If the highfalutin James Beard Foundation were to bestow Mr. Beef, the humble River North street food stand, with an award — say, naming it one of America’s Classics — Chris Zucchero says he wouldn’t accept the prize.
In general, fine dining ticks Zucchero off, from the brigade system in the kitchen to the paltry portions of a tasting menu. Still, Zucchero says his father, Joe — who died on March 1 — would have scolded his son, telling him to shut up and graciously take the medallion if the Beard Foundation came calling.
Zucchero likens Mr. Beef to a punk rock band, disrupting a music industry full of saccharin pop stars. He specifically compared the stand to Fugazi, the D.C. outfit that marched to its own beat in the ’80s and ’90s, putting out albums on upstart Dischord Records with hits like “Waiting Room” and “Give Me the Cure.”
The younger Zucchero does recall one story about his father’s beef stand and a famous chef that still warms his heart. Zucchero says the legendary Chicago chef Charlie Trotter was a regular at Mr. Beef, making the trek from his Lincoln Park restaurant to River North. With that in mind, Zucchero remembers a customer, a tourist, who told him about her visit to Trotter’s restaurant when she thanked the chef for a meal that featured “real Chicago food.”
The mercurial Trotter was supposedly outraged by the compliment. He left the table and quickly scribbled Mr. Beef’s address on a note: “That’s where you want to go for real Chicago food,” Trotter allegedly told the diner.
Chicago beef stands leave impressions on locals, often run by characters like the Zuccheros. Another iconic stand, Al’s Beef, is run by Chris Pacelli, who will tell stories about his family selling sandwiches to residents at the Chicago Medical District on the city’s Near West Side. Back in the ’30s, they’d allegedly play jokes on friends with cadaver parts somehow obtained from the local hospitals.
There’s also Dick Portillo, the founder of Portillo’s, a chain primed to be America’s next thing — just ask anyone waiting for an hour in Dallas. Zucchero sums up the trio’s accomplishments: “Al’s created it, Mr. Beef made it popular across the country — even the world — and Dick Portillo put it on every corner in every state.”
That’s one way of looking at the history of Chicago’s beef stands. But even Mr. Beef is more than what it appears. Though the sign on the restaurant reads “since 1979,” Mr. Beef’s history stretches back to the ’60s. Joe Zucchero actually purchased the stand from Carl Bonovolanto and his brother-in-law, Tony Ozzauto. They opened the stand in 1963 using recipes from Ozzauto’s mother, Mary. After they sold that stand, they served as Zucchero’s landlord until he picked up the option to buy the River North building in the ’80s.
To assist in the transition after the restaurant was sold, Bonovolanto’s son, Carl Bonovolanto Jr., worked at Mr. Beef. Both Bonovolanto and Zucchero say there’s not much of a rapport between the two families, but the sides remain cordial, at least publically. Zucchero insists that Mr. Beef took on a life of its own after his father took ownership.
Bonovolanto Jr. admits that he wishes they kept the River North space as he was eager to jump into the family business. He even bronzed a fork his father and uncle used when they first opened Mr. Beef. It’s up on a plaque with an inscription, “the fork that started it all.”
The Bonovolantos eventually opened another stand, the Original Mr. Beef, in suburban Homer Glenn. The pandemic crushed businesses and it closed in 2021. The closure kind of was lost as many restaurants suffered during COVID. But Bonovolanto Jr. is back at it, making Italian beefs and more at a sports bar called Mugshots, also in Homer Glenn.
But not all beef is created equal. Some stores take shortcuts. Bonovolanto Jr. calls making Italian beef an art, something that can’t be easily imitated — say the way some chefs around the country are attempting to do after finding inspiration after watching a few episodes of The Bear:
“For me, I think it’s wonderful the interest it’s generated across the country,” says Bonovolanto Jr.’s cousin, Carlo Buonovolanto. He’s the chief executive officer at Buona, a chain that specializes in Italian beef. They’re mostly in the suburbs with one Chicago location in Streeterville.
New fans may not share the same passion for the sandwich as Italian beef evangelists from Chicago like the Bonovolantos, but Carlo agrees that the sandwich is finally getting its due.
But there are still a few things that irk the two. For example, an Italian beef isn’t comparable to a Philly cheesesteak, and don’t sell it short by calling it a roast beef sandwich.
“It’s a three to four-day process to make Italian beef,” Carlo Buonavolanto says. “You marinate it, then you cook it, then you chill it, slice it and you make the perfect sandwich.”
It would be more accurate to call it an Italian steak sandwich as Buona and Mr. Beef continue to use top sirloin. But for Carlo Buonavolanto, the biggest disappointment is that some chains don’t use drippings from the beef to make their own gravy. Instead, they mix it separately to save time and money. This takes away the full-grain flavor from a fatty piece of meat that’s soaked in the jus, he says.
Bonovolanto Jr. says his father and uncle had $16 between them when they opened Mr. Beef in 1963. His uncle died in 2014, while his father died in May 2020 with America still adjusting to life during the pandemic. Bonovolanto Jr. remains in awe of what they accomplished with Mr. Beef and says it’s up to him to continue their legacies: “If it wasn’t for them two, I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing today,” he says.
Update: With a mention of the relationship between the two families.