The Quest for Italian Beef

Spotted Cow Italian Beef
Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.

Why is it so hard to find a good Italian Beef sandwich around here?

The first person I asked where I could get one thought I was looking for an Arby’s. Talk about a bad omen! Three years later I’m no closer to finding anyone in the Peoria area who knows how to make a proper Italian beef sandwich.

Since the last time I blogged about this problem, Gracie’s closed up shop and became a sports bar, ditching the Vienna hot dogs for some off-brand sticks of balogna. I never did get a proper beef sandwich and their prices went up, so we stopped ordering from them.

I started asking life-long Peorians where I could get Italian beef, and they typically just shrug their shoulders. Most of them seem to think it’s just a crockpot recipe, not the food of the gods it really is.

Then last week we walked into The Spotted Cow Cafe & Creamery for ice cream. Their ice cream was very good, but their menu boasting Italian beef, Italian sausage, and Red Hot Chicago hot dogs caught my eye. I spent all last week thinking about my return.

We went back today. They didn’t offer an Italian combo (gah!), but they did offer the Italian beef with mozzarella cheese and peppers, so that’s what I ordered. A few minutes later, they brought out the plate in the picture above.

I don’t know why they cut it in half, but that wasn’t the end of the world, especially as packed as the sandwich was. Nor was the fact they use shredded beef instead of sliced, or pepperoncini instead of the hot peppers you’d get in a Chicago restaurant. I feared the sandwich was dry at first, but the bottom proved nice and juicy. The mozz was also down on the bottom, but rather sparse.

I took a hopeful bite.

What a letdown. Despite the juicy composition, the sandwich was bland. Sure, it tasted like beef, but it didn’t have that seasoned quality that makes it an Italian beef sandwich. We’ll be back for the ice cream and the rest of their food (the Wife really enjoyed the pork tenderloin sandwich she ordered, and they cut potatoes on site to make fries), but the quest for a good Italian beef sandwich will continue.

It’s been suggested I check out a place called Vertucci’s in East Peoria, which boasts Chicago-style eats. I tried corroborating the story, but other people I’ve asked haven’t even heard of the place. Their menu boasts Italian beef, sausage, and combos, so I have cautious hope (Gracie’s claimed to be Chicago-style, too).

Maybe I’ll even try them tomorrow, because this is just getting depressing. We’ve solved our pizza problem through Leonardo’s — even though they’re 20 miles away and believe God proclaimed there shall be no pizza on the Sabbath — and we’ve got a reliable lead on good gyros, but it amazes me how elusive Italian beef is.

I’m not quite ready to give up, though. Stay tuned.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

13 comments

  1. kate says:

    A great Italian beef can be hit or miss when searching for a restaurant that can serve the best in peoria. My boyfriend who can be quick to judge most anything thought that the spotted cow may have stolen his grandmas recipe, which of course meant he thought it was delicious. They do now serve a sicilian style beef or even the combo you mentioned, but the sicilian style is monstrous! Vertuccis is ehhhh… Ok.. You will have to try to judge for yourself just note if you plan to pay with a card it’ll cost you an extra buck. In response to finding pizza, I hope you’ve tried hoops pub and pizza. No place else in peoria has anything like it!

  2. kate says:

    Ok after the last reply to your post I realized this was written quite awhile ago and read your review of vertuccis. Your search reminds me of my boyfriends search for a proper cheese steak. I’ve had billy’s phillies for which I thought was pretty darn good, but is only available when you can catch them open. But it does seem peoria lacks in staying steady with a amazing traditional italian or philly beef sandwich for the most part. Have you tried pizza works stuffed pizza?

    • Mike says:

      Hi Kate,

      Yeah, it’s an old post, but I still get notices of comments.

      The Sicilian sandwiches at Spotted Cow are pretty good, but I’m not a fan of their Italian beef. I’ve had similar “Italian beef” from crockpots made by local families. It’s not bad, but it’s not what I think of Italian beef given what you can get Chicago and the suburbs. Try Portillo’s or Mr Beef and you’ll never look at Spotted Cow’s Italian beef the same again. Vertucci’s seemed to understand the concept, but it wasn’t quite there. Chicago Pizza & Grill on Prospect right off Knoxville is another close but no cigar; they cook it on the griddle, which gives it a different flavor, and they don’t have the right giardiniera. But they at least understand the concept of having it wet/dipped, and serve enough of the juices on the side so those of us who know better can douse our sandwiches.

      I haven’t tried Pizza Works’ stuffed pizza. Their regular pizza isn’t that great. Gracie’s in Washington offers a “Chicago-style stuffed pizza” but their sauce is nasty. Too much anise and other seasonings and it just overpowers everything. We like Leonardo’s pizza (I’m assuming the stuff in the Peoria stores is the same as the one in Washington), and Firehouse isn’t bad despite the cracker crust and sweet sauce (I haven’t tried their new sauce). But really good pizza — stuff like Giordano’s, Gino’s East, Rosati’s, Eduardo’s, and such up north — is tough to find. We used to get great stuffed pizza from a bar in the Joliet area. A lot of the stuff out here wouldn’t survive in the suburbs.

      I’ve not heard of Hoops. Thanks for the tip, I’ll have to seek them out.

      Mike

  3. Dave says:

    I have shared your pain these last 5 months after moving to the area….and then behold…Juicy’s opened up. That was an Italian Beef on par with Portillo’s. Go there….now.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for the tip! I just looked them up and I see where it is. Looks like they got a great writeup in the PJStar, too. Nice!

  4. Dave says:

    Try Bacci Pizza on Bradley St in W Peoria. Big french roll, girardiniera, fried onions, and sweet peppers. Add cheese and bake in pizza oven then dip. All for about $7…………sandwich only is $5.50. The best I have found in Peoria.

  5. grace.kissee@gmail.com says:

    I just moved to Peoria about a month ago and am dealing with the same problem. So far I have tried Avantis, Gracies in Washington, and Nicks Deli. Nothing is quite what I’ve been dreaming about. Has anything come up since then?

    • Mike says:

      Unfortunately no luck. Famous City Bistro on Glen & Sterling doesn’t quite pull it off, and while most of Spotted Cow’s menu is great, their Italian beef is the shredded crockpot stuff (and it doesn’t have the flavor we’re looking for). Chicago Pizza & Grill on Pioneer Parkway just off Knoxville is close; he puts it on the griddle first, which gives it a different taste. The Fifth Quarter in East Peoria touts Chicago-style Italian beef, but it’s bland. Joe’s on Pioneer claims a close relationship with the Joe’s in Chicago, but the beef isn’t right. The beef at The Bullpen in Landmark is no good, either, though they, too, generally have good food.

      One place I haven’t tried yet is The Meat’n Place, which is a drive-through-only spot on War Drive across from the Shoppes at Grand Prairie (it’s next door to Hickory River BBQ).

      I can also tell you nobody has Chicago-style stuffed pizza. Gracie’s tries, but they over-season their sauce and its consistency is more like tomato stew. However, for a pleasant surprise, try the pork tenderloin somewhere like the Bullpen, Cruzen’s, or Schooners. It’s a pork chop hammered thin and battered rather than a reconstituted pork patty.

      • Michelle Spielman says:

        I realize this is an old post but dis you find anything that compares to portillos? I need an Italian beef NOW, and driving to chicago is far.

        • Mike says:

          Not really. Spotted Cow now qualifies there’s specifically as not being Chicago-style Italian beef.

          Chicago Grill on Pioneer Parkway, about a block off of Knoxville, was closer. It had decent flavor but wasn’t near juicy enough, and he cooked it upon the griddle which lent it a different dimension. They have new owners since I’ve been there last, though, so no idea what it tastes like now.

          Famous City Bistro on Glen & Sheridan near Spotted Cow has Italian beef, but it was expensive and also not quite right.

          Both owners had clearly tasted their inspiration for the sandwiches, but don’t have the recipe down right.

  6. charles says:

    Man i understand Mike, it a shame for Peoria may annually have 145000 people in the city and almost a 1/2 million in central ill and still have no corner spots like Chicago have real Italian beef and sausage , philly cheese steak nor the Chi town pizza pockets,its sad.Hoops does have great pizza.Matter of fact Leanordos and hoop as Italian beff.

    • Mike says:

      There was a Leonardo’s Pizza/La Gondola in Washington, but I don’t remember their Italian beef being quite what we were looking for. I haven’t tried the one on War Drive.

      For pizza pocket, are you referring to pizza puffs? The folded & fried thing? Super Gyros down in East Peoria has those, and I know Chicago Pizza & Grill on Pioneer near Knoxville had them under their previous owner.