Today I’m serving up a big helping of comfort food. Slow Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches are an easy-to-make take on a classic Chicago sandwich. The beef is tender and dripping with juice, the rolls are soft and squishy, and the peppers are to your liking—mild or spicy.
I got my first taste of Italian beef at Portillo’s, an iconic, always-busy sandwich shop in Chicago and its suburbs. I’d had a roast beef sandwich before, but never one like this. It was piping hot, served on the softest French bread, and presented with au jus for dipping. Best of all, it didn’t have any cheese, or mayo, or anything I had to request off my sandwich (always a win for a condiment hater like me). Instead, it had strips of soft green bell peppers, or for the spicy fans, spoonfuls of spicy giardiniera.
According to my copy of The Chicago Food Encyclopedia, Italian beef sandwiches became popular in the 1920s. They were served at “peanut weddings”—weddings where Italian American families rented out a big hall and made their own food for the event: roasted peanuts and sandwiches with wet roasted Italian beef. Since there were often hundreds of people in attendance, the hosts would take the beef to a local bakery to cook it in their large-capacity ovens. And the same bakery would supply the bread for the sandwiches.
Soon after, beef stands emerged on Taylor Street on Chicago’s near southwest side. After World War II, they became even more prolific. They now dot numerous Chicago neighborhoods, offering sandwiches, french fries, and in Portillo’s case, an entirely un-Italian treat called the Chocolate Cake Shake. It’s a milkshake with an entire slice of chocolate cake blended into it. And it’s delicious.
A slow cooker is perfect for re-creating an Italian Beef Sandwich at home. The meat is quite lean, and with the broth at the bottom, the slow cooker basically steams the meat until it’s done. It results in a moist, tender roast.
A word about slow cookers: the newer models run HOT. I had a slow cooker that was about 10 years old. I could consistently cook a roast for 4–6 hours on low or 8–10 hours on high. We got a new slow cooker for our wedding, and suddenly roasts are done after 4 hours on low. Apparently slow cooker manufacturers were worried about meat being at an unsafe temperature for hours at a time, so they cranked up the settings by 20°F of so in recent years. So just a word to the wise—know your slow cooker!
Italian beef shops slice their Italian beef extra thin. For these Slow Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches, I wanted to create something similar. However, I couldn’t find my electric knife. Then I tried slicing it on my mandoline. That definitely didn’t work. So I took my sharpest knife, summoned up some patience, and sliced the roast into ⅛ inch thick slices. It is worth the effort! The beef isn’t quite as thin as the sandwich shops, but it tastes the same anyway.
These Slow Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches are perfect for eating while watching the upcoming football playoffs, the winter Olympics, or the Super Bowl. The beef can be held in the slow cooker for hours after you’ve sliced it (set the slow cooker to warm), making it ideal for a cozy afternoon with family or friends. I served them with a Classic Chopped Salad. The recipe for that is coming soon!
Slow Cooker Italian Beef Sandwiches
- 2.5–3 lb sirloin tip roast
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 3 cups beef broth
- 2 green bell peppers
- 1 10oz jar hot giardiniera
- 6 French rolls sliced in half
- In a small bowl, combine the kosher salt, basil, oregano, and garlic powder.
- Unwrap the roast and sprinkle on all sides with the herb mixture. Place the roast and beef broth in a slow cooker.
- Set to low and cook for 3–4 hours on high or 4–6 hours on low. (I have a newer slow cooker, which cooks things quickly. Mine was done after 4 hours on low.)
- Meanwhile, seed the peppers. Cut each pepper into 6–8 slices vertically. 30 minutes before the roast is done, add the sliced bell peppers to the slow cooker.
- Remove the roast. Leave the bell peppers in the slow cooker and set the slow cooker to warm.
- Let the roast cool for 30 minutes, then slice the roast into ⅛ inch thin slices, or however thin you can cut it with a sharp knife.
- When ready to serve, remove the green bell peppers from the slow cooker. Strain the liquid into a bowl. Divide the liquid among ramekins or small dishes for dipping the sandwiches.
- Divide the beef evenly among the French rolls. Pour a tablespoon of the liquid (au jus) on top of each of the beef sandwiches.
- Top with either the green bell peppers (if you prefer it sweet) or the giardiniera (if you prefer it spicy). Serve immediately with extra au jus for dipping.