Chicago’s River North has been in constant change over the last few decades, from its heritage as an industrial shithole, to a warehouse district, then artists’ bohemia. The neighborhood is now the city’s dine-out frontrunner, home to more restaurants per inch than anywhere in the country outside of New York City.
Now patio seating, pitchers of beer, and flatscreen TVs behind oversized windows solicit the sidewalks between the Chicago River and Chicago Ave. Pubs and taverns keep popping up amid antique shops and art galleries with glossy, professionally-designed signage, eating away at the neighborhood’s dirty-brick, blue-collar past. It’s an old story.
So is the history of Mr. Beef, dating back to when River North was still known as Smokey Hollow, and before Little Sicily drifted northward. And next to all these commissioned attempts at tasteful storefronts, the sign richest with personality is the plainest on the block, accreting recognition simply by staying the same.
The menu inside is similarly lo-fi. The a-la-carte items are spread across a menu board with missing letters, or on scotch-taped paper with additions in Sharpie. But this is more decoration than function. The guys behind the counter jump to the same conclusion with every customer that walks in – “Hot or sweet peppers?” – the fast-food Chicago version of “Irrashamaise!”
In my case, they guessed right. I ordered dipped, both hot and sweet, and deliberated in the “Elegant Dining Room.”
Chowhound message boards, Food Network contests, and el train arguments compare Mr. Beef to Portillo’s, Al’s, and whatever newcomer dares to join the conversation. Indeed, in Chicago, the conversation can even eclipse the sandwich. Even though there’s only a couple distributors in the city, Chicagoans find plenty ways to argue which spot has the better juice or the better giardiniera. The debate becomes as much a part of the consuming process as sinking your teeth into a handful of thinly sliced beef, soggy Italian bread and pickled peppers.
Mr. Beef’s reputation wavers between overrated, bolstered by Jay Leno visits, and “the way it should be,” dipped in au jus until almost unholdable, never dry, and always old-school. I found the peppers a bit lacking, but hey, to each their own. The only unaminous opinion in this city is that when it comes to Italian Beef, it’s what’s outside that counts.
666 N Orleans St
Chicago, IL 60610