The protein in this sandwich is seitan, or as a hyper-carnivorous friend of mine calls it, Satan’s Meat. Seitan is produced by washing the starch out of the wheat until all that’s left is a glutinous mass that can be shaped or, in the case of this sandwich, shaved to simulate sliced beef. Buona’s seitan comes from West Town’s Upton’s Naturals, and it’s the best thing I’ve tasted from that company.
I read no reviews of this new offering until I’d tried it myself, and my first impressions were generally positive. I ordered mine “sweet and hot,” with sweet peppers and hot giardiniera, my usual protocol when ordering Italian beef.
When the Italian Beefless was delivered to my table, my nose perked up at the familiar scent of Italian spices, but I was amazed at the thing’s weight. It was heavy, and I’m guessing a lot of this weight came from the oil that soaked it. Eating traditional Italian beef is no dainty affair, but while eating the Italian Beefless, I found myself using at least half the napkins in my order to dab oily splashes from my table and face. Honestly, I think they’re overdoing it with the oil, which is low on flavor though does add moisture to combat dryness, the Great Enemy of All Sandwiches; there was just too much of it on my sandwich.
The seasoned seitan, slightly elastic and more delicate than beef, had decent flavor. I’d been told it was salty, but I didn’t find it any saltier that the Italian beeves I’d had at local favs like Johnnie’s, Michael’s or Santelli’s. This vegetarian/vegan version predictably lacked the lush, mouth-filling deliciousness of beef, but what the heck did I expect? This sandwich offers personal and planetary health benefits, so something’s got to give. I suspect the food technology will improve if this sandwich is a hit.
One of the staff at our local Buona Beef, 7025 W. North Ave., told me that they sold out of the Italian Beefless Sandwich on the first day. It’s popular and controversial. John Kass wrote in the Tribune that “I eat real beef, not fake beef, and I don’t care what beef does or doesn’t do to the climate, and I find much of this anti-beef business highly political and controlling.” This was not an opinion shared by my friend and food journalist Louisa Chu, who received a gratuitous slam from Kass because she wrote in the Tribune that “Overall, the Italian Beefless is still a terrific sandwich. Beautifully made, thoughtfully balanced.”
My reaction to the sandwich lies somewhere between Kass’ rejection and Chu’s embrace.
The Buona Italian Beefless Sandwich is $7.99, the same price you’d pay for a seven-inch Italian Beef & Sausage combo sandwich. But if, like me, you’re working on eating more plant-based foods, and under doctor’s orders to reduce cholesterol, then that’s a fair price, and the Italian Beefless is a good start toward smarter eating.