A Brief History Of The Italian Beef Sandwich

Italian Beef Sandwich | © jeffreyw/WikiCommons
Italian Beef Sandwich | © jeffreyw/WikiCommons
Photo of Elizabeth Newhart
2 November 2016

Chicagoans are incredibly passionate about their food, and along with pizza and hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches are one of the most important regional dishes. Everyone respects the same city favorites but regularly argue about which one is technically the best.

The Italian beef sandwich originated in Chicago in the 1930s, and it has since become a city and statewide food staple. It’s a classic option for the ‘workingman’s’ lunch; it often shows up to catered parties and events, and it’s never far from mind when looking for the perfect food to soak up a night of alcohol.

Italian beef sandwich from Portillo's courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But outside the immediate Midwestern area, a lot of people don’t quite understand what it entails. ‘Beef sandwich’ brings to mind a confused concoction of ground beef or steak slapped on a bun. But this is wrong. The classic Italian beef comprises thinly shaved roast beef, sweet peppers, giardiniera, and gravy on a bread roll. Different variations are popular, like the removal of sweet peppers and the addition of melted cheddar. But no matter what you put on it, you can typically order it dry or wet/dipped, depending on how juicy you want it. To some, it’s not authentic unless it’s dripping with beef juice. Others, however, would prefer a mess-free meal.

But all can agree that the Italian beef is a tried-and-true Chicago favorite. The origins are said to lie with Chicago’s Italian immigrant population that worked in the stockyards in the early 1900s. When working men would bring home tough meat from the factories that couldn’t be sold, they roasted it in spices, sliced it thinly, and served it on rolls to improve the taste. They began serving it at their local weddings and banquets to be able to afford to feed everyone, and the sandwich took off in popularity.

It’s difficult to point to one specific point in time or person who introduced the Italian beef, but most Chicago beefers would say that Pasquale Scala and a crew of about a dozen of his friends started it all. The Scala family got the ‘wedding beef’ ball rolling around 1925 with their Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company. After the sandwich had made its way into street corner stands, the 1940s saw several beef-specific shops making waves in Chicago, and the rest is history.

Chris ‘Baba’ Pacelli founded Al’s #1 Italian Beef in 1938, which is today’s most well-known beef spot in the city and suburbs. Other local favorites include Buona Beef, founded by Joe Buonavolanto in the 1980s, and Mr. Beef on Orleans. Also check out Portillo’s, Jay’s Beef, and Tony’s Italian Beef.