The Anatomy of the Gym Shoe, Chicago’s Unsung Sandwich Hero

Forget everything you know about the city’s most iconic foods

April 7, 2017 9:00 am

In Chicago, the hot dog is king. Or is it deep dish? Some old-lines might even say Italian Beef.

Either way, whenever the Windy City is the topic of conversation, you can be sure at some point the discussion will veer towards food, and you can count on the mention of at least one — if not all three — of these items.

Which is fine. I’m not one to draw dividing lines. For out-of-towners, the first place we’ll go is Red Hot Ranch. Burt’s Place for pizza. Then Jay’s Beef. Those are my spots, anyway. You surely have yours. I’ve always said a Chicagoan’s first in town tends to be their “best in town.”

But there’s another local food in our midst that has a cult following. A contemporary phenomenon singular in its capacity to evoke the collective Chicago experience. A sandwich so dangerously delicious it often comes from places with bulletproof glass partitions. I’m talking about the Gym Shoe.

The South Side specialty can now be found at the Ruin Daily, a new sandwich joint in the West Loop that also doubles as an exceptional day-drinking spot. Chef Bino Ottoman runs the show here, and if you’ve never had a Gym Shoe, he’ll be the first to tell you it’s like no other sandwich you’ve seen.

Because everyone remembers their first Gym Shoe. Ottoman’s first was when he working at St. Lou’s Assembly, thanks to a cook who brought one in from Tastys, on 16th and Lawndale.

“It did not look good the first time I saw it,” he recalls. “It looked like vomit on a bun.”

Perfectly fair. But let’s back up. The story of the Gym Shoe (also known as the “Jim Shoe,” which is how we’ve spelled it in the past) goes like this: no one really knows the story of the Gym Shoe. Much of what we know about the sandwich comes from the investigations of food writers Peter Engler and Nick Kindelsperger, who have both moved on to decidedly less illustrious topics.

Here’s what we definitely know: the Gym Shoe is corned and roast beef, gyro meat, onions and cheese, all hard-griddled dirty and then slapped in a sub roll, then dressed in shredded lettuce, tomato and lashings of mayonnaise, tzatziki sauce and giardiniera.

It is stirringly unhealthy. But its construction is near flawless.

And yes, the fact that it’s on Ruin Daily’s menu means it’s not so much a secret anymore, but that doesn’t mean the sandwich is not in good hands.

Instead of gyro meat, Ottoman uses lamb shoulder dry-rubbed with turmeric, cumin, paprika and coriander and slow-cooked for 16 hours. Meanwhile, the corned beef endures a 14-day brine of 20-some spices. All the meats are thinly sliced and finished off with housemade tzatziki, jar giardiniera (“If it’s not broken, why fix it?”) and the rest of the fixings.

Do note, the Ruin Daily does have other sandwiches. Very good other sandwiches. But with Gym Shoe on the menu, there’s no reason to get anything else.


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.