A good Italian beef sandwich is a delicious mess. The Italian beef sandwich at Al's Beef in North Scottsdale is just a mess.
The sandwich is a staple of Chicago cuisine, and the original Al's Beef is a fixture in that city's Little Italy neighborhood, but the fare at the restaurant's new local franchise is more tragic than tasty.
What's Italian beef? It's a dripping deviation of the French dip: Slow-roasted lean beef, soaked in seasoned "juice," and piled on Italian bread. On top of it all is hot giardiniera — a spicy blend of chopped serrano peppers, carrots, cauliflower, celery, and olives packed in oil — and sautéed green peppers.
The chaos at the new Al's starts with the backbone of the Italian beef sandwich: the bread. When ordered "wet" (as is customary in the Windy City), the sandwich is dunked in juice before it's served. The right bread — crunchy crust, fluffy dough — stands up to the soggy. But at Al's, the bread turned gummy, collapsing in on itself in saturated surrender.
The meat of the sandwich was a mushy mash-up of wrongs. First, the beef appeared to be shredded instead of thinly sliced, giving it a spongy consistency. Second, an acidic juice cloaked the traditional Italian seasonings. Finally, Al's signature giardiniera, made with pickled hot peppers, registered a "ho-hum" on the spice-o-meter.
Al's tries real hard to sell us on the original location's legacy. The décor consists mostly of excerpts from national magazines and signage trumpeting its many awards.
Yeah, I get it — it's a franchise. But if you're going to shove your brand down my throat, offer the goods to back it up.
Better Italian beef can be found in the Valley, and the best I've tried is at the Chicago Hamburger Company, at 38th Street and Indian School Road. The generous serving of giardiniera is house-made, the meat is done right, and the bread on this spicy beef bomb (it comes served wet — extra-wet if you ask) is soppy-strong. Unlike the inside of the sterile and logo-happy Al's, the Chicago Hamburger Company's flair comes from real memorabilia gleaned from the Second City.
Until the North Scottsdale location of Al's Beef is truly Windy City-worthy, this Fry Girl will have to seek out her Italian beef bliss elsewhere.
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