Along with deep dish and a Chicago-style hot dog, Hot Italian Beef is apparently a “must try” Chicago food.
This was one that I thought about giving a miss. I was wandering through Little Italy. A guy in front of me warned me about one area of pavement that I was just about to walk across. It was covered with a board. He said that he nearly fell in the day before, but it was sturdy enough for me. He laughed, I laughed, and we both went on with our lives.
Chicago’s Little Italy was, from what I saw, a single street with a number of restaurants, churches, and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame at one end. Italian families probably live nearby. There were a few Italians around. However there no longer seems to be any sort of buzz to it, and the neighbourhood must be getting Littler by the year.
I had expected more restaurants would entice me. I was on my way to Jane Adams-Hull House and figured that I would maybe just have to go a bit hungry for the afternoon. Then I came across Al’s #1 Italian Beef.
It is located in the honorary Al’s #1 Italian Beef Boulevard, and they don’t give out honorary boulevards fro just any old thing (though there are a lot of honorary boulevards around).
The interior will win it no prizes. It is, for all intents and purposes, a no-frills takeout joint. You are getting a hot beef sandwich, what do you want, the Ritz? The walls are covered with press clippings and historic photos to verify their authenticity and position as market leader.
I ordered the plain old hot Italian beef, no chilis (I don’t know why I said no to the chilis. The cold was eating me from the inside). There are other things for sale, which you can Google (to paraphrase J-Lo, “I ain’t lookin’ up menus, I ain’t yo momma”) but as a starter you may as well start with the original.
It sure as hell isn’t a looker, but fuck me if that isn’t the best sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. There is a kick from the sauce (the added chilis would surely have complemented this), the beef is tender, the sauce spills onto the bread and then your hands which you lick even though you’re standing in a window because you don’t want any of that juicy goodness to be lost in the ether.
Neither Norah nor Jay have tried hot Italian beef. They are missing out. A well-deserved Boulevard indeed.