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Italian Beef: Decoding a Sloppy Chicago Favorite
Italian beef is less recognized than its similar philly-cheesesteak cousin. We’ll begin to correct this injustice.
With rivulets of broth and tendrils of provolone spilling from its sides, an italian-beef sandwich seems like the pinnacle of decadence. In fact, the dish was probably born of thriftiness. At Italian-American weddings during the Great Depression, the story goes, cooks would try to stretch out roast beef by slicing it ultra-thin and stewing it in stock seasoned with fistfuls of garlic, oregano, and pepper. Today, the ultra-tender meat is then piled onto a long section of crusty italian bread and topped with green peppers (“sweet,” in Chicago beef lingo) and the blend of pickled hot peppers, carrots, celery, and spices known as giardiniera (or simply “hot”). If you can handle a supremely sloppy sandwich, you can also get more juice ladled on top or applied via a dunk in the broth pan for a “wet” or “dipped” version, the same as with ice-cream cones. If cheese is an option, it will be either mozzarella or provolone.
Several culinary powerhouses of the day—all based in Chicago, the sandwich’s home—claim to have been the first to make italian beef a commercial venture. It may have been Al Ferreri, who began delivering the sandwiches to factory workers before he went on to found Al’s Beef in 1938. Another contender is butcher Pasquale Scala, who founded the company that today still supplies ready-to-cook italian-beef kits to those restaurants that don’t make everything from scratch. Despite the success of their businesses, the sandwich remains something of a local specialty. The fanatics at ItalianBeef.com count more than 600 spots to find italian beef in Illinois, about the same as the number of italian-beef joints in all other states combined.