Chicago’s best sandwich has been satisfying locals for nearly 100 years. Its popularity, at least outside of Chicago, skyrocketed last year with the premiere and slow-burn success of The Bear, Hulu’s zeitgeist-capturing dramedy. With season two dropping June 22, we’re highlighting six of the best places to get an Italian beef in Chicago.
Before we begin, Johnnie’s Beef is not on this list. Yes, Johnnie’s is great — maybe the greatest place to get an Italian beef. But Johnnie’s is not in Chicago. It’s in Elmwood Park and would be in Chicago if it was located a few dozen blocks north or south. You’ll see some suburban locations noted below, but each brand has at least one location within Chicago city limits. Them’s the rules.
The local chain that gives local chains a good name, Al’s is damn near perfect, with locations throughout the city (Avondale/Logan Square, Lakeview, Little Italy and River North; Niles and Tinley Park in the burbs). Al’s has been around since 1938, claims to have invented the sandwich, has somehow managed to keep the business in the family and continues to receive accolades from critics across the globe. If Al’s is your local spot, you’re lucky. If it’s not, they’re on all the regular delivery apps and ship throughout the United States via Goldbelly.
Are you a White Sox fan? Have you become numb to the Buona Beef product placement in the Guaranteed Rate home team dugout? Do you ever wonder why there’s only one Buona Beef in Chicago and two dozen in the suburbs? Just me? Buona Beef, yet another family-run business that does just a few things and does them right, has the potential to be the next Portillo’s of the Chicagoland area (see below).
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Carm’s has been around longer than any of us. Since 1929, this tiny, family-run business has been serving all manner of Chicago comfort food like Italian beef, hot dogs and Polish sausage. It’s on this list for their Italian beef, but it’s on our minds because it’s getting warm and it’s time for Italian ice.
As the inspiration for The Bear’s restaurant, Mr. Beef lives up to the hype — it’s the best single-location spot on this list. On the flip side, the biggest downside is the location because unless you work near River North, how often are you going to the neighborhood? Hell, you’re probably only going there for Mr. Beef. When I worked in River North, our office would rarely get Mr. Beef. We all loved it, but every time we got Mr. Beef for lunch, nothing got done afterwards. Oh, and don’t skip the fries because they are fantastic. The Italian beef is perfect, obviously.
It’s incredibly easy to dismiss the most popular restaurant on this list. Sure, their marketing is on point, but in fact, Portillo’s Italian beef sandwich is very good. It’s not as fantastic as their hot dog or their infamous chocolate cake, but they offer a quality Italian beef sandwich. I rarely order it because Portillo’s sells a beef-’n’-cheddar croissant, a superior product that’s a heart attack of deliciousness.
Similar to Al’s, Portillo’s are seemingly everywhere. Unlike Al’s, they’re mostly in the suburbs. Portillo’s has three Chicago locations, but their 30-plus outposts in the suburbs really put them on the map. And some of the restaurants have themes. (All of them used to have themes, but some of the newer ones don’t because high-speed business growth doesn’t allow enough time for thoughtfully kitschy interior design.) I have a soft spot for the ’50s-centric restaurants you can find in Addison, Bolingbrook, Elmhurst, Forest Park and Rolling Meadows.
If you want to reheat some Italian beef at home (this is actually a really good plan for large gatherings), head to Serrelli’s on North Avenue. You can order three, five or 10 pounds of the pre-cooked, ready-to-heat-and-serve meat. You can order extra gravy by the quart, too. Yes, other restaurants — including Al’s, Buona, Portillo’s and more — offer Italian beef catering, but Serrelli’s is just as good and way more affordable.
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