ABOUT AL'S BEEF
History of the Italian Beef Sandwich
The sandwich’s story starts around the end of World War I with a Chicago street peddler named Anthony Ferreri. He would drive around the city making deliveries of cold sandwiches and other bakery items he made out of the basement of his home. Anthony sold them off the back of his truck at construction sites, hospitals, and other offices just like a modern-day food truck.
One day he attended a local Italian-American "peanut wedding”, and the course of Chicago culinary history was changed forever. Italian American immigrants did not have much money back in those days, so wedding receptions would be held in homes and church basements where they served cheap foods like peanuts (hence the name peanut wedding). At this particular wedding, the family had a beef roast where they were slicing it pretty thick by hand and making sandwiches out of it.
Ferrari, who was always a sandwich guy at heart, had an idea. He could slice that beef roast much thinner on his deli slicer and cook it in its juices, add in some secret spices, and you could feed twice as many people with a first-rate sandwich. Ferrari coined the thinner beef cut the “Beef Sandwich’ and would sell it with his other deliveries or at other Peanut Weddings he would cater across the city.
Anthony would later marry and have two children, a son named Albert (Al) and a daughter named Frances. They all grew up on the Near West Side of Chicago and were involved in the family food business. Al wound up getting locked up for a few years while the family still prepared food out of their home for the trucks. Once Al got out of the joint, he pitched his new outfit friends an idea too good to pass up. Let's open up a bookie joint and use his father's beef sandwich idea as the front. The mustaches were in.
The guy with an idea. He's on the far right.
The guy that made the idea into a reality.
In 1938, Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli, Sr. opened up a little family beef stand located in the Little Italy neighborhood on Harrison and Lafflin Streets. They decide to call it Al’s Bar B-Q because the Italian beef simmered outside, and the Italian sausage grilled over the flaming charcoal.
Chris Pacelli, Sr. and Al worked other jobs during the day, as Pacelli Sr. worked for a streetcar company and Al drove a truck, so the stand would only open in the evening when they were first starting. As the legend of Al’s started to grow, the sandwich business was booming, and the family was able to buy out the bookies and run it as a legitimate business.
Many of the gamblers and bookies followed Al’s lead and opened up beef stands of their own throughout the city of Chicago. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a beef stand today without someone's first name on it. Since Anthony, Al, Frances, and Chris were all Italian, this was also where the term “Italian Beef” came from - beef sandwiches made by Italians aka "Italian Beef."
The Little Italy neighborhood changed entirely when Urban Renewal and new universities were established. The little beef stand on the corner of Harrison and Lafflin Street got bought out by Urban Renewal and Al’s would reopen at 1079 West Taylor Street in the early 1960s. Frances and Chris Pacelli Sr’s sons Terry, Chuck, and Chris Pacelli, Jr. (Al’s nephews) carried on their family’s tradition on Taylor Street where the original Al's is located today.
When Al’s was named the #1 Italian Beef Sandwich in Chicago by Chicago Magazine back in 1980, the business (and the name) was forever changed for the better: as they went from Al's Bar B-Q to Al's #1 Italian Beef in the city of Chicago. The business was so successful that they opened a second location in the River North neighborhood in downtown Chicago.
Many culinary honors have been awarded to Al’s, including Best Sandwich & Sandwich Shop in America, Most Iconic Dish in America, and Top Food to Eat in Chicago Before You Die to name a few. Al’s has received over 150 culinary and critic awards from places like the Food Network, TODAY Show, Travel Channel, Playboy, and Esquire to name a few.
People have traveled from all over the world to visit Al’s, including television and movie stars, late-night talk show hosts, athletes, news cooking show hosts, food critics, and even tour buses full of people. Once, an entire village in Italy made the trip to Chicago to sample Al’s #1 Italian Beef.
Al’s has shared its passion for Italian Beef sandwiches with Chicago and the rest of the world, serving the same great food that it did when it began its original operation over 80 years ago today.