The best Italian beef in Chicago might not actually live within the city limits. Ask many a Chicagoan (or 10Best readers) and the best beef in the state, much less the city, is found in the suburb of Berwyn.
More specifically, it's found at Novi's Beef, winner of the 10Best Readers' Choice award for Best Italian Beef in Illinois, on the corner of Oak Park and Ogden Avenues along Historic Route 66.
Novi's Beef sandwich — Photo courtesy of SkyVid.net
Novi's Beef wins
Nick "Novi" opened his beef shop in 1966 – one of the first outside the city limits – as a place where locals could stop in for a great Italian beef sandwich at an affordable price.
While Nick sold his beef stand in 1976, Novi's still serves juicy Italian beef at the same stainless steel counter as the original – just a bit further back from the road than it used to be.
Bob (left) and Danny (right) Lattas, co-owners of Novi's Beef since 1989 — Photo courtesy of SkyVid.net
Bob Lattas, the current owner, makes Novi's Italian beef with Nick's original recipe – beef comes raw from the butcher daily and is cooked, trimmed and sliced before going into a gravy seasoned with 15 different spices. "Nothing is ever pre-packaged or frozen...everything is prepared fresh daily," says Lattas.
What's in a beef?
So for us non-Chicagoans, an Italian beef consists of oven-roasted and thinly-sliced beef served on an Italian-style roll and a flavorful gravy from the meat juices. Some fans prefer an extra spoonful of gravy on top while others like it "dipped" (both ends of the bread are dipped in the gravy).
Some like it hot, with a generous topping of giardiniera; some like it sweet, with some sweet bell peppers on top. Some shops even offer melted mozzarella or Provolone as a gooey addition.
History of Italian Beef
Novi's Beef 45 years ago — Photo courtesy of SkyVid.net
Novi's Beef has been serving Italian beef sandwiches for half a century, but the history of Chicago's iconic sandwich goes back even further. There are a few origin stories of the beef. One story credits the sandwich to an Italian chef named Tony working at a Greek restaurant in the late 1940s. Unhappy with the ho-hum flavor of a French Dip sandwich, Tony spiced it up with garlic and herbs.
Tony clearly isn't the originator however, as Al’s No. 1 Italian Beef – another top 10 finisher in our Readers' Choice contest – opened his first sandwich stand a decade earlier in 1938. If the second story is to be believed, it was Al Ferrari and his sister and brother-in-law Frances and Chris Pacelli, Sr. who developed the original Italian beef recipe as a way to make the most out of limited meat during the Great Depression.
The third story credits the sandwich to Pasquale (Pat) Scala, Sr., head of Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company. According to this telling, Scala catered weddings and banquets during the mid 1920s and began slicing his beef very thinly to help serve more people. During the Great Depression, this thin-sliced beef served on gravy-soaked Italian bread was much more affordable than a traditional plate lunch.
Buona enters the scene
In the 1980s, Joe Buonavolanto, Sr. brought another notable beef shop to Berwyn, this one on the corner of Roosevelt Road and Oak Park Avenue. Joe Sr. took a second mortgage on his house to fund it and dug the foundation himself.The original restaurant still stands, complete with an original booth and historic family photos.
Buona – runner up in the 10Best Readers' Choice category of Best Italian Beef in Illinois by a close vote – is now owned by the third generation of the Buonavolanto family and still uses the same recipe, including meat that is slow-roasted for hours and a gravy made from all-natural ingredients.
Battle of the beefs
When we asked 10Best, USA TODAY and Sandwich America readers to vote for their favorite iconic sandwiches from 10 U.S. states, more readers voted for the Best Italian Beef in Illinois than in any other category. It was a very close finish between winner Novi's Beef and runner-up Buona – two family-owned shops with quite different business philosophies.
Novi's Beef with hot giardiniera — Photo courtesy of SkyVid.net
"We are honored, humbled and thankful to all of the people who voted us the number one beef sandwich," says Novi's owner Bob Lattas. He continues, "What sets Novi's apart from the other Italian beef shops is that we are one location, owned by two European immigrants, who have dedicated their lives to providing a great sandwich to our customers. We are not a multi-million dollar corporation with many locations...we are the quintessential 'ma and pa' family location that carries years of nostalgia and tradition."
Where Novi's has been serving beef from the same stainless steel counter in the same single shop since 1966, Buona has expanded to 17 locations throughout Chicagoland in the decades since its first shop opened in 1981.
Buona beef sandwich — Photo courtesy of Buona
"We are thrilled that Chicago’s original Italian beef is being celebrated by a national publication,” says Joe Buonavolanto, the second-generation owner of Buona. “We are also proud to be the most popular multi-location brand on the list. We think it has something to do with our steadfast dedication to the original Italian beef-making process”
How did the best beef in Chicago end up in a suburb? To find out, we have to go back in time to the beginning of the twentieth century. The community was given its charter as a city in 1908, and during the 1920s and 1930s, when large immigrant populations were relocating from central Chicago into the suburbs, Berwyn ranked among the fasted growing cities in the nation.
While Czech immigrants were among the first to arrive, Berwyn eventually developed a sizable Italian-American community, particularly during the 1960s and 1970s – the same time that Nick "Novi" was opening his beef stand on Route 66. What do you get when you combine hungry, hard-working, blue-collar families with an Italian-American culinary influence? Great Italian beef!
So next time you're in Chicagoland with a hankering for tasty beef, head out of the city to the suburb of Berwyn and conduct your own Italian beef taste test – Novi's Beef vs. Buona. Did our readers get it right? Tell us what you think!