Friday, August 10, 2012

Al's #1 Italian Beef

Chicago is a veritable treasure chest of regional specialties. Pan pizza, polish sausage, chicken vesuvio, shrimp de jonghe, and Chicago hot dogs famously "dragged through the garden." How will I taste them  all?
I started my quest to know Chicago's famous dishes with a classic, a familiar city stand-by, an old-time favorite now a chain of stands across the city and soon to open in Las Vegas and San Jose: Al's Italian Beef. The classic South-side Chicago sandwich tops thinly sliced roast beef, dipped in thin beef juice, with either sweet peppers or hot giardiniera. a spicy mix of peppers, carrots. cauliflower, celery, olives and onions. Al's is a popular choice and often shows up on favorites lists or travel TV shows but Chicago's neighborhoods boast enough choices for every cop, deliveryman, UPS driver, and hungry citizen to claim his favorite haunt. The friendly debates rages on in newspapers, magazines and local blogs.
I stepped up to the counter and ordered a "'lil' beef," wet and sweet --  a 4" roll filled with shaved beef, homemade sweet peppers, and for good measure a slice of provolone cheese. The whole sandwich is then dipped in more "juice." It's nearly impossible to eat your sandwich without wearing a good bit of that tasty juice. It's not elegant food. But, the taste is so rich, so unique, so perfect a combination with the piquant peppers that after one bite I suddenly understood why the diaspora of former Chicagoans so often crave a taste of home.
Italian beef -- "it's why you're here," declares Al's menu board. It's why I'll be back.

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