Taste of Chicago: Italian Beef in Grand Rapids

Italian beef sandwiches are the past, the present, and the future.

While this iconic dish has been a household name in Chicago for nearly a century, the popularity exploded with the success of The Bear, a Hulu show centered on an Italian beef shop. Even before the show, fans of the sandwich were frequently passionate enough to spread the love by opening up their own spots in other cities.

At its most basic, an Italian beef has very thin slices of seasoned roast beef, served on a French roll, often topped with peppers—but it’s not exactly that simple.

The first choice everyone has to make when getting Italian beef: Sweet or hot? This refers to the types of peppers you can add, sweet being green bell peppers roasted until soft, while hot is giardiniera, a spicy mix of pickled vegetables, typically including jalapenos, carrots, celery, onion, and cauliflower, marinated in oil. 

Then: Dry, wet, or dipped? On one end of the spectrum is dipped, which means your entire sandwich is dunked into beef au jus with tongs, which gets the bread nice and soft. Like, insanely soft, practically melting in your hands. On the other end is dry, with no additional liquid at all. The middle-ground is wet, where the meat gets some extra au jus right before being put in the bread. 

It’s no surprise that Italian beef has taken the short journey from the Windy City, and Grand Rapids now has two spots focused on giving Italian beef the appreciation it deserves (though their menus have plenty of other options). Of course, we had to stop in and give them a taste. 

Chicago Beef Joint
822 Ottawa Ave. NW, Grand Rapids

What was once CDKI Dining’s Sandy Point Beach House, and Zoko822 before that, is now Chicago Beef Joint (CBJ).  It seems to be the perfect fit for the shipping container-housed restaurant, which also has a large outdoor patio, which frequently hosts live music, food trucks and other events in the summer.

Opened by Peter Krupp, a managing partner at CDKI, the spot is largely run by the sociable, enthusiastic general manager Bobby Martin, with Chef Steve Bunch bringing the flavors over from his former eatery, Chicago Hood Spot. 

For my first visit, I went ahead and ordered wet here, as it had been a while since my last Italian beef, and I wasn’t ready to dive into the au jus head first. And I went hot, partly because it seems the most popular way to order, partly because I love the kick and zest of pickled peppers. The combination was beautiful. 

Wide, thin slices of beef dripped with juice, soaking the bread just a bit without disintegrating the entire structure. The hot giardiniera was loaded on, practically spilling out with every bite, which I’m more than okay with. The modest crunch of the peppers and celery adds texture to a juicy, soft sandwich, not to mention the pops of spice and vinegar. It’s a beautiful combination of flavors and structure, warming you from the inside out and quickly becoming a new craving for me personally. 

While there, I also felt the need to try CBJ’s Chicago dog, and they nailed it. Vienna beef on a poppy seed bun with mustard, neon green relish, sport peppers, pickle wedges, tomato slices, onions and celery salt. Tastes like you’re on the other side of Lake Michigan.

Jack Danger’s Chicago Style Italian Beef
1499 Wealthy St. SE, Grand Rapids

In Eastown on Wealthy, it’s easy to spot the neon blue Jack Danger’s sign against a shiny metallic wall. The face you see there is a caricature drawn in the ‘80s of owner Steve Lowenthal, a former DJ, restaurant veteran and native Chicagoan. 

He wanted to bring a taste of home to Grand Rapids, where he now lives with his wife Cathleen, and Italian beef is the perfect opportunity to do so. The interior has more neon, Chicago-related decorations, ‘80s music videos, an old-school Centipede cabinet, and plenty of tables for dining in. 

At Jack Danger’s, the default for any Italian beef is dipped, and I don’t mind having the choice made for me. In fact, I’ll likely order it dipped every time going forward, no matter where I am. The Turano French roll is perfect for absorbing all that au jus, resulting in a ridiculously juicy, soft sandwich that is practically falling apart as you eat it.

The beef itself here was cut into thin shreds, as opposed to the slices at CBJ, which is ultimately a personal preference, and both preparations were equally delicious to me! The hot giardiniera was also more spicy, with just a tad less piled on, but the difference is negligible. Altogether, it's a craveworthy symphony of ingredients. Plus: Their Chicago dog is nice and pickley, and totally authentic to the Windy City. 

The flavors, textures and in-store friendliness were all just as big at both shops, and I don’t think you can go wrong here. Italian beef is a phenomenon for a reason, and we’re very lucky to have two new spots doing it more than right.


Ray Rays Italian Beef & Sausage
1715 Miller Road, Kalamazoo

Papa’s Italian Sausage
543 E. Ransom St., Kalamazoo

Stack’s Chicago Style Eats
1050 Jackson St., Grand Haven