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Who invented Italian beef, and why can't you get it outside of Chicago?
Feb. 19, 2009

Dear Cecil:

I took a trip last fall, hiking 900 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Virginia. I was only a couple weeks into the trip when I discovered that two of my favorite foods were almost completely nonexistent on the east coast: gyros and Italian beef. Oh, sure, they serve that prepackaged Kronos stuff, but they call it a GY-ro, not a yee-ro. People on the east coast have never heard of a yee-ro. But Italian beef? TOTALLY NONEXISTENT! Philly cheese steak is as close as you'll get. So the question is this: who invented/created Italian beef, and how far has the gospel spread outside Chicago?


Cecil replies:

I hear you, my friend. One of the great shocks of a Chicagoan's life is to discover that Italian beef is unavailable anywhere else in the universe. Few who've tried this tasty sandwich will deny it's one of the foremost benefits of a civilized society. Then to go out in the world and discover no one else has ever heard of it
— I'm telling you, it sets you back. You think: What other inexplicable gaps do these rustics have in their lives? No indoor plumbing? You kill your dinner with a rock?

I knew immediately who to call to get to the bottom of the Italian beef enigma: the folks at Al's, whose flagship beef stand has been a fixture on Taylor Street for decades. I did not, however, speak to the Pacelli family, which pioneered Italian beef more than 70 years ago and still runs the stand today. Rather, I spoke to Dave Howey, head of Chicago Franchise Systems, which bought the rights to Al's in 1999 and is in the process of franchising Al's Beef stores throughout Chicago and eventually around the country. Dave is the guy to talk to for two reasons: (1) He wasn't born into the Italian beef tradition, as it were, but rather discovered the sandwich as a Loyola University student in 1971, got hooked, and today speaks of Italian beef with the fervor of a religious convert; and (2) through his franchising company he's in a unique position to introduce the sandwich to the heathens — thereby placing himself and Italian beef at a historic crossroads.  To put it another way, Jesus founded a nice little religion, but it wouldn't have gotten far without Saint Paul.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I discussed three subjects with Howey: the past, the present, and the future. Let's take these one at a time.

The past. According to Howey, Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli, Sr., invented the Italian beef sandwich in 1938 — or more precisely, that's when they began making the sandwiches for delivery to local factory workers. (I express myself in these cautious terms because multiple parties had a hand in making Italian beef what it is today, many of the families are still around, and these are people I'd just as soon not tick off.) During the Depression, people in the old Italian neighborhoods had come up with the idea of "peanut weddings" — low-budget celebrations held in church basements and such featuring inexpensive fare. Not wishing to dispense with meat altogether, someone had a bright idea: the beef will go a lot farther if we slice it really thin. Add in some Italian spices and crusty bread and you had a first-rate sandwich. Al, Frances, and Chris opened their initial stand in the early 1940s and moved to their present location at Taylor and Aberdeen in the early 60s. Other Italian beef purveyors likewise set up shop in the 40s, many obtaining their beef from Scala Packing Company of Chicago. (Al's, however, makes its own.) The stands, or upscale offshoots thereof, followed their customers to the suburbs as the years wore on, and today you can get an Italian beef pretty much anywhere in metropolitan Chicago. An industry had been born. 

The present. We pause now to inquire: What are the defining characteristics of an Italian beef? You can, after all, go to Nebraska and for all I know Antarctica and obtain a product known as a "French dip," which consists of (1) sliced beef that may be (2) dipped in juice or gravy using a (3) hunk of sliced crusty bread. The uneducated person may figure: OK, it's not called Italian beef, but maybe it's close enough.  Sure, and that yellow-orange crap that comes in the spray cans is cheese, too. After consultation with Howey, I venture to say an authentic Italian beef sandwich consists of the following:

  • Thin slices of beef. Well, duh, but if you compare the paper-thin strata of meat in an Italian beef with the coarse scraps in your typical French dip — please. One bespeaks culinary skill on a par with the ability to boil water. The other is art.

  • Italian spices. These vary with the vendor. We may surmise that most Italian beef recipes contain pepper, garlic, and oregano, but beyond that it seems unwise to speculate —  Al's uses a custom blend of 19 ingredients. In contrast, French dip features what, salt?

  • Crusty bread. Some are of the view that the bread is merely a vehicle for the beef, which to me is like saying all the interior framing does is hold up the house. Clearly the bread is critical, since a properly made Italian beef is moist even if you don't dip it in gravy and you don't want it disintegrating en route to your mouth, but at the same time you don't want the bun on arrival to have the texture of a plank. Al's relies on bread from Gonnella Baking, another well-known Chicago name, whose product combines a soft interior with the requisite crusty crust.  

  • Sweet or hot peppers, dipping in gravy and optional provolone cheese. Here we get into issues of taste and practicality. Aficionados will tell you that at minimum you need sweet peppers, and if you really want Italian beef with both barrels you need full gravy immersion, hence the emphasis on bun strength alluded to above. That said, inasmuch as you have to request peppers, dipping, and cheese, which you'd be smart not to do if you're grabbing a beef before a job interview with the Queen of England in your suit, we can't claim they're core elements. To omit them as a matter of course, however, suggests a certain narrowness of view. I mean, you can get through the essentials of procreation in three minutes if you want to, but what's the point of that? 

The future. Now to the heart of the matter. Why can't you get Italian beef anywhere but Chicago? The simple answer is that the family-owned businesses that created the product were content to serve the local market and saw no need to expand elsewhere. However, this doesn't fully explain things. After all, you can get a pretty fair Philly cheese steak in Chicago, even though Pat's King of Steaks, the Philadelphia establishment that invented the sandwich, remains a relatively nickel-and-dime operation. Clearly, the crucial difference between Italian beef and Philly cheese steaks — and I assure you, I like Philly cheese steaks — is that, whereas any knucklehead can throw some chopped steak, onions, and what have you on the grill and slobber cheese on it, to make a true Italian beef you need precision-crafted materials, preparation of which requires, no disrespect, an IQ of more than 1. Which is to say, if Italian beef is to spread beyond Chicago, fans of the sandwich can't simply expect outlanders to come up with imitations, which would doubtless be pathetic. They need to bring the product to the world. 

Happily, this is now in prospect. Noteworthy developments:

  • Al's Beef is gearing up for expansion. With 20-plus franchises in the Chicago area already, Howey expects the first Al's to open in Phoenix, Arizona, by the end of the year, and has at least five Phoenix Al's in the works. (Lots of ex-Chicagoans live in Arizona.) If that pans out, he has other markets in mind, and in five years hopes to have 100 to 150 Al's outlets open nationwide. One complication: since Gonnella bread isn't available outside Chicago, the out-of-town stores will make their own bread in-house.

  • Lest it be thought that Al's is carrying the ball alone, Portillo's, which also makes a pretty good Italian beef, has opened two locations in southern California. One does of course wonder whether the employees will go native and start tricking out the sandwiches with avocado and tropical fruit. However, one presumes Portillo's emissaries have taken the oath sworn by western pioneers before crossing the alkali flats: if I become delirious, shoot me.

  • Obama is president. True, the pundits, in their narrow way, have mostly focused on the implications this has for the White Sox. Looking at the big picture, however, we see that the real promise of the Obama presidency is the chance to spread local culture abroad, which, while not without its risky aspects, is sure to have a positive impact on the prospects for world peace. Here's Barack in the White House lunchroom with representatives of the Israeli Knesset and Hamas. Bitchy Taylor Street counter personnel slap down Italian beefs in front of the assembled dignitaries — sweet peppers, dipped, with fries. The skeptical Middle Easterners, having obtained assurances that the goods are kosher and cool with the Prophet, toss back their ties and chow down. Silence, then grateful smiles. "Mr. President," one says at last, "we've found something on which we can agree."

— Cecil Adams

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