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…
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.
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 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…
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.
It’s not 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.
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 an 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 quickly.
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.
Now cook this down, stirring often.
It’ll crackle and pop, and soon you’ll have enough fat for the gravy.
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.
Now that we 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.
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.
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.
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.
Now add some peppers on top. Oh, that’s nice.
I can practically smell Lake Michigan.
Finish up your masterpiece Italian beef sandwich with more gravy over the top, and dig in.
Chicago is now in your house.
— Todd Wilbur, The Food Hacker
What other famous foods can be made at home? I’ve created recipes for over 1,100 iconic foods at TopSecretRecipes.com. See if I cloned your favorites here.
Portillo's Italian Beef Hack
- 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
- Marconi hot giardiniera --or--
- Cooked sweet peppers
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
- 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.
- 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.
- Make the sandwiches by heating up the rolls in the hot oven for 3 minutes.
- 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.
Thanks for this Todd.
I grew up in Addison Illinois and was friends with the Portillo’s kids. (1973). I’ve eaten their fare since they had a very small place on Lake street. ( Wish I was old enough to go to the “Dog House” on North Ave. in the late 60’s. Portillo’s has a restaurant now on that site. (Iconic)) I remember having wonderful beef sandwiches and beer. Your recipe has nailed it. Thank You!
Just WOW. I’m not a Chicagoan but lived there for 2 years and would frequent all the Italian sandwich places (Portillos my fave). I love how this recipe takes you step by step, including explaining all the bread differences! I made this for Xmas day for my family and everyone loved it. The gravy recipe seemed intimidating at first but I ended up getting all the ingredients (never have used gravy master before) and trusted the process (initially I thought that I could use the leftover bacon fat I had that morning but decided not to as I thought it would change the overall flavor profile). I doubled the gravy recipe and saved the rest and whenever we want to have a plain Italian beef sandwich I have my reserve. For the beef, i just asked the deli to cut it as thin as they could (it wasn’t paper thin) but it still worked well. Thank you so much for crafting this recipe and sharing it with us!!
If you use bouillon cubes do you really need to add more MSG? I use a carton of beef broth plus a tsp of beef bouillon and a cup of water. A pepperoncini is a nice touch, too.
I grew up in Chicagoland, eating Italian beef as early as the mid-60s at Carm’s and then at Taylor Street while attending UofI at Chicago Circle Campus. I left Chicago but never lost my love for combos. I’ve tried this recipe numerous times and it’s pretty good. I treated my kids and grandkids to Portillo’s last night. So, I had the real thing shipped to us.
I taste compared this gravy recipe to the real thing. It’s close. I then tried again making a few adjustments and now it’s very, very close. First of all, do not use bouillon cubes. Instead, use Better Than Bouillon beef concentrate (it comes in a jar), 1-1/2 teaspoons per cup of water. Tasting back and forth between my mix and the real gravy, the differences are small. I haven’t tried it yet, but the Portillos tastes like the fat was browned releasing a caramelized flavor. That’s my next effort.
The biggest remaining challenge is the meat. Portillos slices the meat paper thin. I need to get my modest slicer to get closer to that thin. I’m thinking the meat needs to be very cold and stiff. Does that make sense? Suggestions?
Just made this for dinner tonight and it was on point! My hubby’s from Milwaukee and have had Chicago beef all his life…I spent 20 years in LA where we have Philippe’s and also Portillo’s later on…this recipe exceeded our expectations! So great to be able to enjoy Italian beef sandwiches whenever we want now. It’s inspired me to roast my own beef and get a meat slicer since the roast beef we got from Whole Foods was still to thick for our liking. Instead of the full 2 minutes in the gravy, we did quick dips and placed them into the roll…topped with the Marconi and it was *chef’s kiss* 🙂
Hi, the recipe only indicate sweet peppers. What type of sweet pepper are you referring to? It’s green in the pic but I know Portillo’s doesn’t use green bell pepper in the giardiniera
If you knew anything about Portillo’s, you’d know the sweet peppers are cooked in the beef fat rendered juice until soft and put on the sandwich. Gardiniera, which does include green peppers, is often served on the side.
Hi. After reading your recipe several times, I’m still not seeing what happens with the 400 degree oven. I assume the beef goes into the oven, but for how long? 15 minutes?? Covered, not covered? The instructions speak only of the gravy making and sandwich assembly.
The oven is used to heat only the Rolls up. This will warm them up. Makes them crispy on the outside. The thin meat slices just get put into the gravy and warmed for 2 minutes.
Thanks so much for this recipe! My Italian, Chicago-raised mom loves Italian Beef, so I will be serving these on Mother’s Day. Living in Naperville I was able to easily find all the ingredients, but I think my new Ninja Foodi multi cooker will be the star of the show here, as it does sous vide, so I can hold the gravy at exactly 180 degrees with no effort at all.
This was the best!!! I think it tastes like it! I had to substituted some things but I researched online what I could replace with certain things I didn’t have and it turned out fabulous!!! I’ll be making this more. Soo easy too!!
I am so very very happy! I was born and raised in the Chicago area and you just can’t beat a sloppy wet Luke’s Italian beef or the great local Chicago pizza. I got married and moved to Indiana, Minnesota & Ohio over the past 27 years. You just can’t find anything close to Authentic Chicago beef & za. I’ve learned to make a good pizza (the key ingredient is fennel in the sausage), but I have never found a satisfying recipe for beef until now. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!! I followed your recipe to the letter and it was Fabulous 👌 My husband said it was the best he ever had.
Haven’t tried it yet but it looks delish. Was wondering for a super bowl party if i should make a crockpot full gravy and just float a few pounds of meat in it for self service, quick and easy game time snack? I was thinking smaller ciabatta rolls similar texture, but more bite sized.
I’m originally born & raised in Naperville, but for nearly the last 50 years, have lived in a small Victorian village in Arkansas, where until recently, nearly 83% of the locals were from the Chicago area. (Mostly due to an influx of new residents during the 70’s & 80’s.) We have an unwritten local law: if you’ve been back to the Chicago area, you may NOT re-enter our town without a big box of Portillos to share!!
Your recipe hack will make things a lot easier now…lol! Thanks Todd!
4.5 stars my friend. Added a tad of fennel which made it a 5 star.
Can you freeze the beef gravy after use?
Just made this and the au jus was quite good. The rendered fat is key. Highly recommend saving the fat from other meats for future use. The meat counter at our local grocery store only makes suet available when the butcher is currently cutting beef. Once the suet hits the bucket it’s considered contaminated and is no longer available to the customer. So plan ahead.
Can you use store bought beef tallow instead of making your own beef fat? Haven’t made this yet but I’m going to very soon.
Todd, let me first say that this hack looks great and I can’t wait to make it! Secondly, I really appreciate you getting right to the point and not sharing your entire life story as so many others do on Pinterest and other sites. Your bits of humor added in are appreciated as well. Have a great day…it’s time for me to make a sandwich!
Thanks, man! Hope you dig it.
Fantastic gravy! I heaped on the Marconi hot giardiniera and it was perfect. Maybe if I used sweet roasted peppers, I would add a little vinegar or marinate the peppers in vinegar. I trimmed clean my beef the night before and used a little bit of a simple prime rib rub (salt, pepper and garlic powder) the night before. I sliced it with a freshly sharpened knife during the simmering phase. The only change I’d personally recommend, is to simplify the preparation of the suet. I cut and froze the 4 oz. hunk of suet (4.4oz actually measured afterwards) then shave and dice with a sharp large knife. I rendered 1/3+ cup but used the recipe’s 1/4 cup. Clean up is significantly easier, as I used this method other times.
Seriously, thank you for this keeper
Hey there! Family is from Chicago and we can’t wait to try this. Johnnie’s is our favorite, but Portillo’s is next. Can I ask for some more details on how to make the sweet peppers? I get roasting the peppers, but what exactly do we do with them we after?
Hi Mallory. I’m from Chicago too. The roasted green peppers go on top after you assembled the sandwich. Personally, I steam/saute them in just a tad of olive oil until they are really limp. Just because that’s how I always remember them! I know this one guy that I grew up eating at would just keep them simmering in the safe broth but a se[erate container. He also did “French Dips” by just dunking the bread in the juice for ten cents. THAT tells you how old I am! HA! Hope that answers your question? Of course, you can actually roast them in the oven two and you sounded like you were familiar with that method.
Thanks Susan! I knew they go on top of the sandwich, my order is always a sweet, juicy beef anywhere I go. I was curious because the post talks about putting some vinegar on them after and I guess I was curious for more details. I feel like the peppers have more on them than leaving them plain, but I guess I’ll give it a try plain next time. When we order from Portillo’s, they always come in a container full of liquid. Wonder what the secret ingredient is 🙂
You know, they might put vinegar in it! Next time I’m in Chicago I’ll pay attention to the peppers!
I grew up in Chicago and cut my teeth on Carm’s combo beefs on Roosevelt Rd. I’ve lived in the west now for many years and kept looking for an alternative to shipping Portillo’s beefs. I roasted my own top round beef using an internet recipe in which the beef is rubbed in oil and then salt, pepper, oregano, basil, rosemary, marjoram and thyme. I roasted the beef for 20 minutes at 500 and then at 300 until medium rare. I chilled the meat before slicing.
But that was the easy part. The gravy – that’s the critical element. I had one tub of Portillo’s gravy in the freezer. I compared your recipe to the real Portillo’s and served the beef to my son and grandkids who all love Italian beefs. Your recipe is really quite close. We all thought the Portillo’s was a bit richer and a bit spicier. After blending in the drippings from the beef roasting pan and adding a bit more cayenne to your recipe, the two versions were incredibly close and equally liked by everyone.
HUGE kudos to you!! I will still look forward to my occasional visits to Chicago and eating a Portillo’s, but appreciate having a worthy substitute here at home.
I just tried this last night and was SO happy!!! I grew up in Chicago but now live in Northern Michigan and crave the sandwiches. I followed it to the letter and if memory serves me, it’s damn close. The disappointing factor is not having the bread here. We do have a handful of bread bakery’s and used theirs but it’s not the same.
I wish they’d let us ship the bread in….
Thank you for sharing this with all of us! It’s a Chicagoan fix!
FYI…you can order the rolls online (just Google it). The only problem is that you have to order them in bulk.
Thanks Sanjay! I’ll check it out. I also heard Aldi’s might have it so I’m heading there too.
Thanks for your help.
Best of luck. Unfortunately, my Aldi (in Charlotte, NC) does not stock them.
I also lived in Chicago for many years but now I’m back to being a Yooper! I miss Italian beef sandwiches! I just found out that they have Turano rolls at GFS (Gordon Food Service) in the frozen section.
Excellent recipe!!! Turned out great! I live just outside of Chicago and eat Portillo’s all the time and this is nearly identical. The seasoned fat is the key. For true authenticity every good beef joint uses Turano or Gonella 3 foot long loaves and slices them into individual sandwich lengths. I know it doesn’t sound like a big difference but the cut rolls are far superior to the individually made ones. I’m guessing they’re probably tough to get outside of the Chicago area though. Amaroso, while IMO are the absolute best for Philly’s they are NOT good for Chicago beef sandwiches. Keep up the great work, awesome site, so glad I found it!!
I cant find the Turano rolls would you suggest Bolillo rolls or Ciabatta rolls or would neither of these be satisfactory ?
If you can’t find Turano, use your favorite local rolls. A fresh Ciabatta would work fine.
I must have missed the procedure on preparing the cooked green peppers. Please elaborate.
Thanks Todd, can I ask where you find the Turano rolls i’m located about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nv. in Kingman, Az. none of our 3 Supermarkets carry them was just wondering where you find yours or if you make your own?
I found mine at an independent market in Vegas called Glazier’s, which is now Smith’s so they no longer carry them. But there are other rolls you can use, wherever you live. Find sandwich rolls that look similar to the photo on the blog. Gonnella and Amoroso will also work, or any somewhat chewy sandwich roll. They should have a bite to them so that they hold up under the gravy.
Aldi carries Turano breads
We have found the Turano rolls in northeastern Connecticut is a warehouse club called BJ’s. Like Costco or Sam’s. The website for the brand of rolls may have locations where their products are sold. Good luck!
Hubby has used this recipe and it satisfies our Italian beef cravings. He grew up in the Chicago area and typically ate at Flip’s or Portillo’s. He swears by this recipe.
Thank you! I’ll check it out!
How did you cook the pre-sliced beef?
It’s already cooked. It just needs to get warmed up in the gravy.
So you bought the beef already cooked and sliced thin?
Yes, at the deli
Safe Way has really good roast beef.
I made this today and it was spot-on! The flavor was just like I remember. My only issue was the texture. Instead of light and fluffy beef, it was heavy and clumpy. The “butcher” was my local chain grocery store and that was probably my mistake. He didn’t trim the fat like I asked and ended up shaving it. Next time, I’ll go to a professional. I will definitely make this again. Thanks for the recipe.
My top round is uncooked. Butcher had none cooked but I assumed I would be using raw beef cooked by the liquid since it is so thin. If the meat supposed to be cooked already what are my options?
I only tried it with sliced roasted beef. But that should still work for you. The gravy will cook it.
I’ve been craving a Chicago style beef sandwich for so long that I’ve even had dreams about them. One of the best I had was from a place called Mr. D’s on Diversey Avenue. I had friends who would drive in from Naperville, Palatine and other suburbs just to get his beef sandwich. He also made a great Double Cheeseburger. I’m definitely going to try and make this beef sandwich.
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).
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.
Try it and let me know
Hi Todd, can you tell me how much fat that ¼ lb of trimmings should yield? Thanks much, looking forward to making this!
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!!!
Quick Question: how far in advance can I make the beef and peppers part?
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.
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)
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!
Thank you for this!
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.
These instructions are picture perfect! Thanks! Off to the store I go!