn’t pin down (maybe some clove?). However, the hot giardiniera wasn’t spicy at all, and the beef on its own was a bit bland. Plus, the bread quickly fell apart as it got wetter.
Bottom Line: A serviceable baseline for beef. Stop by if you’re in a rush, but there are better options nearby.
Mister J’s is a small counter-serve spot tucked just off the Chicago Red Line stop. It’s got a handful of tables and counters to eat at and a wide variety of food options beyond Italian Beef. Where Al’s Beef had the trappings of a new fast-casual restaurant, Mister J’s has the simple and functional interior of a fast-food restaurant. While others might use a conspicuously large wall for decoration, Mister J’s decided to double down with pictures of their menu items.
With all of your attention squarely on the food itself, how does it hold up? Most noticeably, the beef is cut a little bit thicker than usual, and it’s allowed to stay in mostly whole chunks like gyro shavings. This gives the beef a quality closer to deli roast beef, and though it tasted good, I again realized the au jus was the star of the show. The jus has a redder quality to it, reflecting its well-seasoned nature. Crucially, the hot giardiniera actually had some kick to it, and the bread stayed together. Improvement.
Bottom Line: Worth a visit if you’re not worried about ambiance and want a spicy, well-seasoned beef while riding the Red Line.
Portillo’s is an icon for Chicagoans, and though there’s some posturing around its presence being mainly in the suburbs versus the city, I’d wager every local has had Portillo’s at least once in their lives. It’s got a family-friendly atmosphere with old-timey decorations and Chicago sports memorabilia displayed proudly. Not only is this location the most accessible to the usual tourist spots, but it can also handle huge crowds. Even then, it’s not uncommon on summer days to see this restaurant with a line out the door and a packed drive-through simultaneously.
With the highest profile of anyone on this list, Portillo’s strives to meet a consistent quality for their Italian Beef. And they deliver a sandwich that has no obvious flaws: filled with super thin beef that’s easy to put down, mildly spicy giardiniera that crunches, and structurally sound bread that soaks up the au jus well. Sampling the jus on its own surprised me with a rich, dark meaty flavor, but once again, without the jus, the beef itself was tender but bland.
Bottom Line: A consistently good Italian Beef that relies heavily on its au jus for flavor. There are food options and dining space for the whole family.
Luke’s is located just a block away from Willis Tower (still known to many as the Sears Tower) and has ample space that fills up quickly during the lunch rush. It strikes a balance between the functional fast food interior of Mister J’s and the over-the-top decorations of Portillo’s.
Finally, a spot where I can confidently say the beef isn’t playing second fiddle to the au jus. With beef that’s thin but not as shredded as Portillo’s and jus that doesn’t rely on heavy seasoning, this is a well-balanced beef. The giardiniera has a little more heat than most but nothing overwhelming. It is worth noting that the sandwich wasn’t quite as “wet” as others, so it’s worth the extra 50 cents for the side of jus.
Bottom Line: The beef and the au jus complement each other really nicely to make a sandwich that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Drop in before or after visiting Willis Tower if you’re not afraid of heights that is.
First off, Mr. Beef is where they shot The Bear. It’s easy to see why considering the inescapable charm the modest spot conjures up. There’s a decidedly historic feel to the whole operation, from the sometimes cash-only payment (ATM on-site) to the proudly displayed “MR. BEEF BLVD” street sign just outside the door. It’s got a wall of celebrity endorsements, and the dining room consists of a single dining table plus benches running the length of the room. There’s something extremely Chicago about starring in a critically-acclaimed show and then shrugging it off to keep doing what they do best: beef.
This was a sandwich that stood on the strength of its meat alone. The hot giardiniera was mostly celery and lacked heat. The sandwich was one of the greasiest I encountered, likely due to the super oily au jus. But the beef was so delicious that these were minor quibbles. Every bite was packed with sauce and meat, and that’s really all an Italian Beef should be.
Bottom Line: Rub elbows with fellow patrons at the dining table and enjoy a meaty, indulgent take on a classic. Don’t forget to grab some extra napkins.
Buona is a Chicago-based chain that proudly advertises its long family tradition of making Italian Beef. This location in Streeterville is convenient for those coming and going from Navy Pier, with plenty of seating inside and a few tables outside the storefront. Buona also has many of the modern conveniences we’ve come to expect in a restaurant space: self-order kiosks, a dedicated takeout/delivery counter, a standalone app, and a reward system. But the beef remains front and center with a “Beefography” lining one of the walls, telling the story of how an Italian Beef is made.
With such a clean and contemporary presentation, I was expecting a sandwich along the lines of the other chains I’d sampled: reliably good but not great. I’m happy to report I was wrong. The beef was thin and tender, falling apart like Portillo’s but with a much meatier taste. The au jus enhanced the savory quality without being overly greasy. Surprisingly, the hot giardiniera didn’t hold back and delivered the spice I’d been craving.
Bottom Line: With a family recipe that’s been fine-tuned to near perfection, this beef is a savory, spicy treat that doesn’t feel like a grease bomb.
Bari Foods is a deli and grocery located just north of the bustling foodie hub that is Fulton Market. And what a gem it is. The deli counter serves soups, sandwiches, and raw cuts by the pound while the grocery shelves are stocked with equal parts snacks and imported Italian ingredients. The only place to eat on premises is a single counter looking out at the street, standing room only.
No chairs needed here; I would’ve jumped out of my seat the second I took a bite out of this beast. Pound for pound, this sandwich was the heavyweight champ with a dense layer of perfectly browned beef. The peppers lined the spine of the sandwich, but the deli happily provided extra giardiniera upon request. The au jus was the finest beef gravy I’ve encountered, and I made sure to dunk every bite.
Bottom Line: The champ by a country mile. An Italian Beef can come in many shapes and sizes, but this one is the only one worth a detour.