Visiting Mr. Beef, the Sandwich Shop That Inspired The Bear

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Visiting Mr. Beef, the Sandwich Shop That Inspired The Bear

Just blocks away from Chicago’s bustling downtown, Mr. Beef is more than just a place to grab a great Italian Beef sandwich—dipped and hot for me. This is the ideal spot for Chicago food. But chances are, you know it as “The Original Beef of Chicagoland,” where the recent smash hit TV show, The Bear, took place.

You can spot its iconic facade from a block away. With its sign gently swaying in the wind, a billboard perched right on top of the restaurant and a parking lot next door, Mr. Beef’s diminutive stature stands out in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, which is known for its ritzy high-rise apartments and expensive lunch spots.

Cashless, no-nonsense and affordable, the restaurant seems like it hasn’t changed in 30 years. With walls lined with Chicago-themed memorabilia and accolades from local publications and talk show hosts alike, there’s a clear sense of history and place permeating everything here. Its dining room consists of a few picnic tables lined up, beer hall style. It’s not much, but it sure beats taking your sandwich and fries for a frigid walk during the Windy City’s near-inhospitable winters.

Not as famous (or picturesque) as the iconic Chicago-style hot dog topped with neon-green relish, nor as infamous as Chicago’s controversial cheesy deep dish pizza, the Italian beef sandwich is one of the city’s many undervalued culinary contributions. It’s difficult to explain it to someone who’s never eaten or even laid eyes on the sandwich—after all, it’s not too different from a steak sandwich dipped in au jus, right?

Well, not exactly. Firstly, the beef is braised in beef stock and a blend of Italian-style seasonings that imbues the meat with its rich, bright flavors while keeping it fork-tender. Then, to take things a step further and to maximize the beef’s flavor, the roast gets cut with a deli slicer and soaked in the au jus until it’s served. Because of how thin the beef is sliced, it has more surface area to soak up and hold onto each delectable droplet of Italian beef au jus. The braising liquid packs a more herbal and spicy flavor than a typical au jus, helping to ratchet up the flavor in this sandwich even more.

Then comes the peppers. Depending on how you order your sandwich (sweet or hot), you’ll get a different experience entirely. If you order it sweet, you’ll get some sauteed sweet bell peppers served on the sandwich. If you order it hot, you’ll get hot giardiniera on top. Each expression of pepper is vital to this sandwich. It’s still delicious without them, but their fresh sweetness or spiciness really help cut through and balance out the beef’s richness, especially if the sandwich is wet or dipped.

Then, the deciding factor: dry, wet or dipped. Dry is tasty but will ultimately feel dry and incomplete. Wet is the ideal jumping-on point for newcomers and probably the best way to eat the sandwich overall. It’s messy, sure, but the au jus ties everything together. As it soaks the bun with its rich, fatty flavor, the combination of bun and au jus creates an almost cheese-like sensation. My first beef was dipped, which is not for the faint of heart. While a wet beef is wet because the meat on the sandwich soaks in the au jus before getting added to the sandwich, dipped takes it to the next level by dipping the entire sandwich in the au jus after adding the already soaked shaved beef. If you’re lucky enough not to have it fall apart in your hands, it’s a borderline obscene way to enjoy this sandwich that incorporates everything that’s great about the wet version and turns it up to 11. 

As far as Italian beefs go, there’s very little variance between the finished products served at different restaurants. Some places opt for a different bun or spice blend that highlights one herb or spice over another, but I’ve never had a bad Italian Beef sandwich in Chicago. That said, some are certainly better than others. Mr. Beef stands toe-to-toe with my other favorites, like Al’s.

Going in, I half expected Mr. Beef to be a tourist trap, stuck reminiscing about the good ol’ days, selling kitschy t-shirts and charging $15 for a sandwich like many of its neighbors, especially after its newfound fame thanks to FX’s show. I’m so glad I was wrong. Its delicious sandwich speaks for itself. But what speaks just as strongly is the restaurant’s resilience in a changing neighborhood and city. Much like its fictional counterpart, Mr. Beef is a relic in all the best ways; Chicago’s culinary tradition may not be as glitzy or as hallowed as those of other major American cities, but it’s worth preserving and remembering. Even if Mr. Beef was charging $15 for one of their sandwiches, I’d still begrudgingly pay for it because they’re too good to pass up.

Since my visit to Mr. Beef, Joseph Zucchero, its co-founder and former owner, has passed. While the restaurant’s been around since the ‘70s, I’m glad I had a chance to dine there before his passing. Paste Magazine sends our condolences to Zucchero’s friends and family.

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