Everyone knows about the fiery giardinera at Al's #1
on Taylor, and many locals have unknowingly risked the wrath and ire of the resident beef Nazi at Johnnie's Beef
by asking for cheese on their sandwich. But these legendary spots aren't the only places to score Italian beef. In fact, it's a good bet that wherever Vienna Chicago dogs are sold, Scala's, the ubiquitous Italian beef-purveyor, follows. While an unforgiveable number of careless chefs serve overly thick slices and several-days-old beef stews, many unsung beef stands remain under the radar. Here's a guide to some of the tastiest.
Pop's Italian Beef Located in Chicago's Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, Pop's is so far south, we wouldn't blame you if you started peppering your speech with "y'all's" and "honeys" after procuring your order. This takeout-only window joint, with its red sloped roof, looks like your garden variety Tastee-Freeze, and while it does serve great sundaes, beef is Pop's thing. Served on an ample Italian roll, the peppered, well-seasoned beef is laced with a hot giardinera of celery, green and red pepper. The fries, made to order straight from the deep fryer, are crispy golden delights.
Chickie's From the blackened deep fryer to the low lighting, 45-year-old Chickie's has more grunge than Seattle in the early '90s. Of course, a little honest dirt never hurts. On the surface, Chickie's sandwiches, served on traditional Gonella rolls and stuffed with Scala's beef, look like your standard variety sub. But a single bite yields a juicy delight of toothsome meat, and ordered with hot peppers, packs a smattering of fruity and spicy jalapeno, cabbage and celery. While beefs like Al's shine because of its standout seasoning, Chickies' shines because of its impeccably balanced ingredients.
Uncle Johnny's This white brick Bridgeport deli, located only a Jermaine Dye dinger or two away from U.S. Cellular Field, is an old school corner grocery that just happens to make a few sandwiches. Sort your way past the glinting jars of pickled veggies and crinkly bags of potato chips, and you'll find a small deli case and even smaller prep counter where you order up your beef. Uncle Johnny's roasts its own meat on site, and as a result, serves some of the freshest tasting beef on the block. Served on a French loaf, the meat is spicy, substantial and entirely underrated…the Steve Buscemi of Italian beef.
Max's Italian Beef While I believe that those who besmirch their Chicago dog with ketchup should be hung out to dry on the antennae of the Sears Tower, I have no problem with cheese on Italian beef. The fact that this 50-year-old West Rogers Park institution offers cheesy beef and tubs of giardiniera for free on its tables earns this joint major bonus points. The lightly seasoned beef is tender, thin, moist and exceptionally lean, recalling Arby's way more than Al's. No trip to Max's would be complete without a taste of the thick-cut Ghetto Fries topped with Merkt's cheddar cheese, Italian beef gravy, onion slivers, sweet barbecue sauce and giardiniera.
Boston's Italian Beef Wedged between the intersection of Chicago and Grand Avenues, this gray brick shack has enough black steel bars on its windows and doors to conjure more of a cell block vibe than Italian beef dive. For those who like their beef gravy super seasoned, the notes of herby oregano and the sweet afterglow of garlic will rock your palate. Most beefs we've tasted are cooked through and seem like they've been floating in gravy and sitting in steam tables for a month of Sundays. Boston's beef, on the other hand, has a pinkish cast, and is much closer to a good Sunday roast, with various shades of doneness.