Inaugural Italian Beef Fest

On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Revolution Brewing filled up with Italian Beef fans who were there to taste the best sandwiches in the business. Three Italian Beef restaurants participated - Buona Beef, the Original Mr. Beef and Al’s Beef. Italian beef —in all its giardiniera covered, juice soaked glory is a very Chicago thing and this fun new food fest celebrated it all. 

Along with tasting of the beef and brews by Revolution was an Italian Beef-eating contest and some trivia contests. There were two sessions and both sold out. I was as session #2 and watched the Italian-beef eating contest closely. When they called up contestants and one didn’t show, one of the others arelady seated at the table suggested that his friend, Josh from Indianapolis, join him on the stage since it was his birthday. Josh did. And he won. And he got to sport a pretty awesome beef champion belt. The event emcee was Elliott Bambrough from WGN’s Chicago’s Best.

The Italian beef sandwich came to be in the early 20th century by Italian immigrants around the Chicago stockyards. Anthony Ferreri was one of those first to served up food on steel barrel grills on the East side of Chicago's "Little Italy" neighborhood. The staple was sausage, but sometimes he would served beef sandwiches or soakers, which were simply bread soaked in beef gravy with no meat.

In 1938, Anthony's son, Al, opened the very first beef stand using raw beef from Scala Packing Company, as Al's Barbecue (reportedly a front for bookies!) and the name later changed to Al's Italian Beef. From then on the sliced beef sandwiches became known in Chi-town as "Italian Beef."

Pasquale Scala helped some of the early Italian-beef stands get their start. Carlo and Johnny Buonavolanto (who later opened Buona Beef) worked for Scala and shared the Al's original cooking method with future beef stand owners and soon family-owned beef stand could be found around the city. Some of the originals - Mr. Beef, Chickies, Margies, Johnnie's beef, Cam's and the Patio.

A young, rising comic by the name of Jay Leno was fond of the beef sandwiches he'd get for his late night food fix at Mr. Beef and as he became better known shared his love of the Italian beef sandwich making the rest of the country aware of this beloved Chicago culinary classic.

Buonavolanto brothers Joe Sr. (founder of Buona Beef) and Carl (founder of Mr. Beef) have brought the art of Italian beef-making to the masses. In 1963, the Original Mr. Beef started on Taylor Street in Chicago. Today, it's run by son, Carl, and a third-generation family member, his son, Chris. Today you can grab one of their beef sandwiches at their location in Homer Glen. Carol told me that he began making Italian beef sandwiches at the age of 9.

The first Buona Beef began in 1981 in Berwyn and continues to grow today with Joe Sr.'s five sons all working in different parts of the business. Each worked their way up from washing floors and serving customers. As a mom of five boys myself, that story just warms my heart. They've grown to 23 locations and in Chicagoland and recently moved into Northwest Indiana. It wasn't until two years ago when they opened in Beverly that they had a location in the city. They've since opened in Streeterville, as well. And if you don't happen to have a Buona Beef within an easy drive, you can pick up their beef, sausage and meatballs in many grocery stores in the area. I still pick up beef and sausage regularly at Aldi for my boys who are all big carnivores.

Al's Beef has seven locations in the city, including their historic Taylor Street location, as well as three suburban spots in Niles, Tinley Park and Park Ridge. This year they are celebrating 80 years of bringing this Chicago foodie staple to the city. (P.S. Visit their website for a limited-time offer of $100 of gift cards for $80 in celebration of their anniversary).

Each beef from the three places is pretty amazing in its own right, but each is slightly different. I love how friendly the owners are with each other, too (The Buona and Original Mr. Beef owners are actually cousins). If you haven’t tried the three - make sure you do. I had a great time not just eating lots of Italian beef (who wouldn't love that part!), but also meeting each of the owners and hearing them talk about the history of this distinctly Chicago creation and share their passion for what they do.

The Champ of the Beef Eating Contest during Session 2 (2nd from left)
with other competitors.
I also loved the location! Italian Beef Fest took place at Revolution Brewing. We've enjoyed their beers for years and recently my husband recently found a barrel-aged stout called Jamo-Nilla by Revolution that he fell in love with. So, a visit to the taproom moved up higher on the foodie bucket list. So, we were glad to have a reason to get there and loved our VIP tour. Was fascinating to hear about how they are the fastest growing craft brewery out there and the largest craft brewery in Illinois.