Henry "Hank" Tibensky, 37, learned to make Italian dishes like eggplant parmesan from his aunts at his family's Italian restaurant, Vito's, on Chicago's West Side.
In that kitchen, hearty recipes were hammered into young Tibensky's brain, but it was the beef that won his heart and he grew to bleed au jus.
Tibensky, a three-sport athlete at Oak Park and River Forest High School who won a state swimming championship in 1998, was a regular in Johnny's, Mickey's and Buona Beef during his high school days.
After graduating from OPRF, Tibensky went to Yale and then to China to teach English for a year before going into wealth management in New York City, where early on he made a painful discovery, or lack thereof. When it comes to Italian beef, the entire East Coast, it seems, is barren land.
"Growing up in Oak Park, I lived on Johnny's, Mickey's and Buona Beef," Tibensky said in a phone interview last week from Manhattan. "Those were my go-to places. Italian beef is ingrained in our DNA coming from this neighborhood. And then to come out here and not find it was surprising."
Tibensky said his mother, Linda Tibenksy, would bring him pounds of beef from Chicago when she'd visit and on his return trips to his hometown, he would head straight to his favorite local beef spots.
"Henry would tell us there was no Italian beef in New York City and we couldn't believe it," said Linda. "So we checked it out. We'd go to food fairs, interviewing people, and even the Italian people had never heard of Italian beef. That was the biggest shock."
Over the years, Henry discovered he wasn't alone among Chicago expatriates longing for Italian beef.
In 2015, buoyed by his family's restaurants, Tibenksy decided to fill the void. The OPRF grad, who attended Mann and Julian, started cooking Italian beef sandwiches himself and selling them at food markets and pop-up shops, in addition to catering events, around New York City.
In 2016, Tibensky opened an 800-square-foot, brick-and-mortar store called Hank's Juicy Beefs in Manhattan — a block away from City Hall and four blocks from the World Trade Center site — where he employs six people.
"I've been out here for 15 years and have done a lot of market research," Tibensky said, explaining why he believes his store is the only Italian beef restaurant on the East Coast, a claim that Wednesday Journal couldn't independently verify.
"We get a lot of Chicagoans who come through and say, 'Thank goodness you opened; we've been dying for beef and don't understand why there's no beef out here,'" he said. "They'd say when they Googled 'Italian beef,' our store would be the only thing to pop up."
Tibensky said he figures he may not be the only Chicagoan who's entertained the idea of opening an Italian beef shop in New York City, but he may be the most fortunate.
"I have always had this one idea — and I guess a lot of other Chicagoans have as well — of opening a beef place out here, but I was in a fortunate situation," he said. "I didn't have any kids, still don't have any, I'm relatively young, single, so I was able to go off and start this endeavor."
Most of Tibensky's days are spent cooking. During the interview last week, he had 80 pounds of beef in the oven. He used to make his own Chicago-style giardiniera peppers until recently. Now he ships them, along with the bread, hot dogs and neon relish, from Chicago to New York City. The actual beef, he said, is locally sourced.
Tibensky, who has unwittingly assumed the role of Italian beef missionary to the East Coast, said he plans on opening a few more stores in the city over the next several years. Meanwhile, he's still working on a language to describe his beloved Chicago fare to the unenlightened.
"When people hear 'juicy beef,' a lot of them come in thinking they're getting a juicy hamburger," he said. "We say, 'They're like a hamburger, but much messier.'"
Answer Book 2018
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