When I was growing up in Chicago, I loved these sandwiches. They were sold in restaurants and curbside stands primarily on the south side of the city. I learned the traditional recipe to these from a friend of the Scala family; they’re the ones credited with the invention of this tasty sandwich around the turn of last century.
The traditional method takes about 5 hours and is rather labor intensive. My version actually takes longer; however, using the slow cooker makes the process easier; just set it, and forget it.
Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches
As the story goes: Italian Beef Sandwiches were created over 100 years ago, on the South Side of Chicago in the Italian neighborhoods around the now defunct Stockyards. The classic Chicago Italian Beef Sandwich is a unique, drippy, messy variation on the French Dip Sandwich. It can be found in hundreds of places around the city but rarely can you find it outside of Chicago.
The recipe was popularized by Pasquale Scala, a South Side butcher and sausage maker. During the Depression food was scarce and Scala’s thinly sliced roast beef on a bun with gravy and fried peppers took off.
His family still runs a business that supplies the ingredients to the sandwiches to restaurants and curbside vendors around the Southside of the city.
Gather your ingredients.
Chef’s Tip: I use a chuck roast because it shreds very easily, and tastes good, to boot. Plus it's the traditional cut of beef still used today, by the Scala family.
Add the beef stock and vinegar to a saucepan, and bring to a boil.
Add about 2.5 tablespoons of the dry spices, (don't forget the bay leaf) then reduce the heat and lightly simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Take the remainder of the dry spices, place into an airtight container, and reserve for another use.
Chef's Note: The goal here is not to lose too much liquid, but to infuse the flavors of the spices into the beef stock. A light simmer with hardly any movement in the liquid is all you need. But it's an important step, so don't skip it.
Place the roast into the slow cooker and pour the hot liquid over the roast.
Cook on low for 10 hours.
Chef’s Note: Keep some additional beef broth on hand. If the roast begins to lose too much moisture, add more. As long as the roast is covered in liquid, you're fine.
At the 8-hour mark, remove the beef from the liquid, and discard the bay leaf.
Using a sharp knife, slice the beef, against the grain as thinly as possible, or shred it using two forks; whatever method you choose. In Chicago, I’ve had it served both ways, and both are wonderful.
Return the beef to the liquid in the slow cooker and allow it to continue to cook on low for an additional 2 hours, for a total of 10 hours.
Chef’s Note: If you’re using your slow cooker on high, remove the beef and shred at the 3-hour mark, and then continue to cook for an additional hour, for a total of 4 hours; however, the beef will have a richer flavor if you go low and slow.
Chef’s Tip: If you want it a bit hotter, when you take the beef out to shred, throw in a couple of sliced peppers (your choice), and let them cook with the beef for those final hours.
Serve on some nice toasted hoagie rolls, and add a lot of that wonderful sauce. The bread will soak it up, and it will be divine. In Chicago they say: The wetter, the better" when it comes to Italian Beef Sandwiches.
Chef’s Note: Whatever bread you choose, it’s important that it have “wet” strength, so that it doesn’t fall apart and turn into beef-gravy panade.
Chef’s Note: Additional toppings include: sautéed mushrooms, sliced onions, additional chili peppers; maybe some cheese… go for it.
Serve with some chips, a side salad, or just solo. Oh, and don’t forget to include lot of napkins. Enjoy.
Additional Serving Suggestion: Put the beef over rice, and pour on the sauce... lip-smacking good. The photo is a bit blurred, but it still tasted good.