The Stacked Italian Beef Combo Sandwich: A Chicago Classic With Less Mess

For those of you uninitiated in Chicago food, the Italian beef is our big hometown sandwich, and for me, at least, the most comforting. Out of the Big Three dishes to show out-of-town guests—the others being deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs—Italian beef is my favorite, and it's something I have probably around twice a month.

On the surface, an Italian beef sandwich is pretty simple. It's just thinly sliced beef that's slow-cooked and held in a rich, beefy jus, packed into a hinge-cut French bun. The jus is magic. It's heavily seasoned with garlic powder, onion powder, dried oregano, and basil, along with secret spices at some beef stands that I suspect are nutmeg or cinnamon. For those of you who aren't from Chicago, this is an easy thing to replicate at home.

There is one big variation on the Italian beef sandwich, simply called an Italian beef combo (or just combo). It's not a combo in the extra-value meal sort of way, but rather, a combination of an Italian beef and an entire Italian sausage nestled into the same bun. It's over the top. I tend to avoid them, not only because they're a choking hazard since I try to wolf down way too much all at once, but also because there's no way to eat a combo without it falling apart after the first bite. But still, they're delicious, and it seems like a shame to abandon them for practical reasons.

I want to eat the sandwich without feeling like it's a physical threat upon my life, so it's time for some tweaks. Changes to the Italian beef sandwich never seem to stick in this town, though; fancy versions have come and gone at many restaurants, but none have stayed around for too long. The sandwich is almost a century old and has stayed pretty much the same for a reason.

I looked north to our neighbors—hi, Wisconsin!—for some inspiration, and realized I could do what they do up in the Sheboygan area: take the sausage and turn it into a patty.

This doesn't seem to be a hugely popular thing outside of Sheboygan (please correct me if I'm wrong!), but Sheboyganites sometimes take bratwurst meat out of the casing and turn it into a patty to fit tidily onto a buttered Sheboygan hard roll (about which I will soon write an entire article, because they're amazing). You then add whatever toppings you like. This seems like the ideal way to adapt the Italian beef combo, because it's slightly harder to choke on a patty, and the patty won't be quite so at odds with the bun like a tubular sausage is. It's time to take the Italian beef in a more vertical direction: the Vertically Stacked Italian Beef Combo Sandwich.

Selecting the proper bun, in this case, is a very important consideration. A squishy hamburger bun wouldn't work at all. You need a bun that's going to be soft on the interior, with a slightly chewy exterior that's nonetheless able to hold up to the jus for just barely as long as it'll take to eat it. A kaiser roll fits the bill perfectly. A telera roll would also be ideal.

Getting the sausage out of the casing couldn't be easier, even if it's a little messy. You can just squeeze the sausage like a tube of toothpaste, shape the meat into a patty, and call it a day. Or, you could just get the non-encased version. [Note: Yes, this sausage is unusually red. For some reason my local supermarket's house-made sausage has this color to it, and it stays this way even after it's cooked.]

It took some soul searching to decide whether I wanted cheese on my vertically stacked sandwich. On my usual beef order, I avoid cheese since it's usually sort of a distraction that can congeal and get chewy when it cools off a little. But for a vertically stacked sandwich, cheese seems like a no-brainer. Is this psychological? Did my mind insist on cheese because it sort of looks like a cheeseburger? Did I feel like this would add visual appeal? I am still looking deep inside myself. I added a slice of mozzarella.

On a typical Italian beef, the sweet peppers (which are sautéed bell peppers, as we covered in our definitive ordering guide) are cooked until they're very soft. Sometimes they're simmered with the jus. To get the peppers as soft as a classic beef stand does, first sauté the peppers until you get a little color, and then steam them with a touch of water until they soften up completely.

We need to talk about hot giardiniera for a second. This stuff is precious. While I believe it's not an uncommon ingredient in the United States, there's a big love for it here in Chicago. It's featured happily on pizza, often alongside fennel-heavy Italian sausage, and we use it as a condiment on lots of sandwiches. But it really sings on Italian beef.

Why? While an Italian beef sandwich is delicious on its own, it's more or less just tender seasoned beef on a soft French roll. Which is great, but by itself it has a fairly monotonous texture. The pickled vegetables—typically a blend of serranos, jalapeños, carrots, celery, green olives, onion, garlic, and cauliflower—add brightness and crunch, along with a residual oil that's worth its weight in gold. It's usually a little spicy; for those of you who don't enjoy the heat too much, there's almost always a mild version, labeled as such.

The jar you see above is slightly different than most (I received this as a gift from Mauro Provisions), as most of the components are diced finely. A typical jar has fairly large chunks of pickled veggie mix that fall off your sandwich. If your local grocery store or Italian market doesn't have any giardiniera in stock, one little fun tip is that Potbelly Sandwich Shop sells jars of giardiniera, simply labeled as Hot Peppers. Don't be fooled by the name. It's giardiniera. Potbelly was founded in Chicago.

When it comes to warming up Italian beef at home from a kit, there's only one important instruction I have for you: Heat it on a stovetop, and do not let it boil.

Simply heat the jus on low until it's steaming, then warm the sliced beef until it's hot. If you boil it, the meat will toughen up big time since it's already cooked. If you use a microwave you run the risk of overcooking the meat too, so just stick to a saucepan. I promise this doesn't take long. The brand you see here is called Papa Charlie's, though I'm a bigger fan of Vienna Beef, if you can find that. Aldi sells Buona Beef in its frozen section, too, at least locally here in Chicago.

Now it's time to build the sandwich. Take the bottom bun and pour just a touch of jus on it. The bottom half of a kaiser roll is more delicate than the top part of the roll. As much as it pains me to say it, the Vertically Stacked Italian Beef Combo Sandwich is not to be eaten dipped. You can't fly too close to the sun on this one.

The top bun, however, is a different story. While I don't recommend dunking the whole top portion in jus, it can definitely take a lot of liquid before soaking all the way through the top of the crust, so you can spoon enough jus over the interior until no dry spots are showing.

Then just stack the bottom bun with the cheese-topped sausage patty, sweet peppers, hot peppers, and Italian beef. You want the condiments trapped between the layers of meat so they don't all tumble out. Finally, check out your handsome lad of a sandwich.

Changing the format of this sandwich first sounded like nothing more than a fun experiment, but in practice, it's somehow a game changer. I'm not an endless tinkerer, and reinventing the wheel isn't an approach I often take, but for some reason this works absurdly well.

The bread doesn't dissolve as a traditional French roll does (at least not as quickly), which is great, but about halfway through the sandwich your fingers will start to get a little messy. That I don't mind so much. What really stands out is the consistency of every bite. Standard Italian beef sandwiches are typically pretty big, and it's hard to get an even bite of anything, whether it's dry, wet, or dipped. But in this format, you get a perfect bundle of everything in each bite. I can't imagine you'll be able to order this at a beef stand anytime soon by saying, "Combo with cheese, wet, vertically stacked, sweet and hot," but you sure can give it a shot at home.