July 22nd, 2014 | MATTHEW KORFHAGE Food & Drink | Posted In: The 50 Plates

Illinois Italian Beef: Southsiiiidddeee!!

The 50 Plates tour continues with the true spirit of Chicago's Little Italy

bridgecity2
Summer is road-trip season, so we're taking a culinary tour of America. But because Portland is a city of immigrants from other states, we don't have to leave town to do it. We're traveling to 50 Portland restaurants to try one distinctive food from each state. Our 50 Plates tour continues with the almighty Italian beef from Illinois, which joined the union on December 3, 1818.

The state: Ah, Illinois. It is the most joyfully, unashamedly corrupt Blue State in America—from the Daley dynasty to Rod "Get Yer Elections Here" Blagojevich to Dan "Mail Fraud" Rostenkowski. I miss it so much. Home to Chicago, where snowplow signs go up at 11 pm and the tow truck comes at 5 am, and which remains the only city where a policeman has offered to beat somebody up for me. ("Because that's what we do best," the cop told me. The guy they were going to beat up had sucker-headbutted me in the face, after threatening to assault one of my friends.) Home to East Saint Louis, where the median income is $11,000 (on the books!) but the police all drive luxury SUVs. God Bless Illinois. And God Bless America. 

The food:
Sure, Chicago's got the biggest Polish population outside of Warsaw, but that mostly manifests as bars named Zimne Piwo ("cold beer"), filled with big dudes who know the names of the entire offensive line but couldn't give two shits about the quarterback. But the Chicago Red Hot or Vienna Beef hot dog is nowhere near as distinctive as the city's Italian fare: the deep-dish pizza or, especially, the Italian Beef, a sandwich so singularly sloppy there's a specific "Italian Stance" you have to use to eat it: hunched forward over the sidewalk, so the juices don't fall on your necktie. What is it? Thin-sliced roast beef, sauteed with Italian spices, heated in a beef broth (called "gravy" or "au jus", though technically it is neither) made from meat drippings and even more spices. You scoop the dripping meat out of the jus into chewy Italian bread, and top it with a wealth of Chicago's signature giardiniera, a mess of hot pickled veggies mix similar to Mezzetta hot mix. (Some order sweet peppers instead, but who talks to such people?) Then the entire sandwich is dunked in or doused in the gravy. That's why the bread has to be chewy. It has to withstand the wetness.  If you ask for wet or juicy, the damn thing's a swimming pool. And it is wonderful. The FDA recommends eating no more than one a year.

Other dishes considered and rejected: Chicago deep dish pizza (well-covered, and we don't really have a great one in Portland), Chicago thin "cracker-crust" pizza (who cares!), Chicago hot dog (R.I.P. Wayne's Chicago Red Hots), Chicken Vesuvio, Twinkies, Crackerjacks, Lemonheads, all things McDonald's, the Springfield horseshoe sandwich.


Get it from: The classic answer is Michael's Italian Beef (
1111 SE Sandy Blvd., 230-1899, michaelsitalianbeef.com), which is deeply Chicago in that it it is indeed owned by a guy named Michael, whom you pretty much get to know within the first two minutes in the door because he's always talking about something, from politics (red state!) to the imagination of children (he's in favor!).  Seriously, the place is a landmark in its own way. 

 The Italian Beef sandwich at Michael's


 Kids' art on Michael's wall


Nonetheless, Woodstock's Bridge City Pizza (5412 SE Woodstock Blvd, 777-4992, bridgecitypizza.com) makes what might be the best Italian Beef in town right now, along with Chicago thin-crust pies. The sandwich comes wetter than an otter's pocket, chock-full of meat and jus that they prep for days, from sauté to broth to crock pot. The house giardiniera, sadly—like that at Michael's, for that matter—is less hot than I'd like, but it's plentiful. And the insanely glutenous bread was spot on and unbroken. (The gravy managed to seep through and split the bread at Michael's—the rare occasion I'd fault bread for not being rubbery enough) A complaint, however. The au jus at Bridge City is also served on the side, which is silly. It ain't a French Dip. It's Italian Beef!





Click on the map to see each state's distinctive food and where to get it in Portland.

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