Chicago and the surrounding suburbs are known for many unique eats around the country, such as deep-dish pizza and the Chicago-style hot dog. However, nothing is quite like Chicago-style Italian beef. I am going to list my top 5 favorite Italian beef in order.
5. Portillo’s (Multiple locations) - Portillo’s is, what I like to refer to as, the tourist Italian beef. Tourists love to go to Portillo’s to try and get the true Chicago experience from their hot dogs, hamburgers, and Italian beef. Portillo’s does have a lot going for it. The beef is consistently good and the bread, which is Turano brand, is always fresh and soaks up the gravy well. They also have really good giardiniera. The beef is good, but not the best. Sometimes it can taste dry and not have the best texture.
The drawback to Portillo’s is their Italian beef comes in at the most expensive at just around $7.
4. Al’s Beef (Multiple locations) - Al’s is the oldest in the bunch at over 80 years in business, starting out in Chicago’s Little Italy off Taylor Street. Al’s claims to have been the creator of the famous Italian Beef sandwich. Through years of experience and family secret recipes, Al’s has a very unique rich flavor to their gravy and their Italian beef is always delicious and cooked to perfection. Al’s also has the most unique giardiniera that has a gorgeous red hue to it from all the seasonings, which really adds to its unique flavor. The only drawback is they keep adding so many items to their menus, straying away from their core food items. This ultimately takes away from the quality of their staple food items, like the Italian Beef.
3. Mr. Beef on Orleans (Chicago) - Trying to figure out the long history of Mr. Beef and who started what and when would take years, but this is what we know. Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris (Baba) Pacelli, founded Al’s Beef in 1938, and Mr. Beef on Orleans co-founders Carl Bonavolanto Jr. and his Tony ("Uncle Junior" to the Buonavolantos) Ozzauto each set up shop. Mr. Beef on Orleans has to be one of the most famous on the list. Jay Leno flies into Chicago just to get this Italian Beef. The beef is fantastic and the bread is delicious. The gravy and giardiniera are great and it shows that they know what they are doing.
2. Johnnie’s Beef (Elmwood Park) - Now many probably thought this was going to be my number one favorite, but it is not. Johnnie’s started in 1961 and has a near cult-like following. Customers will line up through rain or snow to get their fix for this Italian Beef. Johnnie’s has also been on many famous food channel TV shows, so it’s got to be good. I grew up in the area and have had my share of Johnnie’s in my lifetime. Their gravy is delicious. The way they chop up their beef is completely unique and adds to the texture of the sandwich. I love their giardiniera here and their bread is always perfect to hold up to the gravy. The reason why Johnnie’s did not make my number one spot is that it is not consistent in quality and flavor. Many times, I have ordered from here and it is either the best beef on the planet or not even a top-five contender.
1. Mr. Beef and Pizza on Harlem Avenue (Chicago) - Started in 1979, this is another story of families splitting and claiming who is the best and who started what and when. Mr. Beef and Pizza have locations all over the Chicagoland area in numerous suburbs, but the best by far is the Mr. Beef and Pizza off of Harlem Avenue. Their beef is oozing with juices and is always so tender and perfectly chopped. The bread is perfect and the gravy is delicious and always consistently good. The staff is always super nice.
Let me know in the comments section - what are your top picks for the best Italian beef?