How Italian beef was created
All roads lead to Al’s #1 Italian Beef, Taylor St., when you are looking at the history of Italian beef. Chris Pacelli, long-time owner of Al’s Italian Beef on Taylor St., says that the story of the sandwich begins around the time of World War I when Anthony Ferrari was a street peddler in Chicago. Ferrari would drive all over Chicago, delivering cold sandwiches and other lunches that he prepared in his kitchen to blue-collar workers. He went to a local wedding, and Chicago’s culinary history was forever changed.
Although many people in the beef industry claim to have invented Italian beef, there is a common ground that the origins of this delicious meat are in the tradition of the “peanut marriage” which was a Chicago-based immigrant tradition. This was a popular practice among the Italian immigrants who arrived in Chicago in the early 1900s. Wedding receptions were held in basements of churches and homes because the immigrants didn’t have a lot of money. They served peanuts and other cheap food to feed as many people as they could. This included beef cuts.
Pacelli said that the original beef sandwiches served at peanut weddings were cut quite thickly. Ferrari discovered that you could feed 35-40 people if the beef was cut thinner and cooked in its own juices. This thinner cut was known as the Italian beef sandwich. Ferrari continued to serve the service at local weddings for 20 years, making lunch deliveries until his son Al decided to start a business. Here is where things get really interesting.
“It began as a front to a bookie business,” Pacelli, better known as “Bones” by his father Chris Pacelli Sr., who founded the business in 1938 with Bones’ uncle Al Ferrari. Al’s Bar B-Q, originally known as Al’s Bar B-Q at Harrison and Laflin Sts was a small outdoor patio or “stand” where family members could take food orders while gambling took place in the back. Pacelli says that Al said “I’ll do your beef stand, you guys take the orders in the back.”
Both Al Pacelli’s father, and Al, worked at other jobs during the day. Pacelli Sr. worked as a streetcar driver and Ferrari drove a truck. The stand was only opened at night after their day shifts were over. Al started this business for a few years, but it was eventually closed down by Al. He wanted to make it a legitimate business and the Italian beef sandwich was becoming more popular in the area.
Pacelli claims that people of 30-40 years would gather at the beef stand on Fridays to enjoy their beef-soaked gluttony. This is a sign of growing popularity of the beef sandwich.
Although entertaining, some of the most prominent figures in the Italian beef industry dispute Al’s version of history. One of the most prominent skeptics is Pat Scala. His grandfather Pasquale Scala started Scala Packing Company back in 1925. Like Anthony Ferrari, Scala was a Chicago peddler selling cold cuts and sausages from a cart. Scala sold beef and some of his roasts were sold at local peanut weddings. According to Pat Scala Pat Scala said that Scala’s grandfather Pasquale used to slice beef thinly at weddings so that more people could eat more economically.
Scala claims that many people in the area were involved in the cooking process at the time. It’s not possible to prove who did it first. Scala doubts that Al’s has been selling Italian sausage since 1938, as they claim on their website. Scala believes Al’s was selling sausage back then, and that the Italian beef sandwich wasn’t popularized in Chicago until after WWII, when it was available at several other beef stands around the area. Scala Packing Co. still supplies wholesale beef to many Italian beef stand in the city.
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