'The Bear' puts a spotlight on Chicago's Italian beef The new FX series The Bear centers on a fictional family owned Italian beef shop in Chicago, but the dish was already among the city's iconic foods.

How Chicago came to love the Italian beef sandwich

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Chicago's known for a lot of unique dishes - Chicago dogs - no ketchup, under no circumstance - and deep-dish pizza, barbeque, flaming saganaki, chicken Vesuvio, cheese and caramel popcorn, huitlacoche enchiladas. But you may have heard most recently about Italian beef sandwiches on a new FX series called "The Bear" set in an Italian beef jernt (ph) in Chicago's River North neighborhood.


JEREMY ALLEN WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) Sydney, stir that pot for me, please, chef.

AYO EDEBIRI: (As Sydney Adamu) Yes, chef. You want a cartouche?

WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) Please, thank you chef.

EBON MOSS-BACHRACH: (As Richard Jerimovich) What's a cartouche?

WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) What's our best day here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Five.

WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) OK. Ebraheim, get me a pot for the giardiniera. So if we do six, that will get us through the week, right?

SIMON: So there's the dramedy, the comedy, the pathos - but, above all, the food - the thin-sliced beef, hot and sweet peppers and giardiniera, the pickled vegetable relish - everything but B.J. Liederman, who writes our theme music. The story of how Italian beef sandwiches became one of Chicago's signature foods begins some of the discrimination against Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, when grandmothers shopped for meat to make for their family.

SHERMANN THOMAS: They would only get sold, like, the roast or the ends of the cow - right? - the not-so-tender part. And what ended up happening is those same ladies discovered that if you cook that in its own juices over a longer period of time, right? So you put on a low flame when husband leaves out for work. You let it cook all the way until the time he gets back. It's going to be super tender, right?

SIMON: That's Shermann Thomas, a Chicago historian. And he goes by Dilla and says slicing the meat very thin helps stretch the supply and make it tender.

THOMAS: And like any culinary genius - right? - what they discovered is that it didn't really matter the type of meats that they use - sirloin or rump roast or whatever, right? If it was placed on a really good bread, really fresh bread, then that would also mask the fact that it's not the best choice of cut of meat.

SIMON: Italian beef was also a frequent guest at Chicago Italian weddings, often called peanut weddings for the food they served to fill up the guests.

THOMAS: You know, you had the ceremony at a church, and then everybody brings food together to celebrate the newly married.

SIMON: Historians believe the first shop to sell the Italian beef was Al's in Chicago's Little Italy back in the 1930s. It is still there today. In fact, I went there right after my mother's ashes were interred. It's what she would have wanted. Another celebrated Italian beef emporium is Mr. Beef on Orleans Street. Joseph Zucchero opened Mr. Beef in 1979.

JOSEPH ZUCCHERO: My son and a young man that he grew up with, Chris Storer, would come down here when they were kids. You know, they were kids, and I let them hang around the restaurant.

SIMON: That Chris Storer went on to create "The Bear." And when they built the set in which to shoot the series, there was an obvious source of inspiration.

ZUCCHERO: They built this inside a building. And they took me to it. They wanted me to see it. And my mouth dropped. I was like, oh, my God - I mean, from the floor to the ceiling to the countertops to the equipment.

SIMON: Has "The Bear," with a second season on the way, been good for his business?

ZUCCHERO: It has picked up. Yes, it has. We've seen an increase of business. Absolutely.

SIMON: And that's good news for the restaurant, which saw a dip in customers during the pandemic. And it also cheers Dilla Thomas, who got a regular order at his usual place.

THOMAS: I like mine lightly dipped because I'm - I don't want the bread too soggy. I like it with mixed peppers - so both hot and mild peppers - and then, yeah, a little bit of mustard.

SIMON: You don't have to be an Italian or Chicagoan to love Italian beef. But it's not a food for the faint-hearted - burp.

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