The History of the Italian Beef Sandwich
Created on the South Side of Chicago in the Italian enclaves around the now defunct Stockyards, the classic Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich is a unique, drippy, messy variation on the French Dip. It is available in hundreds of joints around the city, and rarely found done right outside of Chicagoland (except of course here at 312 Beef & Sausage!). The sandwich was probably created by Italian immigrants in the early 1900s as they rose from poverty (and eating primarily ground meat) into the middle class, when they were able to afford beef for roasting. Pasquale Scala, a South Side butcher and sausage maker, is credited for popularizing the modern version. During the Depression in the late 1920s, when food was scarce, Scala's thinly sliced roast beef on a bun with gravy and fried peppers took off. Today, beef sandwiches are a staple in Chicagoland. Italian Beef is made by slowly roasting lean beef, slicing it paper thin, soaking it in a delicious au jus and layering it generously, dripping wet, onto a crusty bread. The meat is typically topped with sautéed green bell pepper slices (sweet) or giardiniera (hot) according to your choice. Finally, beef juice is spooned over the toppings, making the bread wet and chewy. We will dip the whole sandwich in juice if you ask. You can also ask for juice for dipping on the side.
According to Allen Kelson, former restaurant critic for Chicago Magazine, and now a restaurant consultant, it is important that the bread has, what Bounty Towels calls "wet strength". This comes from long fermentations, he explains. The more accelerator, the worse the bread, as far as Italian beef goes. Run of the mill French breads just don't cut it, he says.