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I'm sitting in Taste of Chicago (1406 N. State Rd. 7, Margate, 954-984-5858) trying to get a handle on my Italian beef sandwich. The staple of street carts and sporting events in the Windy City, this baby is as unwieldy as a squirming infant — and just as big.
As I lift it to my mouth, the sides of the roll kick back and surround me. And it dawns on me: I'm no longer eating the sandwich. The sandwich is eating me. Streaks of au jus dribble down my chin.
My friend, who looks like he's been soaking in the stuff for hours, begs for a knife.
"Where are you guys from that you don't know how to eat a sandwich?" barks the owner, a gray-haired man with an accent that starts in Eastern Europe and passes through Chicago.
He surrenders a plastic knife. "You gotta eat it like a man," he says.
When we entered the small sandwich shop — it has about a dozen seats — we eyed the Bears and Cubs memorabilia and posters of giant, city-stomping sausages. We debated the wisdom of getting a side of chili cheese fries ($4.25) to go with our sandwiches: an Italian beef ($6.55), an Italian sausage with peppers and onions ($4.90), and a combo sammich with some of each ($7.10).
We wouldn't need fries to fill us, the owner said. These are big sandwiches.
Start with a 30-plus-pound hunk of beef shoulder braised with oregano and garlic, among other ingredients. The beef is finely shaved, shoehorned into a hard roll, and plunged in its jus French-dip style. It's topped either with citrusy, sweet green peppers or hot giardiniera, a relish of celery, carrots, jalapeños, sport peppers, and vinegar reminiscent of Mexican pickled vegetables. The result is an unholy beast, overstuffed and sopping wet. One bite and the bread gives up its juice in a quick spurt as strips of beef tumble off in a landslide.
A mix of French, Italian, Polish, and German influences, the Italian beef sandwich is a bastard, like Chicago itself, where culture and ethnicity are smashed into an unlikely and charming combination. Somehow, with our Haitian émigrés and Cuban divorcées and all the other diverse folk who plant their feet on these shores, we still don't have a homegrown equivalent of this sandwich. It just goes to show that it takes irreproducibly specific circumstances to forge a cuisine. Fortunately, we can take solace that meals like this have made their way to us anyhow, wet naps in tow. The Italian beef sandwich even comes with its own etiquette.
"In Chicago, you never sit while you eat one," the owner says. "You have to eat it standing up so that the juice drips off your arms and not all over you."
But we were not in Chicago. We were in a South Florida strip mall, where we hunkered down with extra napkins. We got messy. And every bite was pungently delicious.