Chicago's breaded steak sandwich gets its day in USA Today

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Breaded steak sandwich at Johnny Os

A sportswriter named Ted Berg took a page in USA Today yesterday to tell the world that Chicago had the best sandwich in the world. Italian beef? An Edzo's cheeseburger? Something from Publican Quality Meats? No, compared to those relatively celebrated items, this was a somewhat obscure ringer—the breaded steak sandwich at Ricobene's, an old Italian sandwich spot on the edge of Chinatown in Bridgeport. And Berg couldn't let it go at praising us for having it—he had to chastise us for not appreciating it enough: "That perfect sandwich failed to rank on Chicagoist's list of top 25 sandwiches, or on a CBS Chicago list of best sandwiches in 2010 or 2012, or on top Chicago sandwich lists compiled by Thrillist and Zagat."

Well there is, in fact, a breaded steak sandwich on this Thrillist list of top Chicago sandwiches; I know that because I put it there. But Berg has a point: it's certainly under-celebrated as a regional specialty next to, say, an Italian beef or even such curiosities as the mother-in-law or the Jim Shoe. Maybe that's because it seems kind of colorless—plain old beef, coated and fried like an Italian chicken fried steak, then covered in pizza cheese and tomato sauce—next to something as weird as the mother-in-law (a tamale dressed as a Chicago hot dog) or a Jim Shoe (which is basically every meat in a Pakistani halal sub shop, covered in every sauce they have on a bun). It certainly has a more boring name.

Nevertheless, as a regional sandwich, there's a lot about the breaded steak that's interesting, for instance that its "region" is basically confined to a section of Bridgeport. There are probably examples of it that can be found in other parts of town, but only in Bridgeport would you see it listed first on a billboard, as Mangia Fresca does on a sign on Halsted. Offhand I could think of four Bridgeport spots that make some hay about having it—Mangia Fresca, Freddie's, Johnny O's, and Ricobene's—and Chuck Sudo at Chicagoist mentioned a couple more that were new to me within the same small area, Gio's Cafe and Punky's Pizza & Pasta. But there's no denying that it was Ricobene's that made it famous and has become famous for having it.

Breaded steak at Ricobenes

Ricobene's used to be a little shack with a window, serving gut-bomb food to city workers and other late-night diners. Today it's a nice brick building that looks like a pizza place in a suburban strip mall, but the decor is about the only thing that's changed about this de facto city employee cafeteria. The food is still heavy enough to satisfy 300-pound guys who lift trash cans all day, the kind of food that will knock a desk jockey out for the rest of the afternoon, and as Duck Inn chef Kevin Hickey put it to me recently, it's the safest restaurant in Chicago because every city worker in there is packing heat. On the basis of sheer quantity, Ricobene's breaded steak sandwich is certainly impressive, but it's excess without finesse. It looked like a special effect from an alien movie as I unwrapped the goopy mess of generic-tasting red sauce and mozzarella cheese, most of it not even melted. (The best thing about Ricobene's, in my book, is that it has by far the most extensive deep dish pizza buffet in Chicago, with eight or ten different pies freshly set out all through the city's lunch hours. I'm not too proud to know and appreciate that fact.)

For me a better-crafted sandwich is the version at Johnny O's at 35th and Morgan. As you can see in the video I made there a couple of years ago, care is taken at several key points to sharpen up the individual components; the cheese is put on the griddle to soften it up and the peppers are griddled as well. Even the simple red sauce just has more pizzazz. It's still a monster of a sandwich which you'll probably want to follow with a good nap, but it's about more than sheer excess. Berg is right that this is a sandwich Chicagoans should appreciate more, but he should've dug deeper into the neighborhood to find the best one. Also, given the Irish Catholic makeup of the neighborhood, couldn't he have waited until Lent was over to make you crave a big hunk of beef?

Real Chicago: The Song of Johnny O from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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