I don't know why football season makes me crave Italian beef sandwiches. I've never lived in Chicago, and only ever visited the Windy City in the spring. I'd blame the onset of fall weather, if we had any. But we don't even have a pro football team anymore. And yet, when the NFL returned for its latest round of injury time outs and concussion protocols, I found myself going back to Lefty's.
4030 Goldfinch Street, Mission Hills
3448 30th Street, North Park
Because its full name is Lefty's Chicago Pizzeria, it's easy to focus on the pizza side of its menu. But Lefty's true focus is on the word Chicago, and each of its locations (North Park and Mission Hills) celebrates its owners' hometown with plenty of classic Chicago dishes to go with its collection of Bulls, Bears, Cubs, and Mike Ditka memorabilia.
Despite the sandwich's name, the Italian beef was born in Chicago. As the story goes, it became a popular wedding food among poor Italian immigrants, who would wet-roast cheaper cuts of beef in Italian seasonings to make it tender. Slicing across the grain slices made the beef easier to chew, and slicing thin made it possible to serve more people on a budget.
Trying to stretch out tougher cuts doesn't seem to be a factor anymore. Visit Chicago, or Lefty's, and there's plenty of tender beef to go around. However, there's one more factor that makes the sandwich a classic: the jus.
Or, in Chicago parlance, the gravy. It's the beef stock left over from roasting, where the beef's fat has rendered and simmered in peppers and spices. When the beef is sliced and ready to serve, it's dunked in the gravy before going on the sandwich. And when the sandwich is served, you dip it in a side of gravy.
It's a familiar concept if you've ever eaten a French dip, aka beef sandwich au jus. But there's definitely something daintier about a French dip — maybe it’s the onion infused beef jus, compared to the fragrant oregano and pepper gravy of this heartier Chicago dip. The Italian beef is topped with chili peppers — usually a choice of 'sweet' sautéed green bell peppers, or 'hot' pickled giardiniera peppers.
Lefty's lets you choose, or mix, these peppers to taste, and let's you choose your dipping method. Here's where things get contentious with my roommate, a Chicago native. He maintains it's better to dip the sandwich in the gravy himself, bite by bite, as he eats it. I'm a fan of just letting Lefty's dip the whole sandwich, bread and all, in the pot, so that everything's sopping wet, warm, and juicy when it's served.
Granted, my preferred whole dip gets a little messy and only really works when you're dining in and prepared to eat the sandwich right away, so it doesn't have time to cool. But either way, this is a damn fine hot sandwich ($9.75, or $11 made "cheesy" with melted provolone), and in my hands it never lasts long, whether or not there's a game to watch.