Every city has at least one food that can’t be duplicated anywhere else. In Chicago, it’s the Italian beef sandwich. I’ve never run across it anywhere else. Of course, no trip back home is complete without one.
Maybe the most distinctive part is the aroma, the beef broth melded with the gentle influence of oregano, basil, and garlic. Green pepper tops the beef. Roasted or sautéed in olive oil, the pepper is slightly crisp on the outside, but juicy and mellow inside. The Italian roll is fresh and warm, thick enough to absorb the wonderful juice that soaks through. Don’t wear anything too special when you eat it, because a good Italian beef is as messy as it is delicious. You’ll need plenty of napkins.
The best of them come from Portillo’s, a family owned restaurant enterprise that started from the most humble beginnings. Dick Portillo was born at 1333 West Van Buren Street, not very far from the two flat at 5429 Van Buren where my grandmother Verniere raised her brood of eleven.
His first hot dog stand, known as “The Dog House,” opened in 1963. It was a 6’ by 12’ trailer without a bathroom or running water. To get the water he needed, founder Dick Portillo ran a 250 ft. hose from and adjacent building into his trailer.
Even though there are now 42 units and a wall full of awards, the restaurant still has the casual and low-key feel of that first dog stand. I mean you don’t want to eat your Italian beef at some fancy schmancy place with tablecloths, silverware, or ceramic plates!
The exterior has a sleek diner look, with a super efficient drive through system and staff that accommodates the slew of cars the make a daily pilgrimage there. With barely a pause along the way, a guy (or gal) in the far reaches of the parking lot takes your order and radios it in; another collects your payment, and by the time you reach the building, the bag with its glorious contents is deposited in your waiting hands.
If your timetable is a little looser, you can go inside and enjoy the décor that reflects Dick Portillo’s love of Chicago history. The Forest Park location that I visited had a fifties theme with old posters, juke boxes and wooden picnic tables.
(By the way, the Italian beef pictured earlier is not from Portillo’s – I was too busy eating it to take a photo. The pictured basket has smaller banana peppers, which are maybe a little neater, but definitely not the same as those sloppy big green ones that literally make the sandwich. You see, green peppers are in my blood.)
Growing up, a trip to a farmer’s market to buy peppers by the basket was as much a fall tradition as Halloween. The larger green ones were used fresh. My mother sautéed them with plump Italian sausage or chopped them up to add to spaghetti sauce. Sometimes, fried green peppers were paired with home grown tomatoes and freshly baked Italian bread for a simple but heavenly sandwich we always took with us on family trips. My mother hung the other smaller peppers in the basemen to dry. Just like the autumn leaves they gradually turned from amber to crimson, gracing the Saturday night round steaks that we enjoyed in the fall and winter.
Another Chicago memory I revisited was Eggplant Parmesan. It reminded me of Grandma Verniere, who helped raise me among the powdered lace of drying pasta, the warm earth of a back yard tomato garden, and the pungent sweetness of giambotte, her savory stovetop stew of weekly leftovers.
Joining her in the crowded kitchen, my mother and her sisters argued about the merits of basil versus oregano with the same passion some people reserve for politics. They judged their gravies, sauces, and the quality of the fresh herbs they chopped and diced with a sort of sibling jealousy usually saved for potential beaus.
My sister Ann and I keep up the vegetable gardening tradition. My husband, with apologies to John Le Carre, has dubbed me “The Compulsive Gardener,” since I am somewhat addicted to the earth. In hot, hot Austin, that often means weeding, watering, and harvesting in jungle-like conditions with soil that ranges from heavy clay to rocklike caliche. Many people have sporting sprains; I have gardening injuries. (Last year I threw out my back for a month after experimenting with a mechanical aerator I borrowed from our son, and once my right hand was cemented into a claw-like appendage for several days after I hand planted about 75 sprigs of zoysia grass.
My sister Ann’s large plot south of Chicago sports everything from tender leaf lettuce to sprawling raspberries, marauding zucchini that threatens to take over the neighborhood, delicate asparagus as beautiful as it is delicious, and everything in between. While I am there, she harvests some ripe eggplant and whips up an impromptu Eggplant Parmesan with whatever she has on hand. Of course it is delicious, and of course, in typical Italian tradition, nothing is ever written down. I will attempt to recall how it went and give you a recipe for it.
Back at the airport, we hug goodbye, and I thread my way to a waiting plane, taking in those last few aromas of Chicago, where garlic and oregano manage to seep out from behind even the franchised sterility of O’Hare’s food courts. The plane climbs skyward and I see the verdant squares of cropland that surround my home city like a green patchwork quilt of memories. Down there the two flat at 5429 Van Buren street yet exists and somehow I know my grandmother’s blood still courses through Ann’s and my veins.
Portillo's Italian Beef Sandwiches
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon onion salt
3 cups water
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 bay leaf
1 (0.70 ounce) package Italian salad dressing mix
5 lbs rump roast
In a medium saucepan over medium high heat, combine the water, salt, ground black pepper, oregano, basil, onion salt, parsley, garlic powder, bay leaf and salad dressing mix.
Stir well and bring just to a boil.
lace roast in a slow cooker and pour mixture over the roast.
Cover and cook on low setting for 10 to 12 hours OR high setting for 4 to 5 hours.
Remove bay leaf and shred meat with a fork.
Serve on Italian Rolls.
1 1/2 cups seasoned crumbs
2 tablespoons Olive oil
2 teaspoon fresh basil, diced (if using dry, cut portion in half)
1 teaspoon fresh oregano, diced (if using dry, cut portions in half)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 eggs, slightly beaten
Several cloves of garlic
Olive oil to cover iron skillet
16 ounces sliced mozzarella cheese
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 can (8 ounces) diced tomatoes, drained
Doctor the seasoned crumbs with the olive oil, basil, oregano, and Parmesan cheese. Set aside.
Wash eggplant and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Dip into beaten eggs then dredge with seasoned breadcrumbs. Place slices on a plate and chill for 30 to 45 minutes.
Heat about 1/8-inch of oil in a heavy skillet. Toss in the garlic cloves. No need to mince them. This way, they will infuse the oil with a distintive flavor and the whole dish for that matter. Fry the eggplant on both sides until golden brown and crispy. Top with mozzarella cheese and sliced mushrooms. Add the diced tomatoes and cook over a very low heat for about 15 minutes. Serves six.