Regional foods are the heart of American cuisine, but there's one problem with them: When you move, you crave them.
Take Italian beef sandwiches. As someone who grew up in New York, I'd never heard of this meaty sandwich until I moved to the Midwest. During day trips to Chicago, I'd see signs for Italian beef. Well, I am Italian. I like beef. Clearly this was a sandwich I needed to try.
The first bite won me over. Loaded with shaved roast beef, the sandwich was soaked in a flavorful au jus and topped with a spicy giardiniera. It wasn't just a sandwich — it was an event.
Tasty Italian Beef Sandwiches: Watch the Video
After moving home to New York, there were lots of foods I missed from the Midwest — the Italian beef being one of them. But could I make it at home? I mean, I'd never ever made an Italian beef. I wasn't even an expert eater. While living in the Midwest, I'd enjoyed the sandwich only a handful of times. And yet, I wanted to try.
The first results were lackluster. Then I got a pressure cooker. Since my approach to pressure cooking can best be described as, "Let's see if I can make that in the pressure cooker!" I decided to attempt the Italian beef.
The results were nothing short of fantastic. The sandwich I loved in Chicago was now on my plate in New York. And the best part? It wasn't hard to make.
The Right Beef for Italian Beef Sandwiches at Home
A classic Italian beef sandwich is made with thinly sliced roast beef. During roasting the meat gets rubbed with a spice blend — this is always a secret spice blend that varies from restaurant to restaurant, of course. After roasting, the beef is cooled and then sliced paper-thin on a commercial slicer. We're talking so thin that you could read the Tribune through a slice.
Unless you own a commercial slicer, it's impossible to replicate these paper-thin slices at home. Trust me, I tried.
Once I realized that I couldn't slice the meat by hand, I tried buying roast beef at the deli. I'd ask them to slice it as thin as they could. Then I'd go home and dip it in a flavorful au jus.
You know what it tasted like? Deli roast beef that had been dipped in a flavorful au jus. It lacked the flavor that comes from cooking the beef with the right spices.
Enter: chuck roast. Chuck, which makes great pot roast, falls apart when cooked properly. Its fork-tender nature is what I was after. If I couldn't thinly slice the beef, I could shred it. After trying it the first time, I was sold. Was it just like the Italian beef sandwiches sold in Chicago? Nope. But for an at-home version, it worked perfectly.
The Flavors of Italian Beef
Do you keep garlic or onion powder in your pantry? My Italian grandmother did and she used them all the time, along with lots of fresh garlic and onions.
I don't want to say I turned my nose up at this because I scarfed down anything she made with gusto. But by the time it came for me to stock my own pantry, I thought of garlic and onion powder as relics of a bygone cooking era.
Let's just say that I might have been wrong about this.
When looking for home recipes for Italian beef, I noticed that most of them used garlic and onion powder. Many also used Italian dressing packets as a flavor booster. I wasn't interested in trying the Italian dressing packets, since those tend to be sodium bombs with a few herbs and spices thrown in for good measure. Plus, they vary from brand to brand. One might be great while another brand might fall firmly in the "meh" camp.
But garlic and onion powder? That was worth a try.
For one batch, I rubbed the chuck with an herb mixture that included garlic and onion powder. For another batch, I omitted it.
Guess which won my family's non-scientific taste test? You got it. The one with the garlic and onion powder. No one could describe exactly what they liked about it — they just liked it. And there's a lot to love. The seasoning blend turns the chuck from a standard pot roast into an Italian Beef powerhouse. The blend contains oregano, basil, rosemary, paprika, red pepper flakes, thyme, black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and salt.
I know, it's a lot. In fact, mixing the spice rub accounts for the most time-consuming part of this recipe. I usually mix it together the night before I make the sandwiches. Then, when I'm ready to cook, everything comes together quickly.
Cooking the Meat and Building a Delicious Jus
To prep the beef, cube the chuck and toss it together with the seasoning blend. Sauté a sliced onion and some minced garlic in the insert of your pressure cooker. If your pressure cooker doesn't have a sauté option, do this in a small skillet and then transfer the mixture to the pressure cooker. If you made this recipe with raw onions and garlic, those flavors would overpower the meat and seasonings; sautéing here is key.
Add the chuck and some unsalted beef broth to the pot. If you can't find unsalted beef stock, omit the salt from the spice blend. The cooking liquid is an integral part of this sandwich and you don't want it to be salty.
Cook under high pressure for 35 minutes, then turn off the machine and allow a natural release. For this recipe, the natural release takes about 20 minutes. Once the pressure valve drops, open the pressure cooker and remove the meat. It should be fork-tender. If it's not, return the meat to the pressure cooker and cook for another five minutes with a 10-minute natural release.
Shred the meat with two forks and then place it back in the cooking liquid. If you're serving a crowd, turn on the "keep warm" function of your pressure cooker.
Putting It All Together
Now that you've done the hard work of making the meat and broth, you have to put together the sandwich. Here's how.
Look for hearty sub-style sandwich rolls with a nice crust. If the rolls are too soft, they'll get mushy when you ladle on the jus.
A good Italian beef sandwich includes a spicy topping. I always think of giardiniera when I think of an Italian beef. However, some places I visited in Chicago topped the sandwich with peppers instead of giardiniera.
- Giardiniera: An Italian relish of pickled vegetables — usually peppers, carrots, cauliflower, and garlic in vinegar and spices. Pick up a jar of giardiniera at the grocery store. It's usually sold alongside the pickles, but some grocery stores stock it in the Italian section.
- Pepperoncini peppers: These peppers add a nice vinegar kick along with some heat and a lovely crunch to the Italian beef. Some folks pile them on their sandwiches whole. This means sometimes you have to fight with the pepper when you take a bite. For easier eating, slice the peppers before adding them to the sandwich. Whatever you do, just remember to remove the stems.
- Sautéed green peppers: Prefer your sandwich on the mild side? Sauté a sliced green bell pepper in a little olive oil for your sandwich topping. I don't recommend cooking green peppers in the pressure cooker along with the meat because they get very soft during cooking. They also tend to overpower the beef, making for a very pronounced green pepper flavor, which isn't what we're going for here.
- Cheese, if you please: Adding cheese to an Italian beef sandwich is blasphemous to some and a must for others. Me? I'm solidly in the cheese camp. Italian Beef institutions, like Al's Italian Beef, offer cheese as an option, so I feel good about my preference. Sliced provolone, cheddar, or American cheese all work great on this sandwich. You can put it on the bread cold and let the warmth from the meat and gravy soften the cheese. Or, if you prefer melted cheese, split the bun, put the sliced cheese on it, and broil it for a minute or two to fully melt the cheese right before you're ready to serve the sandwiches.
To Ladle or Dunk? That Is the Question.
When you order an Italian Beef, there are typically three options: dry, wet, and dunked. Each place calls these options by different names, but they essentially boil down to the same thing.
Here's the thing: dry doesn't mean dry. Ever. An Italian beef sandwich always includes some jus — and, in fact, a lot of jus is usually the default. I'm sure some folks order their sandwiches without any juice, but that's a rare exception to the rule.
So what does dry mean? Dry means a little jus get spooned over the sandwich. Wet means a generous ladleful. And dunked is when they take your sandwich, the entire sandwich, filling and all, and dunk it in the au jus. Dunked sandwiches are usually so wet you can't pick them up. They require you to grab a fork before you dive in.
However you finish your sandwich, with giardiniera or pepper, with cheese or not, this is one sandwich worth making. Just remember to put out extra napkins. You're gonna need 'em!
Pressure Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches
Makes 6 large sandwiches
- For the beef:
freshly ground black pepper
kosher salt (omit if using salted beef broth)
red pepper flakes
beef chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 2-inch cubes
small onion, thinly sliced
garlic, minced or put through a garlic press
beef broth, preferably unsalted
- For the sautéed green peppers: (optional)
green bell peppers, cored and sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
- For the sandwiches:
(6-inch) crusty sub or sandwich rolls
Sliced provolone, cheddar, or American cheese (optional)
Giardiniera or pepperoncini peppers (optional)
Make the beef: Place the oregano, basil, onion powder, paprika, black pepper, salt, rosemary, thyme, red pepper flakes, and garlic powder in a small bowl and stir to combine.
Place the cubed beef in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the spice blend and toss to combine and coat the cubes evenly.
Heat the oil in the insert of an electric pressure cooker on the sauté setting until shimmering. (If your pressure cooker does not have a sauté setting, do this in a small frying pan.) Add the onions and sauté until tender, about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute more.
Turn off the sauté setting, add the beef, and stir to combine. Add the beef broth. Lock the lid into place. Cook on high pressure for 35 minutes. Meanwhile, if making the sautéed green peppers, cook them now.
For the sautéed green peppers: Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the bell peppers and sauté until tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside until the sandwiches are ready to be assembled.
Finish the beef: Once the cooking time is complete, turn the machine off. Do not let it switch to warm. Allow the pressure to release naturally; this will take about 20 minutes. Unlock the lid and test the meat. It should be fork-tender; if it isn't, replace the lid and cook for an additional 5 minutes under high pressure, followed by a 10-minute natural release.
Transfer the beef to a large bowl and shred with 2 forks. Return the shredded beef to the pressure cooker insert.
Make the sandwiches: Split the rolls. Fill with cheese if using. (For melted cheese, place the split rolls topped with cheese under the broiler until the cheese melts, about 1 minute.) Spoon the shredded beef onto the sandwich. Top with giardiniera, pepperoncini, or sautéed green peppers.
Ladle on some of the cooking liquid or serve with the cooking liquid in individual bowls for dunking. Alternatively, dip the entire sandwich: Use a pair of tongs to dip the sandwich carefully into the cooking liquid, which will be quite hot. Serve immediately.
Make ahead: The beef can be cooked and shredded up to 2 days ahead. Refrigerate in the juices in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Warm over medium heat on the stovetop before assembling the sandwiches.
Storage: Leftover beef can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.