The Best Italian Beef Sandwiches In Chicago That Bring The Bear To Life

The Italian beef sandwich may not be as well-known as some of Chicago's other iconic foods, such as deep-dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs, but it has an equally storied history. The sandwich traces its roots back to the early 1900s when Italian immigrants facing discrimination were only sold cheap, tough cuts of meat. To make the beef more palatable, they would slow cook it, slice it very thin, and place it on fresh bread. Italian families would often enjoy the dish at weddings and parties. Slowly but surely, Italian beef became ubiquitous throughout the city of Chicago.

Nearly a century later, the sandwich is getting more attention than ever thanks to the hit show "The Bear." The series chronicles the trials and tribulations of an acclaimed fine-dining chef returning home to Chicago to run the family sandwich shop, which sells — you guessed it — Italian beef. The show's popularity has introduced many non-Chicagoans to this regional specialty, thus vaulting it into the national spotlight. In turn, it has resurrected the question: Where can you get the best Italian beef sandwich in the Windy City? While everyone will have their own personal favorites, you'll never go wrong dining at one of these 10 Chicago restaurants.


Like so many success stories, Portillo's had the most humble of beginnings. The business opened in 1963 as a mere hot dog stand operating out of a small trailer. Sixty years later, the chain boasts dozens of locations across the country, the vast majority of which are in and around Chicago.

Oftentimes, expansion of that size results in a drop in quality. But, if anything, Portillo's Italian beef sandwich has only gotten better over time. To make the famous meal, Portillo's slow roasts the meat for four hours, layers it on freshly baked bread, and douses the whole thing in homemade gravy. Diners have the option of adding American, cheddar, or mozzarella cheese. Traditionalists may be aghast at Portillo's menu as the restaurant offers nine different varieties of the meal, including beef bowls and a beef-and-cheddar croissant. On the flip side, there should be something to satisfy every meat eater's palate.

Whatever your order, expect it to be delicious. The discerning public has been giving Portillo's rave reviews for years. There may be no higher compliment, however, than the one it received last fall. In October, legendary Chicago pizza chain Lou Malnati's announced it would begin offering Portillo's Italian beef as a topping on its deep-dish pizza. "The only way we knew to top ourselves was to top our pizzas with the famous flavors of Portillo's," Lou Malnati's owner Marc Malnati said.

Al's #1 Italian Beef

It would not be a list of Chicago's top Italian beef purveyors without Al's, which is widely credited as being the first Italian beef shop in the city. The story of this iconic establishment begins roughly a century ago when a sandwich salesman named Anthony Ferreri was hit with an idea after eating a thick-cut beef roast sandwich at a wedding. By adding some spices and cutting the meat thinner, Ferrari believed he could not only make a delicious sandwich, but make twice as many with the same amount of beef.

His creation, dubbed the "Beef Sandwich," was an immediate hit. In 1938, Ferreri's children opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Al's Bar B-Q. The original name stayed until 1980 when Chicago Magazine named Al's Italian beef the best in the city. From that point on, it's been Al's #1 Italian Beef. Al's follows the principle of good things come to those who wait. The process of making the sandwich begins more than a full day before it gets to the customer. The beef simmers in a pot of spiced broth for four hours. It is then allowed to rest for 24 hours before a final dip in the meaty juice to soak up some more flavor.

For decades, Al's Italian beef sandwich has drawn guests from far and wide, including plenty who know a thing about food. The restaurant has hosted a who's-who list of culinary celebrities, including Anthony Bourdain, Bobby Flay, and Guy Fieri.

Buona Beef

The history of Buona Beef stretches back to 1981 when Joe and Peggy Buonavolanto opened their first restaurant in Berwyn, Illinois. The brand now boasts more than two dozen locations in the Chicago area. If you think expansion has lessened the quality, think again. Now operated by the founders' five sons, Buona makes its Italian beef sandwich exactly the same way it did when it opened its doors more than 40 years ago.

Buona's eponymous beef sits in gravy for five to 15 minutes. This allows the meat to warm up without getting tough. It's then layered on fresh Turano Italian bread, topped with giardiniera and peppers, and dipped or submerged in gravy. The result is an Italian beef sandwich the Chicago Tribune calls the best in all of Chicago.

Buona Beef should be on everybody's culinary bucket list, but it will hold extra significance to vegetarians, as it's one of the few Italian beef purveyors that offer a plant-based version of its famous sandwich. As for meat eaters, if you can't make it to the Windy City, fear not. You can buy Buona Beef sandwich kits online and in the grocery store.


One thing you won't have to worry about when heading to Scatchell's is finding the place. Located just outside of Chicago in Cicero, Illinois, the stand's neon lights and signage are impossible to miss. But don't be fooled by its over-the-top appearance since the menu is decidedly simple. In fact, it hasn't deviated much from the original 1953 menu. The eatery specializes in just three things: hot dogs, pizza, and, of course, Italian beef.

Scatchell's seasons its beef the same way it did in the 1950s, with a blend of oregano, salt, black pepper, and garlic. The meat is then cooked for five hours before being chilled for an entire day. Once ready, the beef gets cut into delicately thin slices, and then layered onto a thick roll until there is a perfect meat-to-bread ratio. It's topped with homemade giardiniera that's heavy on the celery, which provides a delectable crunchy texture. Finally, the sandwich can be dipped in Scatchell's famous gravy. The sauce is so good owner Barry Reggi credits it as the secret ingredient separating the sandwich from the competition, and keeping customers coming back through the doors (via WGN).

We're not sure if any characters in "The Bear" will ever venture out to the suburbs for one of Scatchell's Italian beefs, but the restaurant has appeared on screen before. During Wayne and Garth's iconic "Bohemian Rhapsody" joy ride scene in "Wayne's World," the pair can be seen driving past the unmistakable bright lights of Scatchell's.


If one of these restaurants is not like the others, it's Kasama. The Chicago eatery is the polar opposite of the old-school, no-frills, Italian beef-slinging Windy City outposts that make up a majority of this list. Kasama is a Filipino restaurant that opened its doors in 2020. It has made quite a name for itself in those three short years. In 2022, it was named a James Beard Award finalist for best new restaurant, and just a few months later became the first Filipino restaurant in the world to earn a Michelin Star.

"Our biggest goal was to make Filipino food more accessible to people that have never had it before," chef and owner Tim Flores told the Michelin Guide. "Since we do breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it kind of helped us become a little more relatable." Few things are more relatable to Chicagoans than Italian beef. Kasama's version of the dish is called the "Kasama combo sandwich." The restaurant swaps out the traditional beef and sausage for shaved pork adobo and longanisa sausage, which is then topped with a layer of giardiniera. The result is a concoction so good, Chicago Magazine named it one of the best new sandwiches in the entire city. On various online forums, people have described the sandwich as "amazing" and "just about perfect." Fans of "The Bear" may want to put Kasama on the top of their Italian beef lists, as the restaurant made a brief appearance in a Season 2 episode.

Johnnie's Beef

Eating at Johnnie's Beef in Elmwood Park is like transporting back in time. Diners enter through one end of the building (which has not been renovated since the restaurant opened in 1961), place their order, pay with cash, exit out the opposite end, and take their food to one of the nearby picnic tables. The old-school approach at Johnnie's Beef goes even further. The restaurant does not accept credit cards and doesn't even have a website.

Even without the convenience of cashless payment and online ordering, diners continue to flock to this Chicago landmark to get their hands on one of its mouth-watering Italian beef sandwiches. So, how is it made? The beef is prepped with a secret spice blend known only to a handful of the original Johnnie's family members. The fat is trimmed off the meat before it goes in the roaster for four hours. It's then cooled, sliced, and ready to make into a delicious sandwich.

"Isn't that a beautiful thing?" a longtime customer told WTTW of his Johnnie's Italian beef sandwich. "It has not changed. It's like we're going back in time." Another patron claimed on Yelp that it is, "Hands down the best Italian beef sandwich in Chicago...If you don't like the Italian beef here, you just don't like Italian beef." Maybe the highest compliment came from Eater Chicago, which included it in its list of Chicago's most iconic dishes. High praise within a city teeming with Italian beef outlets.

Jay's Beef

In July 2023, Chicago's WGN radio station held a "best beef" tournament in which listeners would vote between 16 of the city's top Italian beef purveyors to determine which eatery reigned supreme. Jay's Beef came in second, losing to Buona Beef by just 1% of the vote. Clearly, Jay's holds its own in the ultra-competitive world of Windy City Italian beef.

The beef at Jay's is prepared much the same way as other establishments: slow roasted for several hours and seasoned with a blend of salt, pepper, and oregano, and a healthy dose of garlic powder. "We make our own meat and we make our own hot peppers, and we understand how important ingredients are," owner Jay Fortuna told Olam Spices. "When it comes to my garlic, you just don't understand — I gotta have it!"

Whatever seasoning mix they're using at Jay's, it's working. As evidenced by the aforementioned poll, Chicagoans love this place. "Jay's is the best beef in the city and my family & I have been loyal customers since I was a kid," one reviewer wrote on Grubhub. Another agreed, calling Jay's "The gold standard when it comes to Italian Beef." It's much the same over at Tripadvisor, where one customer writes, "Italian beef is a big deal in the Chicago area — and Jay's competes with the best and thrives."

Bob-O's Hot Dogs

Bob-O's Hot Dogs first opened as a hot dog stand way back in the 1950s. Some 20 years later, the business was purchased by Phyllis Bartell, who incorporated some of her own homemade recipes into the menu, including Italian beef. Bob-O's has continued making the sandwich the same way in the half-century since.

So, what is this magical, mystery recipe? First, the meat is browned in the oven for one hour. It's then seasoned with a secret blend of spices and a coat of garlic juice. After being cut paper thin and dipped in a gravy bath, the beef gets layered on bread, topped with homemade giardiniera, and delivered to a happy customer.

And boy are those customers happy. "Italian beef is my all-time favorite food. Love Bob-O's beef, so far my favorite in Chicago land," one commented on Reddit. Another was even more percussive in their praise of Bob-O's Italian beef. "In terms of favorites this beats out everyone else," they wrote. "It's just so perfect. The meat has the classic cut, but retains its own juiciness, and taste like that I can only describe as a hamburger...If you want a pure meat, and soaked bun experience that should be illegal, go to Bob-O's."

Mr. Beef

This list would not be complete without the inclusion of the iconic Mr. Beef, which serves as the inspiration for "The Bear." (Christopher Storer, the show's creator, is lifelong friends with Mr. Beef's owner, Chris Zucchero.) In fact, about 90% of the pilot episode was shot inside the real Mr. Beef location, according to Variety.

Mr. Beef was famous well before "The Bear" came around. It opened as a tiny food stand way back in 1979, and helped popularize the now-ubiquitous Italian beef sandwich. "Al's created it, Mr. Beef made it popular across the country — even the world — and Dick Portillo put it on every corner in every state," Zucchero told Eater Chicago.

That popularity is still alive and well today. "I am not really a beef fan (sorry) but the Italian Beef Sandwich was just amazing. Wow," one recent diner posted on Tripadvisor. Another claimed Mr. Beef's version of the sandwich must be included in the conversation of best Italian beef in Chicago. "Generous amount of Italian beef on a French roll, nicely seasoned, and juicy. I would rank this near the top of the beef debate," they wrote. Mr. Beef hasn't just won over everyday people. It also has a growing celebrity fan base that includes actor Joe Mantegna, Chicago White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsforf, and late-night television hosts Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno, the latter of whom once had a key to the restaurant.

Novi's Beef

Novi's Beef has been in operation since 1960. Over that time, it has grown from a tiny, corner shack into a 70-seat Chicago landmark. It has also developed quite a reputation thanks to its famous Italian beef sandwiches. In a 2016 USA Today poll, readers voted Novi's Beef as having the best Italian beef in the entire state of Illinois.

Novi's prepares its beef in a unique manner. Instead of seasoning the meat, the restaurant flavors its gravy with a mixture of 15 different spices. (The beef takes a bath in the gravy before being made into a sandwich.) It's this deliciously savory gravy, along with a unique giardiniera, that separates a Novi's Italian beef sandwich from all the others. "The secret to making the best Italian Beef is the sauce or as some say, gravy!," one customer posted on Yelp. "I like Novi's the best because it has more spices than your run-of-the-mill Italian beef restaurant!" Another customer confirmed this, writing, "They have their own distinct flavor for their beef and their giardiniera is incredible. Very crunchy and overall makes for a spicy Italian beef...You can never go wrong with Novis."

A quick note to anyone wanting to visit Novi's Beef — it's located just outside Chicago, in the suburban city of Berwyn. If you can't spare the 20-minute drive or don't live anywhere near Chicago, you're in luck! You can get Novi's Italian beef shipped right to your doorstep.