Season 2 of The Bear distances itself from Italian beef. It makes sense plotwise as Season 1 ends with the closure of the Original Beef of Chicagoland which must fall to make room for Carmy and Syd’s fancy food aspirations.
Donnie Madia provides a link to the past as the One Off Hospitality co-founder appears in two episodes. Before the Publican opened, a young Madia worked at Mr. Beef, the River North stand that show creator Christopher Storer took inspiration. Like Storer, Madia made friends with Mr. Beef owner Joseph Zucchero. Zucchero died in March, and while Season 2 didn’t make any grand tribute to him, Madia did post an Instagram tribute last week coinciding with the season premiere.
The show also inspired hometown chefs. Beard-winner Jonathon Sawyer is admittedly a fan of the Hulu series. “No show has ever captured the anxiety, pressure, and the sound of a POS printer quite like The Bear,” he says. “It gives me a little kitchen PTSD, but it is a beautiful show.”
Inspired by the show, the Chicago-native has cooked up a $26 italian beef complete with fancy beef suet fries and optional giardiniera aioli at Kindling Downtown Cookout and Cocktails inside the Willis Tower.
The beef is from a boutique farm in Georgia, the bread is from 3D Baking, a notable local commercial bakery. The giardiniera, the key pickled vegetable mix, is from beloved sandwich shop (and noted giardiniera paczki maker) J.P. Graziano’s. For $5 more, diners can add a dab of “raclette whiz.” The cheese could be confused with Cheez Whiz, the popular Philly cheesesteak topping. Cheese, on the whole, is controversial as an Italian beef topping as its popularity is only recent.
“We try to be reverential to the recipe by staying close,” Sawyer says. “We use a Chicago OG for our giardiniera, bread that some of the greatest classic Italian beef is served on, and a traditional blend of herbs and spices.”
One bite of the sandwich induces a Thanksgiving Day-like slumber. It takes another bite to appreciate how tender the fat renders the meat, and how the bread remains supple but strong enough to support 8 ounces of wagyu and jus without a problem. Without cheese, the beef is a bit salty, overpowering the oregano, meaning that the raclette, even at a $5 upcharge, is worth the extra investment for $31.
It’s a fine sandwich, in the same class as the wagyu beef and cheddar that Joe Frillman served for lunch at Daisies in Logan Square. Thinly sliced wagyu is a trend. In Bridgeport, Kimski also trying it out. It does provide for a richer flavor, but at Kindling the giardiniera is a bit of a baffler. The Kindling crew purees the chunks of pickled veggies and spreads them onto the sandwich. Italian beef sandwich fans may miss the crunch. Processing the pickles also robs the mix of heat, which takes some of the familiar flavors away.
Setting aside those archetypal expectations for Italian beef, this is far from a bland sandwich. Sawyer amplifies the beef flavor using aged fish sauce and shoyu. The beef is American wagyu from Georgia’s Chatel Farms, and the kitchen staff cures it for 24 hours and roasts it for another 12. Sawyer’s crew then sears the beef and lets it rest at room temperature before slicing and dipping it in a consomme with anchovy and more shoyu. The bread also gets a kick from a spread of beef fat and salt. Toasting it makes it taste like rich garlic bread.
Kindling co-owner Scott Weiner of the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group says he’d like to see a farmers market pop-up with a chef putting together a sandwich and collaboration with Baked Cheese Haus, the vendor known for its raclette sandwiches.
Sawyer, who won his Beard Award while in Cleveland, is taking on a risk by reinventing a classic with origins in working-class Italian immigrant communities which invented the sandwich as a cheap way to feed large amounts of people in the early 20th Century. Sawyer’s sandwich is not cheap. In fact, just a five-minute walk from Kindling, Luke’s Beef is crowded with customers waiting for a $9.25 sandwich. It also comes with fries.
A notable Chicago chef who shall not be named squirmed when told about Kindling’s sandwich: “That’s the most Jonathon Sawyer thing ever,” the chef said.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a Chicago restaurant has charged a premium for a dressed-up Italian beef and it probably won’t be the last.
Still, Sawyer is ready to embrace any criticism.
“I love it, it’s all that passion and fanatic territorialism that has kept it around for almost a hundred years,” he says. “That doesn’t mean there is only one way to do it, but it definitely does mean to keep that wild venison out of my Italian beef if you know what I’m saying.”