We assembled at 11 a.m., seven hungry men, at J. P. Graziano's. This unadorned storefront in the restaurant supply district of Chicago's West Loop seemed like an odd place to begin a journey to find the best Italian sub in Chicago. The shop's exterior had no tell-tale signals that it made sandwiches--just a sign stating their business as wholesale importers. The interior contained no vine covered trellises or nostalgic pictures of the Tuscan country side. All we saw were barren wooden floors and enormous barrels of spices. But we had reason to believe that they served one delicious sub.
Indeed, the Grazianos' sub was a wonder. A slightly crackly exterior to the bread gave way to a pillowy, tender interior. The meats were the highest quality--Hot Capicola, Volpi Salame, Genoa salame, and mortadella--an intense, salty punch of porky goodness. The lettuce was tossed with the dressing in a bowl, and then added to the sandwich so each bite was flavorful with its sweet-tart crunch. And a final flourish of tangy, gently spicy giardiniera gave it a pickled punch that elevated it to greatness.
It was a triumphant beginning to our day, the first stop on a mad tour of the Chicago's Italian delis, 6 in all, to find who was still keeping the Italian sub alive in the city.
Why Italian subs? Variations of the "Submarine Sandwich" can be found in nearly every large city in the country, known variously as a hero, hoagie, grinder, blimpie, or torpedo (it has unwittingly spawned some sinister imitations from chains like Jimmy Johns and Subway). But they all owe their provenance to the Italian sub, a simple oblong sandwich that inspired them all.
In its authentic Chicago rendition, the Italian sub is about 9 inches long and filled with dry-cured Italian meats like salami, capicola, soppresetta, or proscuitto; mortadella is often added to contribute a bologna-like creaminess. It's topped with provolone to help give it some salty bite; a little oil and vinegar for some tang; and giardiniera, that Italian pickled vegetable concoction that's found it's true home here, for a nice kick. It's blessedly simple and straightforward, a shockingly cheap workman's lunch wrapped in paper and slid across the counter to take on the road. And yet it is a culinary achievement, a mouthful of contrasting flavors and textures. When done right, it's about as close to sandwich perfection as one can get.
Our ringleader for this event was fellow Serious Eats writer Daniel Zemans, who drafted the list of the six Italian delis we'd visit, from famous locations in the West Loop to a simple sandwich shops in the western suburb of Melrose Park. Over the course of five hours we consumed breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the form of Italian Submarine Sandwiches (plus an Italian beef for good measure, two cups of gelato, pepperoni bread, fried rice balls known as arancini, and a few slices of superb Neopolitan pizza) and arrived at some conclusions. It's not so easy to make a good Italian sub well. Certain things must be present, and certain other things should never be. Despite, and perhaps because of its simplicity, the Italian Sub is difficult to master.
Our results shed some light on where Chicago's greatest renditions of the sandwich are served today. Here is our guide to the best.