Traveling in Lubbock, Texas, last week, I met half-a-dozen people who told me they were planning to visit Chicago. Knowing that I write about food, these Texans were interested in knowing what restaurants they should try, specifically where they should go for iconic Chicago foods like deep dish pizza. To that query, I always mention Lou Malnati's, which I think prepares one of the best versions of this nationally recognized Chicago food, an outlet of which we're lucky to have in Oak Park.
The other leading examples in the Chicago food fraternity are, of course, the Chicago hot dog and, somewhat less well-known outside the Chicago area, the Italian beef sandwich.
Perhaps less known than even the Italian beef sandwich is gravy bread, simply a hunk of the white Italian bread used in the beef sandwich, drenched in the sauce, and which may contain a few shreds of the beef that once simmered in the gravy. Gravy bread is not unique to Chicagoland, but using Italian bread and Italian beef gravy seems to be the predictable by-product of serving Italian beef sandwiches.
I first encountered gravy bread at the Maxwell Street Market. There was a blue Italian beef truck and on the hand-painted signage outside the truck was the small menu, featuring gravy bread. I forget the gravy bread's exact price (I believe it was under a dollar), but this menu item was definitely the least expensive food you could buy from that – or probably any other – Maxwell Street Market vendor.
Gravy bread is not, however, a Chicago "original" like the Italian beef sandwich. There's Appalachian gravy bread, gravy bread eaten among the Pennsylvania Dutch, and of course biscuits and gravy (one of many variations on the theme). There's little doubt that just about every culture in the world has some variation on bread soaked with meat juice.
Having guests over for dinner last week, we bought a few pounds of Buona Beef and had the regular Italian beef sandwich, and then I made myself a gravy bread sandwich. I liked it. Gravy bread delivers a lot of flavor without the bulk of a meat-filled sandwich. Still, this limp hunk of soggy bread, grayish and clearly missing something (like, um, meat) seems the somewhat sad sibling – or perhaps just the second-cousin, way removed – in the distinctly Chicago food family of deep dish, hot dog and Italian beef.
Buona Beef, headquartered in Berwyn, serves gravy bread as a regular menu item. According to their site, gravy bread contains 327 calories, which is about the same amount of calories as are in a five-inch beef sandwich (332), which is not surprising as the gravy is delicious because it contains lots of dissolved fats.
My friend Titus Ruscitti on his site Smokin' Chokin' & Chowing with the King writes, "The gravy bread is a popular side item at beef and dog stands around town. Some people enjoy them plain and others like them with peppers inside. The best gravy bread in the city is found at Pop's (10337 S. Kedzie). It's pretty much a Southside thing. I could easily eat 5 GBs in a single sitting."
Whatever your reasons for trying gravy bread, there's something satisfying about this elemental sandwich, about as close to a bread sandwich as you can get.