Portillo's And Lou Malnati's Combine Two Chicago Classics

But to Chicagoans, Italian beef and peppers on a pizza is nothing new.

The internet—or at least the Midwest corner of it—was abuzz last week when two Chicago-based restaurant chains, Portillo's and Lou Malnati's, announced a high-profile collaboration. Portillo's is known for Chicago staples such as hot dogs and Italian beef, while Lou Malnati's is home to some of the city's great deep dish pizza. So what do they create together? The Italian beef deep dish pizza, of course. The frozen pies are currently available for a limited time for nationwide shipping; you can grab them over at Tastes of Chicago, Malnati's national online marketplace for Chicago food.

True to form, there are two different pizzas available to reflect the two different ways you can order an Italian beef in Chicago. The "hot" variety is topped with Italian beef and hot giardinera, while the "sweet" has Italian beef and sweet peppers (aka roasted bell peppers). Yet while pizza and Italian beef might sound like a gimmicky or odd combination, the fact is that Chicagoans already know it quite well.

What you don’t know about the pizza and Italian beef combo

It's an open secret that Italian beef has been a popular pizza topping for decades. Go to any pizza joint in the city and you'll either find a specialty pizza on the menu topped with Italian beef and giardiniera or you'll find both ingredients in the build-your-own section, inviting you to layer those flavors and textures together yourself.

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Italian beef (and either giardiniera or sweet peppers) is served on both thin crust and deep dish pizzas alike, and isn't exclusively bound to one style of pizza. In fact, in my former job as a pizzamaker, I used to prep the ingredients for an Italian beef pizza on Detroit-style crust.

Red sauce, slow-roasted beef with Italian dry seasonings, mozzarella, peppers—what's not to enjoy? Not only that, but widespread love for the hit TV show The Bear (a breakout series this summer), which follows the employees of a fictional Chicago Italian beef shop, is currently fueling national interest in this culinary combination. It was the right moment for Portillo's and Lou's to join forces.

But something the two companies are conveniently not mentioning is that both Italian beef and giardiniera have always been available as pizza toppings on Lou Malnati's menu. (The chain even has an Italian beef sandwich for those not interested in pizza.) This latest collaboration, though, comes with the bonus of widespread access: While Malnati's has been shipping its frozen pizzas nationwide since 1987, these toppings aren't usually available frozen.

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The Italian beef pizza was a special item run by Malnati's shortly last year, sans Portillo's collaboration, according to Inside Hook. What is new is the cross-collaboration between the two restaurant powerhouses, neither of which is small. Eater Chicago reported that Lou Malnati's sold for $500 million last year, while Portillo's 2021 initial public offering raised about $400 million. The fact is that there's big money in Chicago's cuisine.

Is the Lou Malnati’s x Portillo’s Italian beef deep dish pizza any good?

Portillo's sent me a sample of each frozen pizza, and I can attest that both the hot and the sweet pies are delicious. The Italian beef is tender on each, and the hot giardiniera provides a welcome kick on the spicy version. The sweet pie has some good bitter notes from the generous slices of roasted bell pepper, and you can even see the char on them.

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If you've ever baked a deep dish pizza from frozen, you might notice that something about it doesn't translate well in the cooking process; this goes for all frozen deep dish pies, not just Lou's. The frozen Lou Malnati's crust is somewhat drier, thicker, and crumblier than the one you're served in the restaurant, the latter of which is miles better. Obviously, you're probably ordering pizzas to be shipped across the country because you can't come visit us in Chicago. But the discrepancy is worth noting, in case this is your first experience with deep dish. A fresh pie made in Chicago is in a whole different league.

Would I have been able to tell that this is Portillo's beef and not Malnati's if you'd asked me? Hell no. I'd have no idea. But if you've never heard of eating Italian beef and peppers on pizza, it's well worth seeking out.

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These pizzas don't come cheap. On Taste of Chicago's website, a package that includes both a hot and sweet pie will run you $72.99 (which includes shipping). Whether or not that's worth the experience is entirely up to you. Regardless of whether you purchase this limited-time offering, Italian beef and pepper is a pizza topping tradition near and dear to Chicagoans' hearts. If a high-profile collaboration between two big corporations is what it takes for people to find out, then at least everyone will understand the beauty of our greatest culinary feats combined in a single dish.

 

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