Portillo’s Italian beef is one of the most famous menu items at the iconic Chicago restaurant chain. The thinly-sliced roasted beef sandwich is a local specialty, prized for its juicy meat, sweet peppers, and savory gravy. But what exactly goes into Portillo’s signature Italian beef? Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients and preparation behind this Windy City classic.
The Main Ingredient: Thinly Sliced Roast Beef
At the heart of every Portillo’s Italian beef sandwich is their proprietary roast beef. Portillo’s uses top round beef seasoned simply with salt and pepper. The roast is slow-cooked until tender and sliced paper-thin when ordered. This allows the beef to soak up all the flavors of the gravy and peppers.
Portillo’s roasts whole top rounds in-house at their commissary kitchens. Each restaurant receives shipments of the pre-cooked, sliced beef every day. By centralizing roasting in a few locations, Portillo’s can closely monitor quality and consistency. The thin slices also make the beef sandwiches faster to assemble at their busy restaurants.
Why Top Round?
Top round offers several advantages for Italian beef:
- It’s a lean, affordable cut
- Roasts evenly due to uniform shape
- Produces tender, sliceable meat when slow-cooked
While other cuts like bottom round or eye of round would also work, top round gives the ideal combination of tenderness and cost-effectiveness. It allows Portillo’s to produce great Italian beef affordably and on a large scale.
The Gravy: Beef Drippings and Spices
The gravy is what sets Italian beef apart from a typical roast beef sandwich. Portillo’s makes their signature gravy fresh daily at each restaurant using the juices leftover from roasting their top round.
The meat drippings are seasoned with a blend of spices like oregano, basil, rosemary, and black pepper. The drippings and spices are slowly reduced into an aromatic concentrate. Before serving, the gravy is thinned with water and beef stock until it reaches the perfect consistency to soak into the sandwich.
Unlike other menu items, the exact gravy spices are a closely guarded secret. Even restaurant employees don’t know the exact measurements that go into Portillo’s signature Italian gravy.
- Made fresh daily at each Portillo’s location
- Uses concentrated beef drippings from roasting top rounds
- Seasoned with signature blend of Italian spices
- Thinned with water and beef stock before serving
The Peppers: Sauteed Combo with Pickle Accent
Alongside the thin-sliced beef, Italian peppers are an essential component of Portillo’s sandwiches. The chain uses a mix of mild green and hot giardiniera peppers cooked to mellow sweetness.
The peppers begin raw, then are sauteed on a flattop grill before serving. This caramelizes their natural sugars and mellows the spicy edge. Once pliable and lightly charred, the peppers are incorporated into the sandwiches.
In addition to the sautéed combo, every Italian beef also gets a topping of pepperoncini peppers. These tangy pickled peppers contribute brightness and accentuate the flavor contrasts.
- Uses a mix of raw mild and spicy peppers
- Sauteed to caramelize natural sugars
- Further seasoned with oregano, basil, and other Italian spices
- Topped with crisp, pickled pepperoncini
The Bread: Fresh Italian Loaf
No Italian beef would be complete without the perfect loaf to soak up all those juices. Portillo’s sandwiches use fresh-baked Italian bread delivered daily.
The loaves have a simple recipe: flour, water, yeast, salt, and a touch of olive oil. The dough is hand-shaped and baked until it develops a crunchy outer crust with a chewy, airy interior. The bread is sliced lengthwise so the interior has more surface to absorb gravy.
Using fresh bread is essential since the loaves must be soft enough to compress under the sandwich’s juicy contents. A day-old loaf would turn too soggy and fall apart.
- Daily deliveries of fresh loaves
- Crunchy crust, chewy and airy interior
- Sliced lengthwise to maximize gravy absorption
- Freshness prevents the bread from getting soggy
In addition to the core ingredients above, customers can customize their Portillo’s Italian beef with these tasty extras:
- Cheese – Provolone, mozzarella, or cheddar melted on top
- Hot Giardiniera – Extra spoonfuls of spicy pickled veggies
- Sweet Peppers – Additional slices of the mild green peppers
Cheese and extra peppers complement the beefy gravy, while hot giardiniera adds even more spice and tang. Add-ons are kept separate so customers can mix and match to fit their tastes.
- Provolone, mozzarella, or cheddar cheese
- Extra hot giardiniera peppers
- More sautéed sweet green peppers
Portillo’s Italian beef comes in four distinct styles based on the level of juiciness. Customers can choose their perfect sandwich based on personal tastes.
|Dry||Roast beef only, served dry with no gravy|
|Lean||Light gravy just to moisten the beef|
|Regular||Balanced amount of gravy|
|Dipped||Extra gravy for enthusiastically soaked beef|
First-timers often order a regular Italian beef. The “dipped” style with max gravy has the most intense, signature flavor. Lean satisfies lighter appetites, while dry beef highlights the taste of the expertly roasted meat.
Serving Style Summary
- Dry – no gravy, just roast beef
- Lean – light gravy to moisten
- Regular – balanced gravy levels
- Dipped – extra gravy for soaked beef
The Famous Combo: Add an Italian Sausage
No discussion of Portillo’s menu would be complete without mentioning their iconic Beef and Sausage Combo. This sandwich pairs Italian beef with a grilled Italian sausage for the ultimate meal.
Portillo’s makes their own blend of fennel and garlic sausage in-house. The grilled sausage links are sliced on the bias and served alongside the Italian beef. The combination brings a satisfying mix of flavors and textures.
Ordering a combo allows customers to get the best of both worlds. Savory sliced sausage complements the thinner shredded beef. It’s no wonder the Beef and Sausage Combo has become a Chicago specialty in its own right!
The Famous Combo Breakdown
- Portillo’s signature Italian beef
- Sliced Italian sausage grilled with fennel and garlic
- Combined on one loaf for the ultimate sandwich
The End Result: Sandwich Perfection
When all these carefully sourced ingredients come together, they produce Italian beef sandwich perfection:
- Tender, thin-sliced beef infused with rich meaty gravy
- Mellow peppers and pepperoncini for texture and spice
- Soft yet crusty Italian loaf that soaks up maximum flavor
- Customizable with cheese, giardiniera, or combo sausage
Every bite features a ideal balance of juicy beef, savory gravy, peppers, and bread. This harmony of flavors and textures is why Portillo’s Italian beef has reached legendary status in Chicago and beyond.
The History Behind the Sandwich
So how did Italian beef become a Chicago institution and the flagship menu item of Portillo’s?
The sandwich traces its roots back to Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhoods featured an abundance of Italian bakeries and butcher shops. Thrifty home cooks would slow-roast inexpensive beef cuts to tenderness and later slice them for sandwiches.
These early Italian beefs were served au jus on fresh Italian bread. Local restaurants eventually adopted the dish, adding spice blends and peppers to the gravy. By the 1950s, Italian beef had become a Windy City staple.
Dick Portillo opened the first Portillo’s hot dog stand in 1963. Within a decade, the restaurant chain expanded into Italian beef sandwiches. They tweaked the gravy spices and preparation methods to create their signature version.
Today, Portillo’s ships their Italian beef across the country so fans everywhere can enjoy a taste of Chicago.
Origins and Evolution
- Grew from Italian home cooking in early 1900s Chicago
- Restaurants added signature spices and peppers
- Became a local specialty by the 1950s
- Portillo’s opened in 1963 and popularized their style
Why Portillo’s Stands Above the Rest
There are many spots serving Italian beef sandwiches throughout Chicagoland. So what makes Portillo’s stand out from the competition?
- Proprietary seasoning – Secret spice blend for one-of-a-kind gravy
- Pepper medley – Tailored mix for balanced bite
- Bread loaves – Specially sliced to soak up maximum gravy
- Beef cuts – Carefully choosing top round for consistency
- Vertical integration – Controlling everything from roasting to serving
- Brand recognition – National fame beyond just Chicago fans
By perfecting every step of the process, Portillo’s has turned the humble Italian beef into a beloved brand synonymous with Chicago comfort food.
Why Portillo’s Stands Out
- Signature seasoning blends
- Proprietary pepper mixes
- Bread sliced for max absorption
- Choice beef cuts for tenderness
- Vertical control from roasting to serving
- National brand recognition
Bringing the Taste of Chicago Worldwide
Part of Portillo’s success has been expanding access to their crave-worthy Chicago classics.
The chain now ships Italian beef sandwiches and ship kits nationwide. They also have restaurants throughout the Midwest, California, Arizona, Florida and counting. This growth beyond Illinois has introduced legions of new fans to pleasures of Chicago-style Italian beef.
As they continue to grow, Portillo’s faces the challenge of maintaining quality and consistency. Their shipping commissaries allow them to closely monitor roasting while still scaling efficiently. Expansion also promotes innovation, like developing new peppers and gravy techniques.
By leveraging technology and distribution, Portillo’s has kept intact the culinary traditions of their original Windy City restaurants.
- Ships fully assembled sandwiches countrywide
- Ships DIY meal kits for homemade beefs
- Dine-in restaurants across the Midwest and Sunbelt
The Future of the Italian Beef Sandwich
As tastes change, what does the future hold for Portillo’s signature sandwich? Some possibilities include:
- New cuts and roasts: Experimenting with other budget-friendly beef cuts could produce even more tender, gravy-absorbing meat.
- Gravy innovation: The top-secret spice blend will likely continue evolving to satisfy evolving palates.
- Vegetarian / plant-based: Portillo’s could develop veggie versions to appeal to dietary preferences.
- Premium / limited edition: Special roasts, gravies, or breads could be offered as high-end monthly specials.
- Seasonal flavors: Gravy spices and peppers tailored around holidays or times of year.
Staying true to tradition while offering new twists will be the route to keeping Italian beef relevant. Portillo’s innovation is what brought us the famous Chicago-style sandwich, so their chefs are sure to have more craveable creations ahead.
The Future of the Sandwich
- Experimenting with new cuts of beef
- Innovating new gravy spice blends
- Vegetarian or plant-based versions
- Premium or limited edition options
- Seasonal gravy flavors
From humble beginnings in Little Italy, the Italian beef sandwich has become a culinary icon. The perfect harmony of ingredients gives this Chicago specialty its craveable appeal. While many restaurants offer Italian beef, Portillo’s stands above for brand recognition, gravy secrets, pepper medleys, and vertical integration. Their growth beyond Chicago has let food lovers nationwide savor this Windy City tradition. With continued innovation and care, Portillo’s Italian Beef is sure to satisfy fans for generations to come.