Who Is Responsible For Inventing Chicago’s Famous Italian Beef?
The Chicago Italian Beef is a unique hyper-local regional favorite. It's definitely one of those "If You Know, You Know" kind of foods.
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone from northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin that has never had one and just as hard pressed to find a decent Italian beef outside of that area. If you ever see an Italian beef on the menu and you don't see anything related to the Bears or Packers on the wall, it's probably a good idea to pass.
It's obviously a delicious sandwich but where did it come from? Who's idea was it to slow roast a cheap cut of beef, slice it thin, and pile it on some bread with spicy vegetables?
A simple google search of "who invented the Chicago Italian beef," will send you to multiple articles like this, this, this, and of course, the Wikipedia article on Italian beefs.
There are a few common threads through all these articles.
The Italian Beef Started As A Wedding Dish For Italian Immigrants In Chicago
Part of the Thrillist article on the subject points out that the dish may have been originated by newly immigrated Italians that were working in Chicago's bustling stockyards.
While many in the beef business claim to have invented the Italian beef, the common ground is that its origins lie in the Italian-American immigrant tradition of the “peanut wedding” prevalent among Italians who immigrated to Chicago in the early 1900s. Because the new immigrants didn’t have much money, wedding receptions would be held in homes and church basements where peanuts and other cheap foods designed to feed as many people as possible were served. This included cuts of beef.
This started many small "catering" operations that would sell beefs from small carts are bring the sandwiches to big functions like weddings.
Al's Beef Was The First Shop To Specialize In The Italian Beef
Al Ferrari was one of those people who began selling Italian beefs after they became popular at Italian weddings. Al went on to open Al's beef, which is still going strong today.
I can personally attest to the greatness of these sandwiches. If you haven't had one, make a trip to Chicago sometime to visit the holy land of Italian beefs.
Al's store opened up in the late 1930s and was the first Chicago restaurant to advertise Italian beefs.
Maybe Al's Wasn't The Inventor Of The Modern Italian Beef
Another thing every article had in common was the fact that no one is really sure who was first to invent or make the Italian beef mainstream in Chicago.
While there is a lot of evidence to support Al's claim, another Chicago staple might have a legitimate claim to being the origin of the Italian beef. That would be Mr. Beef.
Like Al's Beef, Mr. Beef was started by one of those entrepreneurs that saw how successful the sandwiches were at weddings. Mr. Beef was founded by Carl Buonavolanto Jr. and Tony ("Uncle Junior" to the Buonavolantos) Ozzauto and is still going strong today.
Mr. Beef was a favorite of Jay Leno, and he even loaded up David Letterman's desk with a half dozen sandwiches when Letterman did his show from Chicago on a tour during the 80s.
Regardless of who invented, they're delicious and a highlight of our regional cuisine.
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