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
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.