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The 13 best Italian beefs in Chicago, ranked

There's no denying that Chicagoans love Italian beef sandwiches—but which ones are best? We did the research.

By Cate Huguelet and Morgan Olsen |
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Photograph: Nick Murway

In 1938, Al Ferreri—yes, that Al—started slinging beef sandwiches in Little Italy. Legions of competitors followed suit and the delicacy took off, or so one popular version of the origin story goes. Point is, somewhere along the way the humble Italian beef sandwich became one of the most iconic Chicago dishes. Now you’d be hard-pressed to throw a rock in our city without hitting a beef stand—but not all are worth the messy hands and the unmistakable eau de jus that seems to linger for hours. From the Loop to the ‘burbs, these are the best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Our guide to the best restaurants in Chicago

Best Italian beefs in Chicago

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Photograph: Courtesy Johnnie's Beef
Restaurants, Hot dogs

Johnnie’s Beef

icon-location-pin Suburbs

Hop in line (it looks intimidating but moves with impressive efficiency) at this charmingly retro Elmwood Park stand and let the smoke of chargrilled sausages tickle your nose while you await the platonic ideal of an Italian beef sandwich. A Johnnie’s sandwich hits all the right notes, from the fresh, supple Gonnella bread to the chunky, just-piquant-enough giardiniera to the herbal bouquet that rises from the steaming jus like an intoxicating perfume. But most remarkable is its utter, well, beefiness; it’s a sandwich that eats like a kind of bomb of umami savoriness. When you’re done, cleanse your palate with the velvety housemade lemon ice.

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Al's Italian Beef on Taylor St.
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American

Al’s #1 Italian Beef

icon-location-pin Little Italy, UIC

It’s not hard to see why Al’s is an enduring favorite among Chicagoans and a mandatory port of call for many tourists. In addition to being shaved so remarkably thin that it’s practically transparent, the beef is redolent of a mysterious secret spice—is it cinnamon? Cloves? Nutmeg?—that distinguishes it from all others. Comfort in one’s outsized reputation can sometimes tip into laurel-resting, and on some visits here we’ve been disappointed by stale bread or giardiniera applied with a stingy hand—but sooner or later, the enigmatic perfume of the beef always pulls us back in. For a change of pace, try the Gypsy Fries, a gonzo poutine of fries, jus, cheese sauce, beef, and giardiniera.

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Photograph: Courtesy Original Mr. Beef
Restaurants, American

The Original Mr. Beef

icon-location-pin Suburbs

For one of Chicagoland’s best Italian beef sandwiches, you’ll have to venture outside of city limits, to the far southwest suburb of Homer Glen. Here, Carl Bonavolanto III, son of the original owner of Mr. Beef on Orleans, serves up his ancestral sandwich from a strip mall storefront adorned with mob movie posters. (Bonavolanto’s father sold the Orleans location, sans family recipe, back in the ‘80s; it and his son’s Homer Glen shop are completely unconnected.) The genuine Bonavolanto article is well worth the trip; the beef is incredibly succulent, the jus perfectly garlicky and salty. It’s topped with giardiniera that might be the best we’ve ever encountered, a spicy, wonderfully fresh-tasting mix of diced green peppers, celery, and red pepper flakes.

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Photograph: Courtesy Roma
Restaurants, American

Roma’s Italian Beef & Sausage

icon-location-pin Portage Park

Even unadorned, the Italian beef at this bare-bones Portage Park joint is quite serviceable indeed, built around jus-trapping shreds of subtly spiced beef. But it’s the hearty house giardiniera that really elevates this sandwich; comprising chunks of crinkle-cut carrot, green olive, celery, cauliflower and pepper, it adds major crunch and a pop of acidity that balances out all that meatiness. If you want to up the ante, go for an Atomic Combo, which augments the standard beef sandwich with a fiery sausage created by none other than Hot Doug Sohn.

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The Patio
Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Fast food spots

The Patio

icon-location-pin Little Italy, UIC

This Taylor Street grease joint is a favorite of 12th District cops, which is always a good sign. The Italian beef might be the best in the neighborhood (and according to some, maybe in the entire city). The Patio’s combo—an Italian beef and sausage smushed into a giant bun—is nothing short of legendary. A meal at the Patio is sure to raise your cholesterol levels by a few points, but it’s definitely worth it.

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Photograph: Nick Murway
Restaurants, Sandwich shops

Mr. Beef

icon-location-pin River North

There’s not much nuance about this long-running River North staple; the employees aren’t afraid to bark at you for indecisiveness, the walls are overwhelmed with celebrity photos and random ephemera (e.g., a cutesy ode to beef composed by a sixth grader hanging directly over a headshot of Keith Richards puffing a cig), and the Italian beefs are hefty and so unapologetically oily as to immediately render their paper wrappings transparent. Throw mannerliness to the wind and you’ll be rewarded with a sandwich of slightly fatty beef, expertly dunked in aromatic jus so that the bread’s edges retain a pleasing trace of crustiness. Celery-dominated giardiniera adds crunch, but comes up a bit short on flavor.

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Photograph: Nick Murway
Restaurants, American

Pop’s Italian Beef & Sausage

icon-location-pin Mount Greenwood

There are 14 Pop’s scattered around the Chicagoland area, but only the diminutive Mt. Greenwood location has the old-school vibe that somehow makes the food taste a bit more special. The finely shaved beef here savors of garlic, and dips are executed in a best-of-both-worlds fashion that soaks only one side of the dense, spongy bread, allowing for a nice textural contrast. The liberally applied giardiniera, a verdant mix of mandolined jalapeño and celery, is like a cousin to Chickie’s, except with a good bit more heat and a pronounced oiliness that spills over the dry side of the bread, giving it a shellacked quality.

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Photograph: Nick Murway
Restaurants, Delis

Bari Foods

icon-location-pin River West/West Town

If serious heat is your thing, this Italian sub institution has the beef sandwich for you. It’s available dressed with super hot giardiniera, a housemade blend of don’t-dare-touch-your-eyes-afterward (no joke) habaneros and pungent capers. (For tamer palates, there’s also mild and standard hot giardiniera, as well as sweet peppers.) The beef here is tender, well-seasoned and cut into thick ribbons, so even the smallest sandwich on offer (9 inches) will keep you going for the better part of a day.

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Photograph: Nick Murway
Restaurants, Pizza

Freddy’s Pizza

icon-location-pin Suburbs

There’s much more than pizza on offer at this Cicero gem—think housemade porchetta, tender pillows of ricotta-stuffed gnocchi, all manner of groceries imported from the Boot—and oh yeah, one of the area’s best Italian beef sandwiches. The beef here is herbal and fragrant, and the giardiniera—a colorful combo of carrots, red pepper, celery and cauliflower—has a mild, pleasant burn and an oiliness that mingles beautifully with the jus, adding layers of flavor and richness. Flaky Turano bread holds together nicely following a light dip, making this one of the tidier specimens on our list. 

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Photograph: Courtesy Chickie's
Restaurants, American

Chickies Beef

icon-location-pin Suburbs

It’s only been dishing out sandwiches since 2012, but this Hillside spot is actually a reincarnation of a stand that once ruled the Italian beef scene in Little Village. The beef sandwiches here could be described as matter-of-fact but satisfying: Shreds of lean beef are folded into fresh Gonnella rolls soft with a clear, mildly salty jus that doesn’t fuss around much with herbs and spices. The one point of intrigue is the unusual house giardiniera, a mix of razor-thin celery and jalapeño slices that contributes a briny, vegetal note (and surprisingly, only a hint of heat). If you need a little extra incentive to journey out to the ‘burbs, here’s a good one: Chickie’s also serves cannoli milkshakes.

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Restaurants

Buona

icon-location-pin Suburbs

With a whopping 21 locations, it's all too easy to dismiss Buona as a chain—but that'd be a mistake. The family-run, Chicago-born operation is steeped in rich history: As the story goes, Joe Buonavolanto Senior (nephew of Mr. Beef's Carl Buonavolanto) took out a second mortgage on his home to make his meaty dreams a reality. Buona's beef recipe, which hasn't been touched in 30 years, was dreamed up by Joe's wife, Peggy, and has been passed down through generations of Buonavolantos. The meat here is perfectly seasoned and topped with char-kissed green peppers before it's stuffed into a crusty bun and dunked in jus. You drooling yet? 

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, American

Luke’s Italian Beef

icon-location-pin Loop

Finding a good Italian beef in the Loop isn’t as easy as one might think. Sure, there’s an Al’s Beef at Wabash and Jackson, but if you’re on the other side of the neighborhood Luke’s is your best bet. The place has the feel of an old school Chicago grease joint, and its beefs have all of the essentials that could satisfy a newbie tourist and a seasoned Chicagoan alike. The gravy is just salty enough, the bun maintains its structural integrity even while sopping wet and at $4.65, it’s incredibly affordable.

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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Restaurants, Hot dogs

Portillo’s

icon-location-pin River North

Dick Portillo sold his namesake hot dog chain in 2014, and since then Portillo’s aficionados have questioned the quality of the food under the new management. Even so, we’d be remiss to leave the chain’s Italian beefs off of our list. A dipped beef from Portillo’s is a thing of beauty, and is capable of bringing a tear to the eye of any Chicagoan who loves a good wet sandwich. Order a side of their signature crinkle-cut fries, and you’ll find yourself in a greasy rapture that’s been 50 years in the making.

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