Chicago Specialty Foods

Chicago is known for it’s growing fine dining and overall food scene.  And believe me, we sure checked that part out too.  But our afternoon plans involved trying Chicago Specialty Foods which include Italian Beef Sandwiches, Deep Dish Pizza and Chicago-Style Hot Dogs.  We stuffed ourselves and enjoyed every minute.

Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches

In Chicago there is deep dish pizza and there are Chicago-style dogs, but many do not know that the real ‘beef’ is the Italian Beef Sandwich.  We began our entire food fest weekend with the Italian Beef smack down.  We had heard there is quite a rivalry between Mr. Beef, a privately owned single shop vs. the large chain Al’s Beef.  There happens to be an Al’s within close vicinity of Mr. Beef, so we decided to try 1/2 a sandwich at each  shop and add our opinion to the mix.Al’s Beef
169 W. Ontario St. – River North

Mr. Beef
666 North Orleans St. – River North

First stop, Al’s.  We got a bit confused while ordering as there is a specific rule to this like many regional specialties:

1.  Always get your beef ‘dipped’ – the whole thing gets dipped in a secret recipe au jus
2.  Always get your beef ‘hot’ – there is a sauce called giardiniera sauce, which means ‘under vinegar’ or pickled.  It is made with hot peppers, again a special recipe at each place.
3.  Also get your beef sweet – that’s add sweet peppers

So your order at the counter will sound like this;  Beef Sandwich dipped, hot & sweet.

Even though we ordered in, the sandwich got all wrapped up in wax paper.  This is a seriously messy sandwich, so this step is necessary to hold everything together.  It is juicy, wet with au jus, spicy and like no other sandwich you’ve ever had.  It is most similar to a French Dip, where it was derived, but it is quite unique.

 We’re still hungry, luckily.  We had a morning plane ride and no breakfast, so off we go to Mr. Beef.  Of course the guy we saw on ‘Food Wars’ was at the counter.  He’s a character with a big Chicago accent.  He recommended the local root beer, which was a nice personalized touch with our Chicago beef!  One point for personality and service.

So we unwrap our beef and find a much cleaner sandwich.  It’s dipped, but not soggy.  The giardiniera is fresh, green and has a subtle flavor which enhances the beef.  Not as spicy.

So the question remains, which is better?  They are both great.  Each has its own personality.  I recommend trying both and deciding for yourself.  But I will say the single shop owner who personally serves his secret recipe always wins in our book.  Whatever you do, don’t skip the Italian Beef in Chicago.  It is more important than the dogs AND the pizza.  That we can tell you!

Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza

Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta
864 N. State Street – Near North

Again, there is a rivalry going about the best Chicago-style pizza.  In this instance, we opted not to do a comparison and just pick one lest we have a heart attack before the end of the weekend.  We had many fine dining dinner reservations to follow up our calorie laden lunches.

The brief story is Pizzeria Uno, who is the 1943 originator of the deep dish pizza, vs. Gino’s, opened in 1966 by two cab drivers.  These are the most commonly known.  Then there is Lou Malnati, who was a former partner at Pizzeria Uno.  He is credited with the ‘original recipe’ and, finally,  his brother Rudy, who owns Pizano’s and interestingly has won the best ‘Thin Crust’ pizza in town.  Sounds like the mafia, right?  So we just asked our Concierge his preference.

He says the brother at Pizano’s.  And conveniently, it is 1/2 a block from the Sofitel Hotel where we were staying.  It wasn’t packed with tourists like the others, which was also a bonus.  We were greeted by a friendly Chicago native (a brother, uncle or son of the clan?) who explained why Chicago deep dish over NY thin crust.   Also of note, it takes 1/2 an hour to prepare.  So we ordered a salad.

They came and cut it at the table, so no pic of the whole pie…

In essence, the CRUST is the same.  It just goes up the side of the pan.  It is NOT thick or rubbery like I thought.  That’s just poorly made pan pizza.  No, this is thin and crispy.  The filling is just much deeper.  That’s why you need to ask for ‘extra crispy,’ another local thing you gotta know before you order.  We went with Rudy’s Special, which was Cheese, Sausage, Mushroom , Onion & Green Pepper.  You also need to know that a small is more than enough for two.  These pizzas are FILLING.

We now have a new appreciation for the Chicago-style pizza, but unless some great chef opens a hot spot in NYC specializing in real Chicago-style, the plan is ONLY to order it IN CHICAGO.  For now, we’ll stick with our thin, folded pie!

Chicago-Style Hot Dogs

On this count we did not even bother.  The hottest place is ‘Hot Dougs’ and a car is needed to get there.  Supposedly the wait is over an hour.  We met a couple who said it was worth the wait.  Below is a Serious Eats pic from a Doug’s Dog event in New York City.

I did try a Chicago-style dog or’dragged through the garden,’ has sliced tomatoes, celery salt, yellow mustard, chopped onions, sweet relish, sport peppers & a pickle spear all on a poppy seed bun.  A tip, do not ask for ketchup.

We also shared a ‘polish,’ which is basically a kielbasa.



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  1. Pingback: Tavernita, Chicago | In NYC

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