Tag Archive for italian beef

The 5th Quarter Drops the Ball on Beef

A friend discovered an eatery over in East Peoria had changed hands and become The Fifth Quarter Sports Bar & Pizzeria, and they had Italian Beef on the menu. We’re both Portillo’s fans struggling to find quality Italian beef sandwiches in Peoria, so we jumped on our motorcycles and took a ride out there for lunch today.

The place is a former garage converted into a bar, but it looks like they’ve made some improvements since I was last in there a few years ago. The place used to be Vertucci’s, which also claimed Chicago-style eats but fell short. Where Vertucci’s felt darker and dingier, The Fifth Quarter felt open, cleaner, and more modern. The roll-up garage door dividing the two sections is still there, but it blends in a little better.

The menu offered a good selection, but we jumped straight to the Italian beef sandwiches. They offer the traditional all-beef sandwich, of course, but they had two combos: the standard beef-and-sausage combo and one they called the “Cat Daddy,” consisting of beef and gyro meat. I’d never even thought of such a combo, much less seen one on a menu, so I ordered it with hot peppers and provolone (no mozzarella? tsk).

I should say first I don’t understand the pricing. A gyro is $5.95, but the Italian combo is $7.95. Throw on the provolone cheese and it jumps to $8.90. Okay, extra meat, price goes up, but I then expected a big sandwich and heaping helping of fries. I was kind of disappointed when the waitress served up a short sandwich and a small handful of fries.

Cat Daddy at 5th Quarter

The Fifth Quarter’s “Cat Daddy”

On the plus side, the sandwich was juicy and I was pleased to see actual giardiniera instead of sport peppers. However, the pink hue of the beef and the pre-sliced gyro meat (blasphemy!) set of alarm bells. On tasting, I found the beef gravy far too salty, and the seasoning in the gyro meat overpowering. Both tasted a lot like the pre-packaged meats folks can purchase in a pinch from some Chicago stores, making MSG and/or preservatives responsible for most of the flavor. It didn’t taste bad, and boasted more flavor than some of the other alleged Italian beef in the area, but it’s still a pale imitator of Portillo’s, or even the spicier beef at Al’s.

The menu boasts Devanco Gyros, whoever they are. In Chicago restaurants it’s Kronos or nothing. If it’s not coming off the rotisserie, it’s crap. I’m going to give The Fifth Quarter the benefit of the doubt and assume some vendor came in and told them this prepackaged beef and gyro meat is what everybody else serves up in Chicago. If that is the case, I suggest the owner take a drive up to Shorewood and order the Italian combo at Portillo’s (dipped, hot & mozz) and taste the difference himself. Then, if it’s still there, there’s a good gyro joint with Kronos Gyros just a few blocks off the return trip.

I’ll give The Fifth Quarter big points for the fries, though. It looks like they run an actual potato through a slicer and drop it right in the frier, and they came out  to the table crispy, not too greasy, and not over-salted. They’re the kind of fries the drive-up joints in the Chicago area serve in a brown paper bag with your Vienna Beef (don’t even bother with anything else) hot dog. Excellent.

While I may not buy their beef again, I do intend to go back. We received good service from the waitress, and if the Bud signs on the walls aren’t a lie, they show the UFC fights. I’d still like to try their burgers, and judging by the pictures, their pizza is worth trying if only because it isn’t the Butch’s frozen bullshit most area bars serve.

With luck I’ll have a new, closer, more affordable haunt to catch the fights in.

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.

The Continued Quest for (Proper) Italian Beef

I think Italian beef disintegrates into nothingness after it gets a certain distance from Chicago. After several attempts, I have yet to find a place in Peoria that gets it exactly right. There are places that come close, but there’s always something off.

Case in point: Famous City Bistro. The concept of the place is simple: serve up famous sandwiches from various locales around the country. They have Philly cheesesteaks, Miami Cubans, New Orleans po’ boys, and from Chicago, the infamous Chicago-style hot dog and the illustrious Italian beef.

Famous City's Attempt at Italian Beef

Awww, man...

I’d been waiting for this place to open for a few months now. When opening day finally rolled around this past Tuesday, the rugrats and I stopped by to try it out. I immediately ordered the Italian beef, and the pic above is what I was served.

First, let me say the amount of beef in the picture is deceiving. I asked for it “wet” (the term they’re looking for is “dipped”) and most of the meat sagged through the crease in the bun. They had proper giardiniera, which you have to ask for, and the green peppers come with their recipe. No options for an Italian combo (beef and sausage) or options for mozzarella or marinara. It’s served on a soft hoagie roll instead of a hard Italian roll (which helps soak up the juices, especially when dipped) and the flavoring is not as distinct as what you get at a place like Portillo’s.

Let me be clear: it wasn’t a bad sandwich, but it’s sure not the Italian beef one can get in Chicago.

As for the rest of the place, it’s not bad. They had a kids menu, and my kids enjoyed the cheeseburger and mini corn dogs, but there are no kids’ drinks; they were served adult-size glasses they couldn’t finish. My sandwich was $6.99, and that doesn’t include any sides. The potato salad? $1 extra. At least it was good potato salad. We also ordered chili cheese fries, and the fries were good but the portion looked about half the size of what we get at places like Chili’s. The chili was okay, and probably just heated out of a can. The cheese was your standard “cancer cheese” as I call it: that faux-cheese sauce that you get on movie theater nachos or at ballparks.

The atmosphere is kind of like taking a neighborhood grill-style restaurant and cramming it into a sandwich shop. It’s small, but they have nice tables, leather seats, a full bar, and three flat-screen televisions. The waitresses wear black collared shirts and loosened ties, and your order is taken at a table like any sit-down restaurant. I’m guessing this is why the sandwich prices are higher than I expected, and I’m curious to see how this concept plays in Peoria.

I will go back and try some of the other famous sandwiches and see how they are. Will the Reuben be any good? Will the BBQ sandwiches stand up to places like Hickory River and Famous Dave’s? Time will tell. Meanwhile, the quest for proper Italian beef continues.

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.

Vertucci's Chicago Style Eats

Vertucci’s Italian Combo
Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.

After last night’s disappointing Italian beef outing, I decided I had to try again. This evening, the Midget and I dropped by Vertucci’s Chicago Style Eats in East Peoria to see what they’ve got.

They definitely play up the Chicago angle: they’ve got signage along the road announcing things like pizza, Polish sausage, gryos, and yes, Italian beef. The interior is a modest sports bar setup adorned with Chicago Bears posters and memorabilia and a Red Hot Chicago neon sign.

The waitress asked if we needed a moment to order. Nope! I ordered the combo with hot peppers and mozzarella, onion rings and a cheeseburger and fries for the Midget. A few minutes later, I got the basket of food pictured above (I added the ketchup).

“This was supposed to be a combo,” I told her. She said they built it with the beef on the bottom, and sure enough, I found some beef when I spread the bun. Not a good sign, as I’m used to then being packed full of beefy goodness.

Before I get too far, I’ll say that the Midget’s cheeseburger was excellent. I stole a bite and it reminded me of another restaurant who boasted Alwans burgers, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Vertucci’s uses the Peoria Heights butcher as well. The onion rings were top notch, and the fries were sliced from the potatoes right there in the kitchen. Good stuff, Maynard.

The Italian combo, though…

I wanted to love it. I really did. On the plus side, this sucker was wet, and though they offer all kinds of peppers and onions and they offer mozz or provolone, I was able to get the proper hot peppers. Slices of mozzarella meant less cheese than I’d prefer, but I’d live. The real bummers were most of the flavor came from the peppers, and there couldn’t have been more than two or three slices of beef hiding under there. This was by no means a bland Italian beef sandwich like I’ve been running into in Peoria, but the flavor still wasn’t very bold, and the minimal beef meant a few bites that were mostly bread.

The final verdict: a decent sandwich and a good effort, but still not quite the quality you get in Chicago. You’re killing me, Peoria!

I wasn’t up to ordering a gyro, but I did order a 10″ sausage pizza to take home for the family to sample. Good news here: the Wife and I agreed it’s great pizza. Between Vertucci’s and Leonardo’s, we’ve now got a couple of options for proper pizza. (The next problem will be finding a good stuffed pizza.)

I’ll be bringing the family back. It got a bit pricey compared to a typical sandwich shop, but for the most part they live up to the Chicago Style label and I’m betting they are as close to the real thing as I’ll get in Peoria.

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.

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.

Almost Paradise


Originally uploaded by MikeOliveri.

You know it’s a bad sign when you ask a local “Where can I get a good Italian beef sandwich?” and they reply “You mean like an Arby’s?”

After I sent flowers to that guy’s funeral, the Wife and I vowed to find a place that sold proper beef sandwiches, Vienna Beef hot dogs and Kronos gyros. We don’t eat them frequently, but every so often you have to satisfy a craving and Portillo’s is just too far away.

There were several places touting their gyros, sure, but there’s a simple test: if they don’t have the shank on the spit, turn around and get the hell out of there. There’s nothing so disappointing as ordering a gyro, only to have some lip ring-wearing piece of human filth hand you a few strips of pre-sliced meat warmed in the microwave and wrapped in a limp pita slathered with dog snot. Sometimes it’s worth a shot at a sit-down family restaurant. If you’re really lucky, the guy who owns the place is Greek (that’s common around here, anyway), and the meat is actually cooked up on the grill. It’s probably even spiced the right way, even if it does turn out a bit dry in the end.

By the same token, none of the hot dog joints had the familiar Vienna Beef logo hanging on the wall. There are passable dogs, of course. A good restauranteur knows Oscar Meier just isn’t going to cut it. Even worse, if they serve a certain horrible brand that shall remain nameless (once served by an eatery in Wilmington, Illinois), they’ll be out of business in ten minutes. It’s a rare dog indeed that can compare to the flavor and pop of a proper Vienna dog.

Then there’s the Italian beef, the most depressing of all disappointments. I soon discovered the first man I asked about Italian beef was not the norm, for a proper examination of the menu at the local pizza place (dubbed, in fact, The Pizza Place) showed they indeed carried Italian beef. I promptly ordered one that very night.

Bah. Sliced roast beef with bland au jous, nothing more. Other menu claims came up similarly short, and I have taken to carrying a Sharpie to edit the menus of these establishments as I encounter them.

The Wife and I resigned ourselves to the fact we were strangers in a strange land. If these people can’t cook up a proper pizza (a subject for another post), how can they be expected to serve up proper Chicago-style eats? For over a year we had gyros only on the occasional visit to my in-laws’ place, and I had Italian beef even less frequently on trips to the ‘Burbs.

Then the Wife took one of her adventure trips. When she’s bored, she goes for a drive and explores yet-unseen avenues off our beaten paths. Thus it’s by chance she discovered Gracie’s Chicago Style Grille in Washington, IL, and the Kronos sign proudly hung in her front window.

We visited it for the first time last night.

Vienna Beef hot dogs? Check. Kronos gyros on a spit? Check. Italian beef? Check and double check for the presence of Italian sausage and the Italian combo. (No pizza puff, but this is more easily forgiven.) We chose to trust the Vienna Beef claims and ordered instead a gyro for the Wife and an Italian combo with hot peppers for myself. We hustled them home with as much speed as a winter storm would allow.

The gyro was exactly as advertised, and it was good.

The Italian combo… I guess we’ll call it halfway to glorious. The Italian sausage was excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again. What’s more, they served it up on a proper bun and may have put some garlic butter on the insides.

The beef, unfortunately, was dry. There was a neat pile of it, and it was both hot and tasty, but there were no juices. Not even a spoonful.

I could have wept.

We will return to Gracie’s, I have no doubt about that. I’m sure we’ll try their hot dogs and their hamburgers, and explore the rest of the menu in time. The marinara sauce with our mozzarella sticks was good, which gives us hope for their pizza as well. When I order the combo, though, I will ask the grill man to dip it.

And if he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, I will teach him.

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.