Italian Beef Is The Next Plant-Based Frontier

Buona Beef is a Chicago institution. The first location opened just outside the city in Berwyn, Illinois, in 1981, and it's become a popular chain since then with 27 locations across the Chicagoland area. The name has been shortened to "Buona" (see also: Dunkin', Edible, and Jamba), but along with that abbreviated title, Buona has launched a new innovation: it's rolling out a plant-based Italian beef sandwich, or rather, an Italian Beefless, starting today.

When making a plant-based alternative to a beloved carnivore meal, it's important to place dual focus on texture and flavor. That's why a lot of meatless offerings on the market today are mimicking foods that start with ground meat: meatballs, burger patties, and breakfast sausages are easier to achieve dead ringers for, because the construction of the "meat" can be looser. It's much harder to achieve whole cuts, like steak, because it's got to feel like you're sinking your teeth into muscle tissue. Texturally, Italian beef splits the difference: it's composed of thin slices of roast beef, making it an interesting meat to imitate. Buona's solution? Use seitan.

Seitan is essentially a mass of wheat gluten, pressed into blocks for cooking. It isn't a new and trendy trademark like Impossible or Beyond; it's been used in China for centuries, and has a long history in Japanese cooking as well. The United States adopted it in the 20th century as a vegetarian/vegan alternative, often flavoring it with mushrooms, spices, or barbecue sauce. If you've eaten Tofurky, you've had seitan. By slicing it thin and adding vegan gravy, spices, and giardiniera, Buona has created an Italian Beefless that certainly looks a lot like the classic sandwich, even if the seitan looks a touch more like gyro meat than roast beef up close.

"When vegans go out to eat, they crave the same variety and savory meal options as anyone, just without the meat to go with it," said Dan Staackmaan, founder of Upton's Naturals, the Chicago-based seitan maker collaborating Buona on the sandwich, in a press release. "There's so much opportunity to serve the community of people embracing a plant-based diet, which stretches far beyond having a vegan burger on the menu."

And maybe when there's enough variety in vegan and vegetarian offerings, it'll help incentivize meat-eaters to reduce their meat consumption, too. And that's important, because reducing meat consumption across the board—and, by extension, meat production—can have tremendous positive impacts on the environment.