Epic food rivalries — they’re some of the most fun food quests to explore. After recently addressing the question of whose Philly cheesesteak is superior, Pat’s or Geno’s, it was time for another investigation, this one in Chicago: Mr. Beef versus Al’s #1 Italian Beef. Last March, the Travel Channel’s Food Wars series chronicled a tale of the beef between these two Chi-town institutions. Mr. Beef won, but let’s face it, tasting is believing.
Italian Beef is as traditional to Chicago as deep dish pizza or the Chicago hot dog. While unique, it’s also reminiscent of other regional sandwiches. For one, the thinly-sliced beef mimics the Philly cheesesteak. The marinated meat also echoes Philly’s less celebrated roast Italian pork.
Al’s Beef dips the bread in jus as is de rigeur at the French Dip in Los Angeles. Chicago’s Italian beef is not typically covered with cheese, but rather with giardiniera, an Italian Chicago condiment/antipasto (pickled cauliflower, carrots, celery, zucchini, onions and peppers). But for one missing ingredient — olives-it’s a ringer for the beloved olive spread on the muffalettas at Central Grocery in New Orleans. In fact, the Italian sub at J.P. Graziano’s Grocery was dubbed the Mr. G Special; its combination of artichoke, truffle oil, variety of cold cuts, and giardiniera was even closer in flavor to the muffaletta.
Enough — on to the face-off.
Italian Beef with extra giardiniera at Mr. Beef on “Mr. Beef Blvd.”
Mr. Beef and Al’s Beef are both are jumping on the empire expansion franchising bandwagon. Both are actively offering franchises and have multiple locations (the Utah franchisee was training at Mr. Beef on this visit). Mr. Beef is more of a deli with absolutely no décor save the hundreds of photos of celebrities who swear allegiance to it. With good reason — the beef was perfect. Thinly sliced and marinated in its own juices.
The move is to ask for extra giardiniera to assure spicy crunch in each bite. Rather than a “combo,” which combines beef with Italian sausage, get a sausage sandwich. It could support its own franchise.
Al’s Beef is a slicker operation. The owner, Christopher Pacelli, bragged that he recently fulfilled a customer’s dying wish to have a dipped hot Al’s Beef sandwich shipped to his death bed in LA (the guy’s wish for a topless women to serve it to him Al said he’d have to figure out for himself). This sandwich was also great, but the amount of grease from the dip and giardiniera was enough to shame British Petroleum. The fries were unbelievably good, great for sopping up drippings. Mr. Beef was indeed the clear winner.
For a palate cleanser your best bet is to get an Italian lemonade from Mario’s across the street. If Snapple’s lemonade is made from the best stuff on Earth then Mario’s is made with the best stuff in the universe. The peach lemonade ices served with spoon and straw would give the Lemon Ice King of Corona a run for his money.
Of course, if you ask a Chicagoan “where’s the beef?” you’ll get at least 20 other recommendations for Italian beef besides Al’s and Mr. Beef.