Let me tell you how hard it is. You have to have friends invite you over for lunch. Your friends, at some point, had to live in Chicago or somehow know, through Second City transplants, the Food Network or divine oracle, about the city’s long tradition of Italian beef sandwiches. Your friends then had place an order with Portillo’s to ship over an Italian beef care package, which, if it didn’t include rolls (or they were already eaten), also forced your friends to search high and low for an acceptable bread substitute.

Fortunately, I have such friends. They’re former City Paper Arts Editor Mark Athitakis and his wife, Shawn Neidorf, a couple of native Chicagoans who wanted to give me a taste of real Italian beef, which is nearly impossible to find outside the Chi-town area.

Mark and Shawn had had the meat in their freezer for months, leftovers from their last Labor Day weekend party in which they feted friends with a taste of Chicago. Shawn, frankly, wanted the stuff out of her freezer to clear up space, so she and Mark used me as an excuse to warm up the last of the Portillo’s beef. The only problem was the bread. They didn’t know where to find good, hard Italian rolls—-at least until Shawn learned about Catania Bakery, which will sell you sub rolls as long as you make the long trek down to its North Capital location.

Shawn made the trip.

The bread did an admirable job as stand-in. While I suspect it was not as tasty as the stuff Mark and Shawn were used to, it was hard and crusty enough; it could take all the gravy you wanted to ladle over it and still not fall apart like Gwyneth Paltrow at the Oscars.

The star of the sandwich, though, was the beef, shaved so thin it took on a ruffled texture. Though wet-roasted with Italian seasonings, the meat’s dominant flavors weren’t herby or garlicky; instead, it’s as if those ingredients extracted a deeper level of beefiness from the bottom round. This sandwich almost defined savory.  The sweet peppers, carrots, and sliced ringlets of jalapeno that Shawn threw on the sandwich provided little bursts of sweetness and heat, which was nice.

I loved the sandwich so much that Mark and Shawn packed up the leftover meat for me to take home. Now those are friends.

(The picture below does not do justice to this sandwich.)

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