"The cheesesteak is a superior sandwich to the Chicago Italian beef," my friend from Philadelphia told me. Them's fightin' words.
My knee-jerk reaction was defensiveness and outrage, but this lasted all of five seconds before my fist relaxed its clench. Because my Philly friend wasn't a headstrong lunk, drunk on civic pride. He is a rational man.
More important, he gave me an excuse to sample a lot of Philly cheesesteaks.
Three things non-Philadelphians think they know about Philadelphia: It's always sunny there, Eagles fans are lunatics, and their sandwiches come with steak and cheese. The cheesesteak comes closest to our familiarity with the city. It's a tangible grease bomb with its own lingo (Whiz wit = Cheez Whiz with onions), spread nationwide through sports bars and mall food courts.
The Chicago Italian beef by comparison, at least outside a 100-mile radius of downtown, remains a well-kept secret. From an ease-of-preparation standpoint, the Chicago Italian beef is far more laborious than a cheesesteak, requiring hours to marinate and roast, then sliced, plus jus. As culinary exports go, it stands a distant third behind Chicago's versions of pizza and hot dogs, so it hasn't cracked the ceiling of mainstream awareness where you'd find one served at some T.G. Fuddrucklebees.
And so Chicago's Italian beef culture is dominated by larger chains that can handle the workload and volume — Al's Beef, Portillo's, Buona Beef and the like. In Philadelphia, corner grills have their individualized takes on the cheesesteak, explaining how loyalties are factionalized to the city block level.
"There has been no successful cheesesteak stand that's come out of Philly. It's all mom-and-pop places that people love, with eccentric people running them. It's such a local thing," said Carolyn Wyman, author of "The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book." "It's an embodiment of what the people are like here: blue-collar, Democratic, sloppy, unsubtle and in-your-face. That's what the sandwich is like."
What makes a good cheesesteak?
True cheesesteaks today — like the Italian beef — are bound by certain ingredients. The four required components are bread, steak, onions and cheese, and many will argue, no more.
Many Philly cheesesteak stands employ rib-eye as the preferred steak cut, Wyman told me, though top round or sirloin are also used. American and Cheez Whiz provide the necessary sharpness and are arguably the two preferred cheeses for steak sandwiches, while provolone and mozzarella are also popular options.
Depending on which cheesesteak aficionado you survey, you'll get different answers to the question: "What's the most important element?"
Wyman suggested the balance of steak, cheese and onions is paramount.
"No one ingredient should dominate. They have to be in perfect harmony," she said. "You don't want a sandwich to yell at you, 'Cheese!' "
I posed the question to Michael Markellos, himself something of a Chicago cheesesteak trailblazer, having opened his first Philly's Best in Lakeview 24 years ago. The Philadelphia native said sourcing ingredients is his priority.
"Everything on our sandwich, except the onions, comes from Philly," said Markellos, who now owns four Philly's Bests in Chicago and Evanston.
Indeed, the handful of cheesesteak-dedicated restaurants in Chicago go out of their way to flaunt their Philly lineage. In any of these dining rooms, you're almost guaranteed to encounter a poster of Rocky Balboa at the Museum of Art, a Donovan McNabb jersey, or something illustrated with the Liberty Bell.
Markellos ships in Herr's potato chips and Tastykake, and gets his seasoned tenderloin shipped in from Liberty Bell Steak Co. in Pennsylvania. The beef arrives as frozen one-ounce sheets the thickness of a cardboard shirt liner. On the searing flat top, the steak's icy stiffness loosens and quickly turns brown. He integrates chopped onions, in a translucent state halfway between raw and caramelized. "It's kinda like pasta; it's got to be al dente," Markellos said.
The steak and onions come together. Clank-clank-clank.
I heard the clank-clank-clank of two metal spatulas at every cheesesteak stop.
"You wanna know what Philly sounds like? That's the sound," said Jennifer Monti, pointing toward the kitchen at her namesake Lincoln Square restaurant, Monti's.
The clanks have a specific cadence and rhythm, coming from the spatulas hitting the grill top, cleaver style, turning beef sheets into beef shards. The high-pitched clanks are followed by a longer, lower-on-the-register scrape, the sound made when the spatula's corner drags through the steak, further slicing the beef.
The name of the restaurant was either going to be Monti's, or her husband James' last name, Gottwald. But Monti's at least ties back to the cheesesteak's Italian bloodlines, plus the name rolls off the tongue more easily.
Gottwald handles the cooking end of the operation. His culinary background comes from the French school of cooking — he attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in local kitchens from one sixtyblue to Wave to Rockit Bar & Grill.
Like many Philadelphia transplants, he longed for a decent cheesesteak in the Midwest and decided two years ago to remedy the problem. They opened their cheesesteak homage near the Lawrence/Western intersection in Lincoln Square, forming a formidable trio with nearby Nhu Lan Bakery and Goosefoot.
Where Monti's stands out is in its beef — a black angus rib-eye that's shaved from frozen in-house. Rib-eye cuts tend to have more fat, but the flavor is unmistakably beefier. On account of steak alone, Monti's is the standard bearer in Chicago.
It wasn't the beef, though, that Gottwald and Monti said were most important, rather the bread.
Having taken courses in food science, Gottwald insists the water composition in Philadelphia is different from Chicago's, and therefore, the bread doesn't taste the same. None of the local bakeries made a roll that satisfied him — it had to have a chewy crust with a cotton-soft interior, less dense than say a French roll, with a strong spine that stays intact when you pick up the sandwich.
At both Monti's and Philly's Best, the rolls come from Amoroso's, the 109-year-old bakery in Philadelphia supplying much of that city's cheesesteak purveyors. In a side-by-side taste test, most Chicagoans won't identify the minutiae distinguishing cheesesteak roll from non. Still, Amoroso's bread feels like a satisfying vehicle for steak, cheese and onions, a light-enough roll but with a heft holding up against the proteins' richness.
(For what it's worth, Wyman talked to countless bakers for her book, and she's concluded the difference in tap water has a negligible effect in the final product. "It's not like the ingredients are any different. One of the (Philly) bakers comes to Chicago, he'll know exactly how to make it. The key is the roll's freshness.")
The sandwiches at Philly Cheese Steak Express in Vernon Hills bear resemblance to the ones at Philly's Best — not surprising, since its owner Vladislav Kostic is brother-in-law to Michael Markellos. Two minor differences: Kostic uses a different seasoning ratio (Greek spices, he says), and the bread is local, an Italian roll from Gonnella Baking Co. There are also a dozen other variations built upon the original cheesesteak, including one with beef and chicken, and others with teriyaki or buffalo hot sauce.
What's most notable here is they serve Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer, Philadelphia's soft drink of choice. Birch beer shares a 90 percent taste with root beer, though the soda has a reddish hue, is lighter on the caramel creaminess and has a subtle licorice spice. It's quite sweet, and I suspect its primary allure is nostalgia.