What Makes for a Good Italian Beef Sandwich?

National Italian Beef Day is May 27

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By David Hammond

Italian beef sandwiches are simple things: juicy meat, bread, sweet or hot peppers. To an outsider, it might seem that there's no difference between one or another Italian beef vendor, yet we all have our favorites and reasons for preferring one beef place over another.

The big whoop about Italian beef sandwiches may be hard to understand for people who live outside Chicagoland, which is where these sandwiches were born and pretty much the only place they're served.  It's probably not easy for people who "don't come from around here" to understand the affection many of us feel for Italian beef sandwiches.

Johnny's (7500 W. North) is my go-to for Italian beef. When my former Chicagoan brothers come to town, this is where we eat beef.  When I recently posted a photo of a Johnnie's beef, my neighborhood buddy/food enthusiast Peter Burgi said we should check out Serrelli's Finer Food (6454 W. North).

So how was Serrelli's? Well, let's start with my three criteria for determining a superior Italian beef sandwich: 

  1. Beef must be tender, sliced thin but not shredded.
  2. The juice (or jus) should highlight classic Italian spices – oregano and garlic -- with red pepper accents.
  3. Roll needs to be crunchy and maybe just a little dry to absorb the juice and give the inner bread the consistency of shaving cream.

Sandwich moisture, like condiment selection (hot peppers, sweet peppers, or both, which is the way I go) is a matter of personal preference. I prefer my beef "wet" or "dipped" in sauce but never double-dipped. Too wet and the sandwich falls apart, and you want to be able to pick up the whole sandwich to eat it, ideally in the Italian Stance, which involves leaning forward with feet back and both elbows on the counter to minimize spills on clothes and shoes. 

I bought a small (1.25 pound) container of Serrelli's beef. The meat itself is very good: thin cut, tender, not just shreds but hefty sheets with good flavor. The Serrelli's sauce is, to my way of thinking, somewhat under-seasoned; I asked the butcher how they prepare the meat, and he said they didn't use any spices at all, which might be true: "we just cook it in a big pan and let all the natural juices run down." For bread, I bought a thin loaf of D'Amato's, one of the better choices for a beef sandwich. Overall, Serrelli's makes for a good sandwich, though next time, I'll opt to buy an extra container of juice and add my own oregano, garlic and red pepper flakes, maybe even salt. A bottle of Danny Serrelli's giardiniera adds needed zing.

National Italian Beef Day is May 27, and it was a holiday inaugurated in 2017 by the local guys at Buona Beef, who also make a very good Italian beef sandwich.

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