Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s an Italian Beef

A paean to Chicago street eats.
hot dog

Eating on the street—even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat—displays [a] lack of self-control…Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal…This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.”

On a flight home from Chicago, while reading the May 28 issue of the New Republic, I came upon those words. They were written by Leon Kass, head of President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which recently published a 555-page report, Human Dignity and Bioethics.

Making sense of Kass’s phobias will likely require a battalion of Freudian psychoanalysts. Did his father never introduce him to the pleasures of a dirty-water hot dog, fished from a peddler’s cart? Has he never relished a barbecue sandwich, served by a roadside vendor, tending a cinderblock pit? Or does he just live in mortal fear of mussing his shirtfront?

More to the point of my recent travel to Chicago, it seems clear that Kass has never eaten well in the City of Big Shoulders. In Chicago, a city with proud working class roots, street food is a small-d democratic birthright, an everyman feed enjoyed by all classes and races.

I could go on and on about the glories of Chicago street eats, from the sleeves of churros sold in the Pilsen neighborhood, to the paper boats of rib tips and fries that are South Side favorites, but I’ll limit myself to Italian beef sandwiches because, well, they’re so damn good and so damn sloppy.

I arrived in the city familiar with the form. I had been to Al’s Italian Beef stand, where they serve the prototype: chopped beef, swimming in a kind of burly beef consommé, tucked into a stubby and crusty roll. I knew to ask for mine hot and wet, which means the counterman submerges your sandwich in the juice and tops it with a mix of pickled vegetables that, depending upon your stand of choice, might include peppers, celery, carrots, and cauliflower.

What I didn’t know is that Chickie’s, on Pulaski, serves a greasier and wetter version of the norm, one that collapses upon itself after three bites. Or that Johnnie’s, in the Elmwood Park suburb, serves a peerless combo of charcoal-grilled sausage and shaved beef, a sandwich best enjoyed from a perch in the blacktop parking lot, a sandwich best followed by a house-made, lemon-puckered Italian ice.

I learned those lessons from two friends of mine, Peter Engler and Rob Lopata, frequent posters on, a Chicago-focused website for food obsessives. What I didn’t have to learn from them was how to eat an Italian beef. That came naturally. And shamelessly.

At Chickie’s, I moved quickly from the counter to the curb where, between bites of my sandwich—as rivulets of juice and pepper oil traced their way down my forearm, as I flung grease from my fingers and wiped my mouth with my sleeve—I resolved to write this screed and, in so doing, take a very small step toward calling out Kass.

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