FX’s “The Bear” was, for many viewers, a first introduction to the deliciously messy Italian beef sandwich. In the show’s first season, Carmy (Jeremy Allen White) is a fine-dining chef who comes home to Chicago to take over the family’s beef stand following his brother’s death. The show, which returns Wednesday for its highly anticipated third season, provided a close-up look at the inner workings of a restaurant whose sole purpose was preparing the meaty, juicy sandwich.

For those of us who grew up in the Windy City, this dish is as iconic as deep-dish pizza and our uniquely topped hot dogs. It has been beloved for decades, served not only at local institutions such as Al’s #1 Italian Beef and Mr. Beef (after which the restaurant on the show is modeled), but also in buffets at parties and, if I remember correctly, in school cafeterias.

Sometimes simply called Italian beef, the sandwich features thinly sliced roast beef on a roll moistened (to varying degrees) with the beef’s cooking liquid and typically topped with giardiniera, an Italian pickled vegetable relish. Though there are a few tales of the sandwich’s invention, such as one from Al’s that includes jail time and more nefarious dealings, historians credit it to Italian American home cooking.

Get the recipe: Weeknight Italian Beef Sandwiches

“The key stage in the development of the sandwich was its use in so-called ‘peanut weddings’ (attested from the 1920s),” Anthony F. Buccini and Michael Stern wrote in “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia.” “Working-class Italian American families would rent halls and supply their own food for the event, commonly including roasted peanuts and sandwiches filled with slices of wet-roasted beef.”

While the sandwich may have risen out of home cooking, it was perfected by restaurants. Now, a signature aspect of the dish is the paper-thin beef slices, attained by using a deli slicer. This requires the beef to be roasted, chilled and then cut, meaning it’s typically at least a two-day process. Then the meat and cooking liquid, also known as jus or gravy, are reheated together; the beef is nestled into the bread; and it’s up to the customer to decide how many napkins they want to use.

On the low end, you can get a “dry” sandwich, where the restaurant shakes the liquid off the beef before piling it onto the bread. On the other end of the spectrum, you can get it “dipped,” where the entire sandwich is submerged in the jus for a few seconds for maximum absorption. Or you can choose something in between, such as simply having some of the jus ladled over the meat and bread.

Last but not least are the many ways you can adorn it. Some places offer the option of adding cheese, but any true Chicagoan knows that doing so is sacrilegious. One legitimate option is roasted bell peppers, but I’m of the opinion that they don’t really add much. The superb choice, by far, is Chicago-style giardiniera, which adds a bright crunch to balance the rich meat and jus.

The more traditional Italian style features large pieces of pickled vegetables and might be found on an antipasto platter. Chicago-style giardiniera is often a mix of cauliflower, carrots, celery and chile peppers chopped much smaller, pickled, then packed in oil. The vegetables included can vary, and depending on the ratio of chile peppers, it can range from mild to spicy. It is difficult to find at grocery stores outside of the Chicagoland area, so it’s worth either ordering it online or even making your own, as I wouldn’t consider an Italian beef sandwich complete without it.

I wanted to come up with a more weeknight-friendly version of the recipe — this column is called Dinner in Minutes, after all — so I focused on what I think are the key elements of the sandwich and how to most efficiently replicate them at home.

Instead of starting with a large cut of beef, I opted for buying shaved steak from the grocery store for the thinness that just can’t be achieved in a typical home kitchen. Plus, it cooks in minutes in a skillet. To replace the gravy that would come with roasting, I used beef bones and seasonings to fortify store-bought beef broth or stock that you can use to moisten your sandwich to your liking.

As for the roll: “The bread used for beef sandwiches is the type that old Italian bakeries in Chicago called ‘French bread’ and is distinguished from basic Italian bread in having a longer, narrower shape, thinner crust, and a softer, hole-less crumb,” “The Chicago Food Encyclopedia” states. While some of my fellow Chicagoans might disown me for saying this, any white roll will do. Simply toast it in the oven before serving to make it sturdy enough to stand up to the jus.

No, this is certainly not the traditional way to prepare Italian beef. I’m taking shortcuts and liberties in the interest of making it a weeknight dinner possibility. But after my first bite of the sandwich, I knew that I did my city proud. The thinly sliced beef, flavorful jus and bright (and spicy, if you wish) giardiniera all came together in perfect harmony to give this Chicago expat a deliciously messy taste of home.

Get the recipe: Weeknight Italian Beef Sandwiches



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