Thinly-shaven beef, cooked until exceptionally tender, then piled onto crusty Italian bread, and served au jus and with an (optional) giardiniera - a sort of relish of sweet or hot peppers.
I can say with a high degree of certainty that Italian beef did not originate in Italy - the only place I've ever been able to find it is Chicago, which leaves me fairly confident it has its roots there. It's exceptionally hard to find anywhere else, which has led me to assemble the following information, both for displaced Chicagoans and the curious:
Italian Beef: Where to find it
You're in luck - you can get it the way it was meant to be gotten - at a beef stand of some sort. Ideally, you're ordering it with a tamale and fries, too. Here are some of the best:
Mr. Beef On Orleans
666 N. Orleans
Chicago, IL 60610
7500 W. North Ave.
Elmwood Park, IL 60707
Al's #1 Italian Beef
1079 West Taylor St.
Chicago, Ill. 60607
If you're farther out in the Chicago suburbs, there's still hope. Not as good as these, but quite servicable, is Portillo's, a chain of hot dog/beef places in Chicagoland. They have on the order of 30 locations - to find one, try their web site, www.portillos.com.
I don't live near Chicago, but I want a beef sandwich!
I can relate, friend. There are still options available.
For starters, at some point some of these Chicago eateries realized that the local cuisine wasn't available anywhere else, and they decided to capitalize on it. Portillo's and Al's will both ship you beef sandwiches (or rather, the fixings thereof), but that's a bit pricy - look to pay about $50 for a package. Both ship enough beef for a number of sandwiches, plus bread, peppers and giardiniera.
If you're not willing to spend that much for beef - well, if you can afford to and won't, you're a fool. Or if not a fool, you at least don't understand what you're missing. But I submit for your approval this recipe for Italian beef, the results of which will not hold up to any of the places I listed above in a blind taste test:
Italian beef sandwich recipe
All quantities are approximate - this is pretty much a list of spices, rather than exact specifications - you'd really have to experiment to get the quantities to match your personal taste.
1.5 - 2 lbs cooked roast beef, thinly sliced (shaven is better, if you've got the equipment for it)
Put the roast beef in a pot, and put in just enough water to cover it. Add in the listed ingredients, more or less to taste - I'd start with a teaspoon each of the peppers, three or four good-sized cloves of garlic, and pretty much however much basil, salt and oregano you feel like.
Bring the beef to a low simmer, and let everything cook for a few minutes and mix together. Taste the au jus, and adjust the seasoning if need be. Cover and cook for an hour or ninety minutes.
Serve the beef on Italian or French bread, and ladle au jus over the sandwich. (alternately, you can either dip the bread in the au jus before putting the beef on it, or dip the sandwich as you eat it) If you like, top the sandwich with cooked green peppers or giardiniera.