The Italian Beef Power RankingsThe best Italian beefs in Chicago, ranked.
After hours of highly scientific field research, we’ve identified the very best Italian beefs in the city. We've taken everything into consideration—zestiness of the meat, the giardiniera crunch factor, and the structural integrity of the dipped French roll. Here are the best Italian beefs in Chicago, ranked.
Apologies in advance to fans of Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park and Jay’s in Harwood Heights, this guide focuses on Chicago proper.
Legend has it that Al’s invented the Italian beef in 1938, and while that legend might have been started by Al’s, we don't care. This perfect specimen has fluffy bread fortified with beef cooked using a secret recipe—one that’s probably hidden in a tungsten safe, surrounded by a moat of bright orange gravy brimming with fat. Don’t bother with the other locations, just go to the original spot in Little Italy. That’s where they marinate and roast all the beef, and we believe in getting our Al’s straight from the source.
When you’re standing in line debating what to order and hear “doesn’t matter, this is the best Italian beef in Chicago” from the guy behind you, it’s a good sign. We’re happy to report that this mysterious stranger exaggerated only slightly. The perfectly spiced beef topped with sweet peppers is good enough on its own, even if you order it dry. Skip the giardiniera, Tony's doesn’t need it.
Carm’s is just a few blocks away from Al’s, sitting on a cute little corner, with a cute little cash-only Italian ice counter, giving the number one spot performance anxiety. Not only is the side of jus the best in Chicago—more like a peppery consomme than a cup of liquid fat—but the bread is so outstanding that you can even order the sandwich dry. But the correct move is to get it dipped, and eat at one of their outdoor tables to make Al’s jealous.
The team at Buona made some sort of Faustian bargain to achieve beef slices so thin they’re beyond the scope of what's humanly possible. Each individual slice is packed with meaty flavor and a pleasant black peppery-ness. The filling is juicy enough that it doesn’t need to be ordered wet, but if you do decide to get it “baptized” (Buona’s term of choice), the bread will hold up well.
This family-run operation on the north side has been around for 55 years, and they’ve used that time to develop a bread-to-beef proportion that rivals the golden ratio of the Parthenon. Sandwiches come on bread that’s downright Cancerian: secretly tender, with a tough exterior that can easily withstand a dip. Add in thin slices of extra juicy beef and gentle heat from the hot peppers, and the result is a sandwich that’s surprisingly light and carefree, like a child who has yet to read the phrase “per my last email.”
There’s “old school” as in handwritten thank you notes, Old School the cinematic masterpiece, and then there’s Mr. Beef. This iconic River North shop is the inspiration behind The Bear, and despite the show's popularity, still has a no-nonsense vibe and isn’t filled with tourists. It’s a cash-only spot with politely impatient service, and a sparse dining room with a communal table where you can befriend someone who’s been eating here for decades. Come to Mr. Beef for a well-made, classic Italian beef without a side of selfies and ring lights.
Southtown Sub is best known for its version of a rival Chicago sandwich, the Gym Shoe. But we love a good underdog story, and Southtown's Italian beef deserves just as much respect. It’s impossible to not root for a sandwich overflowing with so much beef and giardiniera it looks like a fourth grader’s volcano science project. There’s no seating in the store itself, so the best method is to eat tailgate-style in the parking lot. If you can do this without a fork and knife (and without spilling all over your trunk) we salute you.
A Chicago legend, Bob-O’s has been around since 1950. This cash-only shop in Dunning gets points for nostalgia, points for a patio, points for spicy beef, points for crunchy giardiniera, points for bread that holds up well when you order the beef juicy (which you should), points for people who know to carefully wrap your sandwich in five layers of paper to prevent leakage from said juice…you get the picture.
Hiding in the most unlikely of places (the Navy Pier food court, stay with us) is Ciccio, a small stall with an Italian beef unlike any other. The beef is great, the peppers are solid, but there are no dipped or wet options here. There’s only dry, or “in a bath”—a jus-cuzzi if you will. It's brimming with slices of garlic taking a soak after a hard day’s work of adding flavor to the salty broth, and a handful of random potatoes just there to add good vibes like a funemployed friend.