Saturday’s first-ever Italian Beef Festival is sold out in Avondale, but organizers hope to come back next year with more vendors inside a bigger venue. The inaugural event takes place at Revolution Brewery’s Tap Room and the organizers, led by the owners of Buona Beef, will feature three vendors with rich ties to the sandwich’s history. Buona is joined by Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef on Orleans in the hopes of eventually bringing Chicago’s favorite sandwich into the national spotlight.
These forefathers of beef tout the labor-intensive process of seasoning the beef, cooking it, and waiting overnight for it to cool. Then they slice the meat thin. It’s a Chicago tradition that dates back to the 1900s, a way to feed large groups of people economically and deliciously. The work involved is one of the reasons there hasn’t been a festival for the sandwich until now, said Bunoa’s Joe Buonavolanto Jr. It’s not easy to consistently make delicious sandwiches. But as deep-dish pizza and hot dogs overshadow Chicago’s Italian beef from a nationwide perspective, event organizers felt it was time to take a chance.
“The amount of publicity and excitement around this, it’s almost overwhelming for the first one,” Buonavolanto Jr. said.
Buona, Al’s, and Mr. Beef are all rivals in some capacity, but they’re also family and friends. Carl Bonavolanto Jr., co-founder of Mr. Beef, aided his brother, Joe Buonavolanto Sr., in opening Buona in the suburbs.
Rivalries are part of what makes the sandwich’s history compelling, as Chris Pacelli of Al’s Beef talked about how his grandfather, who he credits with inventing the sandwich, used to hang out — even gamble — along with Ralph Scala (the namesake of Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company) and others. Saturday’s event gives the owners of these three chains a reason to celebrate each other’s work.
“I never really ate a beef I didn’t care for,” Pacelli said. “Everybody has their own unique way of making something.”
Italian beefs are unique for the various ways to eat the item. Enjoy it dry, baptized in jus and with sweet or hot peppers. Pacelli talks about being at a cooking demonstration in Las Vegas alongside Geno Vento of Geno’s Steaks of Philadelphia cheesesteak fame. Pacelli recalled an executive from Pizza Hut approaching him and asking him the difference between the Chicago and Philadelphia way. All cheesesteak makers do is throw meat on a flattop and dice, Pacelli said, as the Chicago method is superior: “That is called cooking, that other thing is called frying,” he added.
Festival vendors will prepare the beefs off premises and bring them to the taproom on Saturday. There’s a focus on enjoying the sandwiches in their purest form. Don’t think about dosing it with any sauces, especially Chicago’s public enemy No. 1: ketchup. Don’t get Pacelli started. Ensuring the sandwiches are prepped traditionally is important. Pacelli mentioned a trip to Hormel Foods’ headquarters In Minnesota in 1997 or 1998 where he discussed a retail version of Al’s Beef to be sold at supermarkets. Pacelli couldn’t pull the trigger on the deal. They were going to alter the product too much.
Revolution will also provide beer pairings for the sandwiches on Saturday and provided tasting notes. For example, easy-drinking Cross of Gold golden ale mixes best with Buona. Fist City, a pale ale, has a bitterness to enhance giardiniera with goes best with Al’s. Galaxy Hero and its bitter galaxy hops goes best with Mr. Beef thanks to the red pepper flakes in the giardiniera.
Next year’s event should be bigger with more vendors. Buonavolanto Jr. said he’s had to turn away interested parties. But don’t expect Cheez Whiz or ketchup next year. That wouldn’t be the Chicago way.