the spot: Mr. Beef on Orleans 666 N. Orleans St. Chicago Il 60654
the eats: Italian Beef Combo, Italian Beef, dipped
the bucks: $9
the full nelson: An Italian Beef located close to downtown, tourist adjacent and legit too
I love Italian Beefs. Whether it’s Nottoli & Son which was featured on Cheap Eats Chicago, a late night run at Portillo’s or the well regarded Johnnie’s Beef in the west suburbs, Italian Beef’s are the sandwich of Chicago. Cousin to the French Dip but with remarkably more flavor, Italian Beef’s date back to when Italian Immigrants created wedding feasts called peanut weddings under modest circumstances(they were poor) by slow roasting beef, slicing it thin and serving it on bread with the flavorful seasoned au jus. Nowadays you can skip the peanut wedding and just pick a spot. Great Italian Beefs can be found all over Chicagoland.
I happened to be staying in downtown Chicago while attending the James Beard Awards. Known as the Oscars of the food world, I was honored to be a member of the judging committee this year. I had a few hours to kill till my flight home and Mr. Beef was pretty close to me so I gave it a shot but also at the behest of hilarious food writer Dennis Lee of the Takeout. His office, which also includes The Onion, is a short stroll away. That can be pretty dangerous if you have the habit of gaining weight by reading menus.
This is a montage of three walls worth of notable fans of Mr. Beef. I spoke with owner Joe Zucchero, who dished out a ton of goods when it comes to the history of Mr. Beef. Considered the baby of the block when compared to other Italian Beef joints, Mr. Beef opened in 1979. A few years later an up and coming comic named Jay Leno would visit. Joey took care of Jay and Jay said “when I make it, I’m gonna put you on the map”. A review in the early 1980s gave Mr. Beef 4 stars across a myriad of factors including beef, bread, peppers and au jus. Celebs started to roll in and Mr. Beef on Orleans became a Chicago Italian Beef Institution.
Look, this ain’t bad for 2022. One beef plus sharing an order of fries, or if you’re feeling emboldened, cheese fries will do you right. I also tried a pizza puff too . . . when in Rome I guess. But really you are here for one thing and one thing only.
I went for it. Italian beef with Italian sausage and dipped in the gravy(au jus) plus hot peppers. Out the gate for the die hards, the hot giardiniera at Mr. Beef ain’t that spicy. But it’s made every week, got great crunch and does the job. The lack of heat is by design, Joe tells me. He wants you to taste the beef. Speaking of, he uses Sirloin Butts unlike some other places that use a cheaper cut. The sausage isn’t necessary but it feels so over the top which speaks to a fine quality about Chicago dining: gluttony.
The gravy, which in actuality is more an au jus, is the whole damn point, and that goes for any good Italian beef in the city. At Mr Beef, when the sirloins first go into the 500 degree for an initial heat blast, it’s actually unseasoned. After an hour and half of high temp then medium temp roasting, the seasoning comes in along with a pan with water to catch the drippings. That’s where the flavor really builds so make sure to dip your sandwich in it by ordering it juicy.
You will want a roll of paper towels handy but at the end of the day, you’re here for an Italian Beef facial. Mr Beef used bread from Libiorio bakery and it holds its own despite taking a jacuzzi in the Italian Beef gravy. The price of indulgence is messy but worth it. If you are a Chicago native you no doubt have your favorites. Joe told me that “Italian Beefs are a very territorial thing”. If you’re a visitor like me, they are all worth trying. A good beef stand captures the soul of the city. And Mr. Beef’s Beefs got a lot of soul.