Nearly 20 years ago, a buddy asked me to meet him after work at a suburban sports bar for pizza and beer. My friend, the kind of guy who loves sleeveless shirts, sat me down and was excited to order. The bar, Stadium, specialized in Chicago-style thin crust. He was eager for me to try his favorite new topping combo inspired by Johnny’s Beef, just a few blocks in Arlington Heights: giardiniera and meatballs.
The peppers’ acidity blended so well with the mozzarella. The oven gave the pickled veggies a slight char that clicked with the crust. And the heat begged for a lager.
Fast-forward two decades or so later. Lou Malnati’s has begun shipping pizzas with giardiniera and Italian beef from another Chicago-ish chain, Portillo’s. Chicago magazine hailed this innovation as “two of Chicago’s most Chicago-y restaurants” coming together.
Now, Chicago brands love to prove how Chicago they are, earlier this year when Wieners Circle and JP Graziano’s merged for an April’s Fool joke. But as Portillo’s and Lou’s took a victory lap with the media coverage gobbling up the gimmick like a hungry family from Iowa waiting an hour for deep-dish at a downtown pizzeria on a busy Friday night — it was reminiscent of l’affaire Emily in which Malnati’s successfully pushed the underdog narrative of coastal elites versus Chicago.
But things have changed since Emily’s hateful words. Lou’s sold for a reported $500 million. Portillo’s also has the support of an investment firm. For some locals, Lou’s and Portillo’s combined might wasn’t a delight. For example, Chicago restaurant veteran and charity pop-up dynamo Billy Zureikat on Twitter describes this union as, “a collab between CVS and Walgreens.” In 2022, this is as Chicago as seeing former Cub cornerstone Anthony Rizzo bat second for the New York Yankees this postseason.
Lou’s won’t make the pies fresh (the chain last year did offer a limited edition Italian beef pie with its own spicy giard, but who remembers anything from the depths of the pandemic?). I am sure the frozen pizzas will make some homesick exiled Chicagoan listening to Wilco on shuffle feel nostalgic. This feels like a plotline for season two of The Bear, the TV show that’s introduced many outside of Chicago to one of its classics.
Lou’s and Portillo’s didn’t discover Italian beef pizza, and several Chicago institutions are reminding people of the facts. For locals who don’t want to ship a frozen pizza to themselves, here are a few Chicago stalwarts sharing their own unique beef and giardiniera foodstuffs. Yes, there are many more, but here are just a few examples.
Manny’s pastrami is legendary, and the simple addition of giardiniera from JP Graziano’s may not agree with bubbe, but the sandwich is a fun deviation for the rest of Chicago.
Pleasant House Pub
Pleasant House owner Art Jackson says he’s been getting plenty of texts since Lou’s and Portillo’s made its announcement. The Pilsen pub is known for its savory British pub-style pies. This week it unveiled an Italian beef pie with provolone. Jackson says they might up the stakes and offer a combo (adding Italian sausage) next.
The venerable Taylor Street deli, in the heart of Little Italy, threw some shade at the announcement by posting a Facebook photo of their Roman-style pizza with Italian beef: “Been doing this Italian beef and Giardiniera pizza thing for a while over here. Come give our deep dish pie of the day a try, available every Tuesday!” Enough said.