Supposedly, eating it necessitated a special bent-over stance, legs apart, to prevent your clothes from being dribbled on with juices. The classic Chicago Italian beef sandwich may also be topped with sweet and hot peppers and is sometimes further customized with marinara sauce, giardiniera, provolone, or an Italian sausage. Dozens of places serve the sandwich in the Windy City, and every Chicagoan has a favorite place to get one and a favorite configuration.
The sandwich has been slow coming to New York City, on the heels of other items of Chicago cuisine that include deep-dish pizzas and Vienna Red Hots. When Hank’s Juicy Beef debuted recently on Chambers Street, some colleagues at Vox Media who have lived in Chicago decided we’d better try the sandwich right away. We got four in a variety of configurations — from sweet peppers on beef to giardiniera on a beef and sausage combo — and carried them to our Midtown office. The sandwiches were priced from $9.50 to $14.
The buns were seven inches in length, pale and spongy. They were perfectly adequate but not distinguished. One sandwich seemed to be dipped in extra gravy, and in that example, you could really taste the oregano. The beef was fine, but not particularly beefy tasting. What was really distinguished, meat-wise, was the Italian sausage, which had apparently been shipped from Chicago. It was finer grained and denser than the ones you get here, and engagingly flavored with fennel. While most Chicagoans can get sweet and hot peppers on their sandwich, at Hank’s you have a choice of hot or sweet giardiniera. The hot peppers in the former were deep green and really hot, while the sweet peppers, available with no charge separate from the giardiniera, were bitter and not very good. The optimal sandwich at Hank’s would be a combo beef and sausage, dipped in extra gravy and piled with hot giardiniera.
Henry "Hank" Tibensky, a native of the Chicago suburbs, decided to open the restaurant because he missed the classic food from his childhood. How does it hold up with former Chicagoans? Here’s what some of us thought of his version of the meaty treats. — Robert Sietsema
Jasmin James, Social Media Manager, Eater National
As a native south sider, I judge a good Italian beef by its au jus as much as I do the meat, peppers, and bread. It’s all about balance. Sweet to spicy, wet to dry, tender to chewy etc. If one factor is slightly off, the sandwich will inevitably miss the mark. The first bite will ultimately determine if you’re dealing with a real Italian beef or a dry, chewy impersonator.
Growing up, my personal preference at any one of my favorite beef purveyors was an Italian beef (not a combo), dipped, with sweet peppers on and hot peppers on the side. Occasionally, I’d get a side of marinara or add provolone. but this combination of sweet and hot and juicy was absolutely perfect as is.
What I enjoyed most about Hank’s was the meat. It was seasoned to perfection, not too salty or chewy. Surprisingly, this sausage was better than a lot of sausages I’ve had in Chicago. The casing was tender, and the insides had the right amount of spice and fat. It had all the powerful flavor you should expect in a good Italian sausage. Then there was the au jus, a very tasty broth that perfectly soaked the Italian bread and held the entire bite together nicely. Everything, including the hot and mild peppers, tasted fresh, and the portions of meat were cool.
On the other hand, the sweet peppers were bitter, not sweet, and I think size wise, my second favorite slinger of classic Italian beef, Bartolini’s, has Hank’s beat. I didn’t get to taste the red sauce and the provolone, but a true Italian beef sandwich shop includes all the fixing options in the cost since everyone’s combination of spice and sauce will be different. (Cheese costs an extra dollar at Hank’s, and while tomato sauce is available on an eggplant parm, it’s not listed on the menu as an addition to the Italian beef.)
I’d definitely order it again. Biting into it took me back home, where you can literally smell the meat and au jus wafting in the air at any classic Italian beef joint. This sandwich tasted much better than the clone machine that is Al’s Beef and instead reminds me of some of the South Side’s best, including Freddie’s (Bronzeville), John’s (Midlothian), Portillo’s (Crestwood), Bartolini’s (Midlothian), and Ricobene’s (Armour Square). Good job, NYC.
Matt Ufford, Editor-at-Large, SBNation
It’s a risky proposition to make regional food outside its geographic home. Po' boys belong in New Orleans, paella in Spain, pasties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Try to recreate them elsewhere, and your core audience — expats who’ve had the real thing — will also be the most demanding critics. Your product, at its best, can transport customers home for the length of a sandwich, but it will invariably fail to replicate your sepia-toned memories.
So is Hank’s Juicy Beef as good as my favorites, like the Giordano’s crust-encased oddity? Probably, but how would I ever know? My memories of Chicago’s Italian beef sandwiches are infused with the carefree ease of college life. Hank’s beef is flavorful and — as advertised — juicy, but I can’t eat it in 1998 while ignoring chemistry homework and watching a new episode of golden-age "Simpsons," so there’s no fair comparison. Nostalgia sets an impossibly high standard.
But I’ll give this to Hank: his hot peppers are the perfect balance of spicy and tangy, and ten bucks for a sandwich is cheaper than a ticket to Chicago. He needs to offer the sandwich with more au jus, though. C’mon, man, I’m trying to recreate my youth here.
Daniela Galarza, News Editor, Eater National
Hank’s Juicy Beef nails the Chicago-style Italian sausage sandwich. The meat mixture is blended with so much garlic and herbs and fennel seeds that the meat becomes a vehicle for the spices. It’s sealed in a chewy — but not too snappy — casing that has been browned in grease. The bread soaks up this grease, as it should, and a side of giardiniera adds acidity and heat to cut the fat. Hank’s Italian sausages are much like those at Portillo’s, a Chicago institution, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them. But the restaurant falls short on its namesake, the Chicago-style Italian beef. Here the beef is a little bit too chewy, and the jus a little bit too salty. I grew up going to Al’s, where the shredded beef practically melts in your mouth, and the jus is so good you order a bit more on the side for dipping or sipping.
Serena Dai, News Editor, Eater New York
I spent my college years and several after in the Chicagoland area, and my first taste of the Italian beef happened over one Thanksgiving weekend. I was just starting to realize that that a friend from my dorm room floor would soon become my best friend, and while I don’t want to say it’s all because she introduced me to a sandwich that puts Italian beef on top of an Italian sausage, let’s just say that helped. We stopped at Portillo’s for a combo sandwich and a chocolate cake shake before she dropped me off at O’Hare. It was cumbersome, calorie-laden, and super delicious.
Hank’s Juicy Beef hits all the right notes to bring me back to old times. The sausage meets the ideal of a spiced, flavorful encased meat with just the right amount of give. The Italian beef sandwich looked like the wet, meaty specimens from Chicago. And together, in a combo topped with giardiniera, the sandwich made sense. In fact, it might have even physically held together better than some I’ve had in Chicago. Like Robert said, the sweet pepper was flavorless and mediocre, and definitely avoid the sausage-only sandwich. (The bread, without the extra beef juice, is not much better than what you can get at your local bodega.) Next time, I’ll probably ask for extra hot giardiniera and a cup of au jus on the side. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.