Regional dialects may be close to extinction as the second decade in the 21st century comes to a close but regional cuisine is still alive and well. It’s hard to argue that Chicago is the epicenter of regional cuisine in the Midwest and more than holds its own against the rest of the country. The crown jewel in Chicago’s edible arsenal is most likely the deep-dish pizza but coming in closely behind is the Chicago hot dog and Italian Beef sandwich.
Italian Beef is one of those foods that is hard to find done right outside of the windy city. It is our blue collar, go-to sandwich that we can’t wait to share with out of town guests. It can be eaten in many different configurations – wet, dry, dipped, sweet peppers, hot peppers, cheese, or all the above. There’s also no shortage of “beef joints” that claim to be the best in Chicago – Al’s, Portillo’s, Mr. Beef, Joe Boston’s to name a few. All pride themselves on their proprietary au jus and giardiniera.
Alas we are not here to opine over who has the best beef or which establishment is the originator (that may come later). This article actually is not even focusing on the Italian beef sandwich at all. Much like the mightiest of regional sandwiches, the Philly Cheesesteak, Chicago’s Italian Beef has a much less known, more local counterpart. The aforementioned Cheesesteak shares the city of Philadelphia with Campo’s roast pork, provolone and broccoli rabe sandwich. Many locals argue that this sandwich is actually Philly’s true gem. Today I am attempting to make that same case for Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich.
Ricobene’s is a single locale, quick bite restaurant, located on Chicago’s south side. Tucked nicely under the Dan Ryan, it’s the type of place you most likely found out about through word of mouth. Ricobene’s was a family favorite in my house. They opened their doors in 1946 after serving food out of a street cart. They served typical Italian sandwiches, such as meatball and sausage, in Chicago’s famously Italian neighborhood near Taylor St. But it wasn’t until the founder’s sons started experimenting in the 1970’s when the breaded steak was added to the menu.
This sandwich starts out by hammering flank steak paper thin; tenderizing and breading it with a secretly spiced break crumb mix. After a short bath in the deep fryer, the steak is then put on to the same bread you would find used for Italian Beef – Turano French bread. Ricobene’s marinara sauce, called “gravy”, is then slathered all over the sandwich in copious amounts. A mound of shredded mozzarella may and should be added to the sandwich as well. The original sandwich was served with a ludicrous 4lbs. of steak. This same sandwich can still be ordered but is now aptly named the “king”. The volume seller is a slightly smaller “regular”. Make no mistake, you may not be able to finish even the regular in one sitting.
There may be arguments as to who makes the best pizza, hot dog, or beef in the city but there is much less contention when it comes to the breaded steak. Ricobene’s was the originator and, in my humble opinion, makes the best sandwich of this type in the city. That being said, there are still other places to get a breaded steak and they do hold their own – Freddie’s on 31st, Punky’s on 26th (just a few blocks from Ricobene’s) and even suburban Casciani’s in Hodgkins all make great sandwiches. But to me Ricobene’s is the originator and stands out among all competitors. I highly suggest you find a reason to head down to 252 W. 26th St. and try one for yourself.
The breaded steak is our sandwich. For the real Chicagoans, the blue collar, big shouldered masses. The best kept culinary secret our city has to offer. Make sure you order yours with cheese and I highly recommend adding giardiniera. Thank me later.
Guest posting by Dan Kasky