Why you should care
Because there’s only one Chicago Italian beef in the Big Apple.
A Chicago Italian beef is not a cheesesteak. It’s not a French dip, a chopped cheese, po’boy or sub. And while similarly constructed, the Chicago Italian beef is far superior to Philadelphia’s overly greasy roast pork impersonator. If mouth experiences were a ballgame, the “beef” hits for the cycle. And, now, one rogue Chicagoan is bringing his Italian beef sandwich … to New York.
The Italian beef — liberally seasoned sliced sirloin topped with a pickled crunch and drenched with au jus — comes wrapped in foil, begging to be eaten by hand. In Chicago, the beef is more ritual than just a meal. “Growing up, beef was life and life was beef,” says Hank Tibensky, an Oak Park, Illinois, native who opened Hank’s Juicy Beef in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood in 2015 after 15 beef-less years living in New York. “I finally had to jump ship from my corporate job and bring the family recipe out here.”
No city boasts a roster of knee-dropping sandos like New York. The king, of course, is Katz’s Deli’s famed pastrami, a peppery pile of smoked beef so ingrained in New York history that it may never surrender the city’s top spot. Yet, Hank’s Beef is a worthy challenger — and the only one when it comes to serving Chicago Italian beef in the Big Apple. Served on a fresh-baked, flaky French roll, each sandwich is stuffed with shaves of marinated slow-roasted beef and then “dipped, dunked and baptized” (as the menu says) in homemade au jus. Sprinkled with another criminally underrated Chicago delicacy — the sweet and spicy relish known as giardiniera — the sandwich is so complete that placeholders like cheese need not apply.
Want to eat like a pro? OGs stand up, elbows on the counter with a slight lean so as to avoid spilled remnants.
The common origin tale of the Italian beef is that of an immigrant food borne of necessity. In the first half of the 20th century, “peanut weddings” — where peanuts and other cheap foods were served — were commonplace. Along the way, someone (a crafty father of the bride, perhaps?) discovered that double the mouths could be fed if beef was sliced razor-thin and cooked in its own juices. By mid-century, the meager answer to a party problem grew from street carts in Chicago’s cash-strapped neighborhoods to a city-wide phenomenon. Now, word of New York’s only Italian beef purveyor is spreading through the Big Apple, thanks to steady lunch business and a regular presence at festivals like the Taste of Tribeca and Pitchfork’s OctFest and street fairs.
Hank’s has ample table seating, if that’s your bag, but there’s also a streetside counter. Want to eat like a pro? OGs stand up, elbows on the counter with a slight lean so as to avoid spilled remnants. Yes, beefs get messy. Newbies must try a beef ($7.95 for a quarter-pound, $10.95 for a half), but there’s also a classic Chicago hot dog, juicy beef rice bowls and a terrific eggplant parm, courtesy of Tibensky’s Aunt Rose. From 1950 to 1994, Tibensky’s uncle ran an Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. “My aunts taught me all the recipes and the family stories,” says Tibensky. “We’re doing our best to honor that tradition, and also make it our own.”
The French bread is Hank’s secret weapon, Tibensky says. After testing upwards of 20 bakeries in New York, he turned back to his roots. “We ship ours from Chicago and bake it on site daily,” he says. “There’s something specific about the fresh Lake Michigan water. It makes a roll that can really absorb and hold a juicy beef.”
For fans of Chicago Italian beef, that’s what it’s all about. Absorbing the beef, holding it and never letting go.
Go There: Hank’s Juicy Beef
- Location: 84 Chambers St., New York, NY 10007. Map.
- Hours: Mon – Thurs: 11:30 am to 9 pm; Sat: 12 pm to 4 pm.
- Pro Tip: Order your sandwich “hot, sweet and dunked” — it’s quickly dunked in au jus (not soaked) and is served with a mix of hot and sweet giardiniera.