Dip into Chicago’s Italian beef history: From peanut weddings to ‘The Bear,’ how this sandwich became a staple

The Original Mr. Beef, where exteriors for the show "The Bear" were filmed, is seen on North Orleans Street in River North on Dec. 19, 2022. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Customers enjoy lunch outside at Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park in 2014. (Jessica Tezak/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The Italian beef sandwich in 2014 at Portillo's in Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — Every great city deserves an easily identifiable sandwich of its own. Whether it’s the Philadelphia cheesesteak or the New Orleans po’boy, a gut-busting sandwich is a matter of civic pride.

When most people think of Chicago’s sandwich of choice, the first answer is usually the Italian beef sandwich. After all, you can find one in most neighborhoods, and locals love to argue relentlessly about where to find the best. The popularity of the sandwich has only grown recently thanks to “The Bear,” an FX show that follows a fine dining chef who has to return to his family’s Italian beef stand.


But looking through the Tribune’s archives, it’s a bit shocking to find that the Italian beef hasn’t been the obvious sandwich choice for that long. Unlike barbecue, which shows up in the archives all the way back in the 1850s, the Italian beef doesn’t even make an appearance until the 1950s.

Chicagoans were eating sandwiches with beef long before then, though. It’s just that they were either roast beef sandwiches or, more likely, corned beef sandwiches.

As critic Louisa Chu explained well back in 2019, “Chicago is a corned beef town, unlike New York, Los Angeles or Montreal, where they prefer pastrami.”

That was when John P. Harding, also known as “Corned Beef John,” had 12 restaurants downtown serving the dish, including Harding Grill (131 N. Clark St.) and Harding’s Colonial Room (21 S. Wabash Ave.). According to an article from Sept. 22, 1922, Harding “started the craze for the ‘make ’em before your eyes’ corned beef sandwich.” An article from Aug. 15, 1926, went even further, claiming his “chief bid for fame, however, is in having made the corned beef sandwich what it is today.”

The Tribune loved to throw superlatives at Harding. He transformed the Star Theater at 68 W. Madison into a restaurant in 1918, and when he planned to open another downtown restaurant, the paper felt the need to write this: “Mr. Harding four years ago answered in the affirmative the momentous question: ‘Is the corned beef sandwich mightier than the movies.’”

So when did the Italian beef overtake corned beef? The 1920s is when many of the Italian beef origin stories pop up, with both Pasquale Scala and Tony Ferreri mentioned as possibly inventing the dish.

The first clear mention of the Italian beef that I was able to find wasn’t until June 28, 1953. It wasn’t exactly a grand introduction. The very short post, titled “Old Peoples Home Aids Plan Benefit Picnic,” explains how “the ladies auxiliary and men’s league of Villa Scalabrini will hold their second annual picnic at noon next Sunday at the villa in Northlake … Italian beef and sausage sandwiches and spumoni will be served [to] guests.” That’s it.

According to “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia,” the origins of the Italian beef probably weren’t from either Scala or Ferreri, but instead “lie in Italian American home cooking.” In particular, the book points to “so-called ‘peanut weddings’” in the 1920s where the dish was often served because it was affordable and could easily feed a crowd.

As noted above, nothing was mentioned during the time, but on May 11, 1979, the Chicago Italian American Organization did an advertisement for a “‘40s Italian Wedding” fundraiser where you could experience “an authentic 1940s Italian ‘peanut wedding.’” The first food mentioned is the beef sandwich.

The Italian beef pops up occasionally in the 1950s and 1960s, though most often in restaurant ads, like the one on Nov. 14, 1954, for the “grand opening of delivery service” for Barsanti’s Grill at 3404 Lincoln Ave., which specialized in “pizza, spaghetti, ravioli, Italian beef sandwiches, bar-b-q ribs, southern fried chicken and french fried shrimp.” On July 28, 1963, The New Parkette at 105th and Western printed its menu, which shows that an Italian beef sandwich cost 60 cents.

On May 26, 1962, we get what may be the first recipe for the Italian beef from Mary Meade. There’s a lot of tomato paste, which isn’t as common today, but the recipe looks pretty close. Plus it has the first mention of dipping bread in the beef juices: “In the true Italian fashion, the sliced Italian or French bread should be dipped into the stock before being layered with the thin slices of beef.”

But it was not until the 1970s that the Italian beef truly took off with Tribune reporters. On May 17, 1975, in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Charles Leroux visited a number of drive-ins around the city, including Mr. Beef: “They have a wonderfully spicy sausage sandwich [75 cents] and a killer Italian beef sandwich [$1.05].”

Even cats started appreciating the sandwich. In one of the stranger stories I’ve ever come across in the archives, author Mary Daniels wrote on Oct. 6, 1976, about Nick Fischer’s cat that weighed 23 pounds and once “stole an 11-pound turkey.” Then Fischer explained that when he gets a beef sandwich, “I have to get him one, too. Without peppers.”

By Jan. 8, 1979, the Italian beef was apparently so ubiquitous that Phyllis Magida could write this: “Rare is the Chicagoan who doesn’t know to dip pierogi in sour cream, or how to hold a taco, or to demand hot pepper with Italian beef.”

The Italian beef really took off in the 1980s. In a Sept. 26, 1980, article about where to spot celebrities in the city, Barbara Molotsky wrote that Neil Diamond apparently really liked the Italian beef at Al’s. Even fine dining chefs started discussing the sandwich. In an article from Oct. 15, 1982, Gail Bernstein asked chefs where they enjoyed eating after closing time, and multiple chefs mentioned grabbing an Italian beef.

By Sept. 15, 1989, Manuel Galvan felt confident enough to declare that the Italian beef was “Chicago’s sandwich.” That said, the article is more interesting for mentioning that Jay Leno, who at that time didn’t have his own show, brought “a bagful of beefs to ‘Late Night with David Letterman’” when it was taping in Chicago four months before.

This is around the time when Chicago transplants started writing in to complain about how they can’t get a good Italian beef anywhere else.

On Aug. 16, 1990, Edward Agustin from Norcross, Georgia, wrote a “plea for help from a displaced Chicagoan” about how much he missed the “wet mess of sandwich.” On July 25, 2001, Jerry Goodman from Florida said he’d love a recipe for the sandwich. because he really missed those “morsels.”

Finally, on Oct. 12, 2005, there was no doubt about the status of the Italian beef sandwich in Chicago. That’s when the sandwich was included in Bill Daley’s article about “10 Chicago icons.” There the Italian beef shared space with other recognized Chicago food classics like deep-dish pizza and the Chicago hot dog.

Nick Kindelsperger is a former Tribune food critic.

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