Mr. Beef & Pizza, recently opened at 123 Harlem Ave., has a menu of many foods originally made in Chicago and some of which, like the Italian beef, have even start- ed moving into markets outside the Midwest to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York City.
This new Mr. Beef location in Forest Park features the world-famous Chicago hot dog (also offered in Paris and Hong Kong; they’re international), the Maxwell Street Polish, rib tips (which gained local popularity thanks to places like Lem’s Bar-B-Q on the southside), Pizza Puffs and Italian beef.
On a recent lunch-time expedition to this new Mr. Beef & Pizza location (related to the other store of the same name further north on Harlem, but not to the Mr. Beef on Orleans), I had the Pizza Puffs and Italian beef.
Pizza Puffs are one of those foods I’d long been aware of but had hardly ever eaten. Pizza Puffs are a brand name for the fried pockets of tasty meat and cheese produced by Italco (Illinois Taco Company) — and they should not be confused with pizza rolls, the tiny dough bullets about the size of an adult thumb, filled with sauce, meat and cheese. The classic Pizza Puff is much tastier than the pizza roll, and it benefits from its quick trip to the deep fryer before serving. The one I had at Mr. Beef was very good, the outer dough wrapper crisp and crunchy, the filling pleasantly spicy, and the whole thing just a delightful bite.
The week before last, I was asked by the New York Times (bragging) to pose for photos at Al’s #1 Italian Beef in Little Italy. Once again, I was reminded of how much I enjoy Al’s beef: the meat — seasoned, cooked, and sliced in house – has a most excellent gravy, and the giardiniera is fantastic, full of dimension with spices like garlic and cardamom. Last year, I interviewed Chris Pacelli, whose Uncle Al was behind the original restaurant. Pacelli told me some amusing tales about the Chicago origins of this sandwich:
“Italians, in the Thirties, late Twenties, there were all kinds of gamblers … Mafia guys and stuff,” Pacelli said. “My uncle Al was involved in all that, a gambler … Well, he gets in trouble, has to go to jail, comes out of jail and starts driving a truck. A friend says, ‘let’s open up a bookie place.’ So, my uncle says, ‘Why don’t I do beef sandwiches? I’ll sell them as a front.’ So, this went on until the late Fifties, and a lot of these beef places — like Carm’s and Mr. Beef — they all started out because of gambling.”
More about Pizza Puffs, Italian beef, and 28 other Chicago-invented foods will be included in a book — tentatively titled “Made in Chicago” — that I’m co-authoring with Monica Eng, due out next Christmas (shameless plug).
About the Italian beef at Mr. Beef. Well, it was not very awesome. The meat was kind of bland, not very flavorful or juicy (though I did have the sandwich dipped), and the giardiniera failed to deliver the perk and pop of spicy flavor that I appreciate with the condiment served at places like Al’s and Johnnie’s, both of which head up most lists of best beef places in the city.
The pizza puff, however, was way worth a stop, and I would heartily recommend it from Mr. Beef, especially if you’ve never had this Chicago original creation (not damning with faint praise).
Gravy bread is another Chicago food that Mr. Beef serves. Also referred to as an Italian soaker, gravy bread is simply the bread used for the Italian beef sans meat but soaked in jus, strangely satisfying if admittedly insubstantial. This is food of desperation, food of the Great Depression, much like the French fry sandwich one sees at some Chicago BBQ joints, it’s what you eat when you have no money for meat. Still, today, if you order a quantity of Italian beef and bread to make the sandwiches at home, you’ll probably have some jus and bread left over and there’s no shame in enjoying gravy bread; it’s tasty, and a bite of Chicago food history.