One of the many foods that Chicago is known for is it’s Italian Beef sandwiches. A delicious combination of thinly sliced and seasoned roast beef, soaked in juices, topped with sweet or hot peppers and sometimes cheese on a long italian style roll. Some places will even dip your roll in the meat juices adding another layer of heaven to the already amazing sandwich.
Since the creation of the Italian Beef sandwich in Chicago sometime back in the ’30s, there has always been a debate about who has the best beef in the city. While there are probably hundreds of places in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs that sell Italian Beef, two of the more well known franchises are Al’s Beef and Portillo’s Hot Dogs. Both of these establishments are located both in the city and in the suburbs and have their share of loyal customers, but which one reigns supreme when it comes to beef? I can’t speak for the entire city, but I can tell you which I prefer, so let’s get right into it with a brief history lesson.
Traditionally known for their hot dogs, but their beef is a very very close 2nd on the list of reasons people head to the restaurant. Dick Portillo started the first restaurant in 1963 in Villa Park, IL which he has since grown into The Portillo Restaurant Group which is currently the largest privately owned restaurant company in the midwest. Each Portillo’s restaurant is unique in it’s decor and feel, bringing to them a sense of the Chicago history and lifestyle, including the 2 restaurants in southern California.
Started it’s conquest into the world of Italian beef way back in 1938 by Al Ferreri and his sister and brother in law, Frances and Chris Pacelli Sr. According to wikipedia, during the great depression when meat was hard to come by, Chris and Al would attend weddings and in order to make the meat last longer and feed more people they would slice it as thinly as they could and put it on sandwiches. It was with that idea that they opened the first Al’s Beef stand located in Chicago’s “Little Italy”. And as demand grew they were forced to move to a more permanent location, still within the confines of “Little Italy” and they are still there today. In 1999 they were bought by the Chicago Franchise System which also run Nancy’s Pizza, and Al’s Beef thus became the franchise that we know it as today.
When I was first introduced to Portillo’s I only though of it as a hot dog place, mainly due to the fact that the full name of the restaurant is Portillo’s Hot Dogs, so I wasn’t aware that hiding just past the counter was one of the greatest sandwiches you can possible eat. Now since I don’t get the sweet or hot peppers on the Italian beef sandwiches I’m going to make this comparison solely based on the meat and juices itself. Like any franchise restaurant (this goes for Al’s too) the sandwiches are hit or miss as far as quantity goes. Sometimes the sandwiches are just overflowing with meat and are almost too big for one person to consume, where as other times the meat is actually contained in the bread, meaning it’s not even visible if viewed from a top angle. If you’ve ever had a good Italian beef sandwich you know that there is no way that you should be able to close the bread around the beef. So I do feel that lately Portillo’s has been lacking in the quantity of the meat they are giving you, but the quality is still there for the most part. The meat is sliced very thin, but in bigger pieces unlike Al’s, which I’ll get to in a minute. I don’t know if it’s because of this that the meat can sometimes be a little chewy, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. I’ve also noticed that when we go for lunch, which is at around 11am, the meat doesn’t seem to be soaked with juice as much as you would think. I’m going to chalk this up to the fact that 11am is pretty close to opening and the meat just hasn’t had enough time to soak yet, but it’s still delicious.
My only complaint with the Portillo’s beef is that the juice doesn’t seem to have any distinct flavor to me compared to other Italian beef places. The beef itself is delicious, but the juice needs to also have some sort of unique spices or ingredients that set it apart from other places. I’m not saying that it tastes like every other Italian beef, but when comparing the juice to Al’s “gravy”, as they call it, I don’t even think they compare.
Which leads to me Al’s Beef. I have the same complaint with Al’s as I do with Portillo’s, their portions of beef seem to get smaller and smaller. I remember getting Al’s and having the meat pouring over the top, but not lately. And considering that Al’s is a little more expensive than Portillo’s you would think they would give you a little more meat. A “Big Al” is almost $8 for an 8″ sandwich with what seems like less meat than the $5, 6″ sandwich from Portillo’s. It could just be a meat optical illusion because the 2 places prepare their beef a little differently. As I mentioned above, Portillo’s uses larger thinly sliced pieces of beef where as Al’s is more shredded. I don’t think the way the meat is cut makes much of a difference as far as taste goes, maybe the shredded soaks up more of the juice than the larger pieces, who knows. But the shredded beef from Al’s is much easier to eat if you ask me. Al’s also has a very unique blend of juice which they call gravy, that “makes” the sandwich. In this aspect Portillo’s doesn’t even compare in flavor. They also have the option to dip the bread into the gravy adding that much more flavor. I’m not sure if Portillo’s has this option because they’ve never asked, but at Al’s they will look at you funny if you don’t get it dipped and believe me, dipped is the way to go.
Portillo’s and Al’s both offer a variety of Chicago-style food, but when it comes to the beef I’m going to have to go with Al’s on this one. And the main reason is the gravy. It’s just that good. I do wish you got a little more for the money, but in my eyes I’m getting what I paid for (but that $3 delivery charge is killer). I’m not trying to put down Portillo’s beef because I still eat a lot of it, but mainly just for lunch while at work. And if there was an Al’s closer to work I would probably opt for that instead, but there’s not so Portillo’s is a suitable compromise. So while there are tons and tons of other amazing Italian Beef sandwiches to be had across the Chicagoland area, these 2 franchise spots are 2 of the best. Many people would argue that Johnnie’s Beef is also up there in flavor, but I haven’t been there in years so I can’t comment.
So those of you from Chicago or just those of you that love Italian beef, what are your favorite places? If you’ve had both Portillo’s and Al’s, which do you prefer and why? The ultimate goal is to run around the city and pick up a sandwich from a bunch of different places and do an Italian Beef Shootout and write about it here, but I haven’t found the time, but it’ll come eventually.