The Food Hacker

Portillo’s Italian Beef

· The easiest way to make Chicago's favorite sandwich ·

December 1, 2017 11 Comments

Most major cities in the U.S. have a sandwich that locals proudly claim as their own. For Chicagoans that sandwich is the Italian Beef.

Thin-sliced roast beef is dunked in herbed gravy to soak up the flavor, then it’s stacked on a warm Italian sandwich roll and topped with sweet peppers or spicy hot Giardiniera. The recipe may seem like a simple one, but if any component of this iconic sandwich isn’t faithful to the Chi-Town original, true beef fanatics will cry “foul” quicker than bleacher bums at Wrigley field.

There are many good Italian Beefs to be had in Chicago. Great beefs are produced every day in small corner joints with names like Bubba’s, Johnnie’s, Jay’s, Tony’s, Pop’s and Mr. Beef. And there are top level chains with beefs so good and business so robust that they have exploded into multiple locations across the city, and even into other states. Al’s Beef, Buono Beef, and Portillo’s are such superstars.

You’ll get truly fantastic Italian beefs at any of these popular restaurants, and any of them would be great hacks. But since Portillo’s is the largest, with 41 locations across the country and more to come, that’s the Italian beef sandwich I’ll be hacking here today.

And this is the easiest method you’ll find. You won’t need to spend hours roasting meat, making scratch gravy, and then trying to slice the beef thin enough by hand without losing a fingertip. I’ve got a gravy hack for you that shortens the process considerably, and we’ll let your deli clerk handle the sharp blades.

So let’s get into it.

We’ll start with the rolls…

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

A good sandwich is only as good as the roll it’s built on.

Portillo’s uses Turano rolls which are tough enough to withstand some heavy gravy pours and dunks. If you can’t find Turano, look for Gonnella rolls which are nearly identical. You can also use Amoroso rolls from Philadelphia which are longer, softer, and typically used for cheesesteak sandwiches (a.k.a Philly’s favorite sandwich). They don’t hold up as well to liquid as the other rolls, but they taste great.

If you can’t track any of these down, use the chewiest French rolls you can find.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

As important as the roll is what goes into your roll. Portillo’s uses thinly-sliced bottom round roast beef, which is the tougher of the two (top and bottom) back end round cuts.

For this hack you’ll need to get freshly sliced roast beef from your deli. It will likely be from top round cuts (as these are), which means it will be more tender than the bottom round used at the beef shops, and that’s a good thing. Get your beef in any of these these preparations: regular roast beef (or Angus),  London broil, or Italian-seasoned beef.  They all work fine, but the Angus roast beef is the best of the bunch.

Whatever you decide to get, you’ll want a pound of it.

And you’ll want it sliced like this…

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Tell your deli clerk to slice it thin. As thin as possible. When the beef is thin it stays tender and you can use more slices on the sandwich. Which means the meat holds more gravy. Which means you get a more flavorful sandwich. Which means more happy mouths.

If the beef starts to tear and won’t slice into whole clean slices, have your deli clerk go a little thicker until the slices come out clean.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

It’s not an Italian beef without the added burst of flavor that comes from the peppers on top.

Marconi brand hot Italian giardiniera is a spicy blend of pickled vegetables that includes peppers, carrots, celery and cauliflower in an oily brine. Marconi is the brand Portillo’s uses, but you can use any brand you prefer, including milder varieties. Giardiniera is the most popular topping and it’s the way I roll, but it’s pretty spicy stuff and you may want something milder.

In that case, find or make some sweet peppers. The sweet peppers can be prepared by roasting sweet bell peppers and adding a little vinegar to them, or you can use a canned product.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Let’s begin cooking with a magic trick.

We want to make beef gravy that tastes like it was created in the traditional time-sucking method usually requiring hours of roasting and reducing. Rendered fat is a important component of long-form beef gravy that is created as the beef cooks over several hours. We do want fat, but we want it quick.

To do that we’ll turn these solid beef fat trimmings (a.k.a. suet) into liquid fat (a.k.a. tallow) in the quickest way possible.

Get some fat trimmings from your butcher (cheap!) or trim them from uncooked beef steaks and roasts. You can do this over time and save the trimmings in your freezer. You only need 1/4 pound for this.

You can’t beat a food processor for chopping up the fat into little bits. Just be sure your fat trimmings are cold before they go in to help get it chopped into small pieces.

Put the fat in your freezer for 1/2 hour if you want to chill it quick.

Chop the fat until it looks like this.

If you don’t have a food processor, you can chop the fat by hand with a knife. Your pieces won’t be as small, and the cooking will take longer, but the fat will still render.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Now cook this down, stirring often.

It’ll crackle and pop, and soon you’ll have enough fat for the gravy.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Separate the fat from the browned bits. This is where your strainer comes in handy.

Save the fat for the gravy and toss out the browned bits.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Now that have our fat, we need to combine all of the ingredients for the gravy in a saucepan of water. The gravy is made with two large Knorr bouillon cubes, Kitchen Bouquet for color, oregano, salt, pepper, garlic, cayenne, MSG (not bad for you), some lemon juice (not shown) and 3 tablespoons of the rendered fat.

These ingredients are what you find in the real gravy as listed on the plastic tub it comes in. I know this because Portillo’s ships frozen Italian beef kits, which I ordered; and the law requires ingredients to be printed on the package when sold as a shipped retail product. I found that most other Portillo’s beef copycats include random ingredients like Worcestershire sauce, basil, and salad dressing mix (?), while leaving out essential additions like ground cayenne or umami components that are listed right on the package.

Mix all this together, cook for 5 minutes, and you’re done. That’s it. You won’t believe how good it is.

Now preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

When you’re ready to build each sandwich, warm the rolls in the hot oven for 3 to 4 minutes.

This will make them crispy on the outside and warm in the middle.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

While the bread is warming up give your beef a hot gravy Jacuzzi bath. First, be sure your gravy is not boiling. It should be just below boiling (around 180 degrees is good) so that the beef doesn’t toughen as it soaks.

Separate the slices of beef and add them to the gravy for 2 minutes.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Now we build it.

Use tongs to add the beef into the sandwich roll. Don’t let the gravy drip off. You want the beef wet and flavorful. We’ll also add more gravy at the end.

Some people like the whole sandwich dunked in the gravy. Now’s the time to do that. Use tongs and dunk it real quick if you decide to go for it.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Now add some peppers on top. Oh, that’s nice.

I can practically smell Lake Michigan.

Portillo's Italian Beef copycat recipe by Todd Wilbur

Finish up your masterpiece Italian beef sandwich with more gravy over the top, and dig in.

Chicago is now in your house.

Make restaurant-style dishes at home

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4.8 from 5 votes
Portillo's Italian Beef Hack
Hustle
15 mins
Hang
15 mins
Total Time
30 mins
 

Most major cities in the U.S. have a sandwich that locals proudly claim as their own. For Chicagoans that sandwich is the Italian Beef. Thin-sliced roast beef is dunked in herbed gravy to soak up the flavor, then it's stacked on a warm Italian sandwich roll and topped with sweet peppers or spicy hot Giardiniera. The recipe may seem like a simple one, but if any component of this iconic sandwich isn't faithful to the Chi-Town original, true beef fanatics will cry "foul" quicker than bleacher bums at Wrigley field.

Servings: 4
By: Todd Wilbur
Get This
Gravy
  • 1/4 pound beef fat trimmings
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 Knorr beef bouillon cubes (double-size cubes, or use 4 standard size)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Kitchen Bouquet Browning & Seasoning Sauce
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • Pinch of MSG
Rolls and Beef
  • 4 Turano, Gonnella, or Amoroso sandwich rolls
  • 1 pound roast beef, London broil or Italian style roast beef, sliced very thin
Optional Topping
  • Marconi hot giardiniera --or--
  • Cooked sweet peppers
Do This
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Render the beef fat by chopping it into small bits (about the size of peas) with a food processor. Be sure the fat is very cold--it will chop better. If you don't have a food processor, you can chop the fat by hand. Use a sharp knife and cut it as small as you can. Heat up the fat in a sauté pan over medium heat until the bits are browned. Strain the solids from the fat and measure 1/4 cup of fat for the gravy.
  3. Make the beef gravy by combining all of the ingredients, including the beef fat, in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the mixture begins to boil reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, then turn the heat to low.
  4. Make the sandwiches by heating up the rolls in the hot oven for 3 minutes.
  5. For each sandwich, drop 1/4 pound of sliced beef (separate the slices) into the gravy for 2 minutes. Make sure the gravy isn't boiling. It should be around 180 degrees F. After the beef has soaked in the gravy, use tongs to arrange the beef on a warmed sandwich roll and top with your choice of hot giardiniera or sweet peppers. Or both. Spoon on some extra gravy just before serving.
December 15, 2017

11 Comments

  1. Reply

    George Hamilton

    December 5, 2018

    I’m going to hack your hack. In California I’ve been BBQing Tri Tips since I was first learning to cook. You may need to ask for them in some areas but all cows have the same muscles. Generally I buy untrimmed multi packs when they’re on sale and freeze some of them. Often make Philly Cheese Steak out of left over meat. Today i was craving Italian Beef but the only place that made them here has closed. Trimmed the cooked fat(already seasoned with salt pepper and garlic powder) and chopped in food processor as you suggest. Got a little more than 1/4 cup of rendered fat. So I’ll let you know how it turns out. By the way, in my opinion, three cooking essentials are Food processor(got mine for around $40 at Home Depot), Slicer(mine is a Krups. Less than $100 and I got about 75 slices from 1-1/2 pounds of cooked beef) and a vacuum food storage to prepare food for freezing(around $135 at Costco).

  2. Reply

    Mike

    November 7, 2018

    Does it have that unique smell & taste that Portillos has over others (Als, etc..)?? I haven’t been able to isolate the spice that makes it different than other Chicago beefs.

    • Reply

      Todd Wilbur

      November 8, 2018

      Try it and let me know

  3. Reply

    Melody Cooke

    September 17, 2018

    This was a HUGE hit at our football watch party last night and it was the easiest to make!! The hardest part was finding the bread and hot peppers(I ended up using french rolls from the grocery store, and found Giardiniera peppers at an Italian deli in the next town). I doubled the recipe and had so much extra gravy that I froze it to reuse for another time. There were small pieces of Roast Beef left from the dunks, which Im sure will make the gravy extra delicious for next time! Thanks for sharing this recipe!!!

  4. Reply

    Sarah

    August 8, 2018

    Quick Question: how far in advance can I make the beef and peppers part?

    • Reply

      Todd Wilbur

      August 13, 2018

      Make the gravy and peppers a day or two in advance if you like. When you are ready to build sandwiches, heat up the gravy and rolls, then dunk the beef, stack and serve.

  5. Reply

    CHelsea

    May 13, 2018

    Just Made this tonight and fell in love!!! Doubled the recipe and it turned out great with my onion rings and shake ( my Norm at Portillos)

  6. Reply

    Kris Hanson

    May 10, 2018

    Incredibly delicious! I am amazed! I live in Northern Minnesota and several hours away from the wonderful Portillo’s. When we left the Chicago area, it was a sad goodbye to these yummy sandwiches. Until now! I have some Turano bread in my freezer. This is as close as to the real deal with the freshly baked Turano bread, Portillo Beef Sandwiches as you can get. I can’t wait to serve them to my family and friends. Salute!

  7. Reply

    Christina

    February 28, 2018

    Thank you for this!

  8. Reply

    Ray

    December 18, 2017

    Love Portillo’s. Now I can make it at home. 🙂 I had even gone out and bought a deli slicer just to make my own Italian beef sandwiches. There use to be a food truck here in DC that served them. Now I make them.

  9. Reply

    Deb

    December 7, 2017

    These instructions are picture perfect! Thanks! Off to the store I go!

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