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Al’s #1 Beef – Chicago, Illinois

Al’s Beef, home of some of Chicago’s most popular Italian beef sandwiches and more

Assume the position!  It’s been called the “Chicago Lean,” the “Italian Stance” and simply “The Stance.”   It’s  the time-tested, traditional art and science of eating Italian beef sandwiches, a Chicago specialty.  Trust me, it’s not the same as eating an ordinary sandwich.  If you don’t follow the process, you’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto your clothing.  Italian beef sandwiches are as messy as they are delicious. 

Some Italian beef sandwich shops don’t even offer seating.  Instead, they provide high, thin counters with or without stools where you’ll park yourself and proceed to assume the position.  I’ll let the professionals take over from here.  Courtesy of Italianbeef.com:

(1)  Put your sandwich on the counter and stand in front of it, with your chest about 12 inches from the edge of the counter
(2)  Lean forward so your chest is at a 45-degree angle to the counter (Note: if you’€™re wearing a tie, make sure it’s tucked inside your shirt)
(3)  Pick up your sandwich, resting your elbows on the counter
(4)  Angle the sandwich at a 45-degree angle to the counter, with the top end towards your mouth. (Imagine making a triangle: the counter is the bottom, your head and chest are one side, the sandwich is another)
(5) Eat and enjoy. For best results, keep the sandwich wrapped in the wax paper it most likely came in, unwrapping it as you go.

The Italian Stance: the only way to eat an Italian beef sandwich

There is no one single version of truth as to who invented the Italian beef sandwich.  One of the claimants to being its progenitor is Al’s #1 Beef which first opened in 1938.  According to the founding family, the Italian beef sandwich was born out of necessity.  Needing to stretch a small amount of food a long way for Italian weddings, meat was sliced as thinly as possible and inserted between bread with giardiniera.  Chicago Sun-Times dining critic Pat Bruno asserts that the Italian beef sandwich is the scion of the French Dip sandwich, introduced in Los Angeles in 1918.

Whether or not Al’s #1 Beef is the originator of the Italian beef sandwich, one thing’s for certain.  It’s probably the most famous restaurant in the Windy City to serve Italian beef sandwiches.  Al’s #1 Beef has also earned more accolades than any competitor.  In nationally televised one-on-one competition (Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” versus the Food Network’s “Food Feuds.“) against Mr. Beef, Al’s was selected as the best Italian beef sandwich in the city.  Moreover, Al’s has been featured as Esquire magazine’s picks for “best sandwich in America.”  In 2012, Al’s Italian beef sandwich was named the Midwest’s Best Sandwich according to the Travel Channel’s show, Best Sandwich in America.

Italian beef-sausage combo

Nationwide networks and publications, however, don’t speak for all Chicagoans.  If you think Chicago’s politics are a contentious topic, try debating which restaurant serves up the city’s best Italian Beef Sandwich.  Opinions don’t necessarily vary that widely as there are just a handful of Italian beef restaurants which have truly distinguished themselves over the years. It’s in the intensity of the debate with which you might be surprised. Each of the anointed restaurants has its vocal supporters and each has its detractors and some in either party won’t hesitate to explain (with fisticuffs if necessary) why their choice is the best and yours is not.

Perhaps in an attempt to achieve a greater consensus, Al’s #1 Beef has become the most ubiquitous Italian beef presence in the Chicago area and has started to expand nationwide.  In addition to thirteen Chicago area restaurants, current franchise locations can be found in Athens, Georgia; Scottsdale, Arizona; and soon in Las Vegas, Nevada and San Jose, California.  My most recent visit to Al’s was at the East Jackson Street location a few blocks from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile where, in addition to the long, thin counters, you can actually find seating.  Take a seat and eat, if you dare!

Hand-cut fries with blue cheese crumbles

Now for Gil’s verdict.  First, in the interest of full disclosure, my very favorite Italian beef sandwich in the universe is at Johnnie’s Beef.  None of the dozen or so other proprietors of Italian beef I’ve sampled in the Chicago area come close.  Al’s #1 Beef isn’t in the top five.  Here’s why.  I always ask for a “wet” sandwich, meaning it’s momentarily baptized in a spicy au jus style gravy.  No matter how substantial the bread, the moistness almost immediately begins to disintegrate the bread.  The bread used at Al’s is the wimpiest I’ve seen, soon resembling shards of bread swimming in a soup.  Al’s uses a much more assertive spice mix to create its au jus than other Italian beef restaurants.  It’s not my favorite.  Neither is the giardiniera which is a bit overwhelmed by a spicy red pepper kick.  The giardiniera tends to be mushy. 

My friend Bill Resnik, who had never experienced an Italian beef sandwich in Chicago, agreed with me that the Italian beef in Albuquerque’s own Pizza 9 is actually better than the Italian beef at Al’s #1.  That’s as much a validation of Pizza 9 as it is an indictment of Al’s.  If there is one saving grace about Al’s, it’s the hand-cut fries if you order them with blue cheese crumbles.

Al’s Beef
28 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 461-9292
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 6 September 2012
# of VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Italian Beef-Sausage Combo, Fries with Blue Cheese Crumbles

Al's #1 Italian Beef on Urbanspoon

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