Where’s the (Italian) Beef?

Italian Beef Sandwich, Monarchs' Club. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen

Thin-sliced beef, slow-cooked in savory, spicy gravy (don’t call it au jus!) piled onto a thick bread roll, dunked into that same savory gravy, then topped with a spicy giardiniera blend of pickled veggies, and voila! You have the Italian beef sandwich, a Chicago staple and a masterclass in delicious dining.

Hungry yet?

While adding cheese to the sandwich is considered a sin in Chicago, in this Grand Rapids writer’s opinion, get it with provolone cheese.

The stance one adopts when eating the sandwich is known as “the hunch,” as it’s no simple task to contain all the messy goodness.

When ordering, you have the option to have the sandwich lightly dipped in the gravy or completely soaked, also known as “baptized.”

The origin of the sandwich is a bit hazy, but Chicago’s Al Ferreri is widely considered to have invented the sandwich–  as we know it today–  in1938 at his famous restaurant, Al’s Beef, still in business today as Al’s #1 Italian Beef.

But where to find this signature Chicago “sammich” in Grand Rapids? Not a ton of options.

I first fell in culinary love with the Italian beef sandwich at the late, lamented Windy City Grille, an unfortunate COVID casualty. With the beloved grille gone, where to find my favorite sandwich in town? Calamity!

Luckily, my research unearthed a new favorite Grand Rapids Italian beef sandwich. It can be found at a West Side hidden gem, The Monarchs’ Club. Founded in 1925 as a speakeasy, the building was defunct for many years until it was rebooted in 2006 into its current incarnation, an unpretentious – yet high-quality–  corner bar and restaurant.

General Manager Alecia Fanning (aka “Mr. Manager”) explained that Monarchs’ Club owner Frank Lehnen was inspired by his visits to his Chicago-based brother to bring this Chicago staple sandwich to Grand Rapids.

What sets the Monarchs’ Club sandwich apart from the rest of the paltry GR herd? Fanning revealed that their kitchen uses Vienna Brand meat and spicy giardiniera. They utilize the gravy that comes with the Vienna meat, but then add their own mysterious blend of secret ingredients to kick their sandwich up several notches past the competition. On to another key ingredient: the bread! Originally the Monarchs’ kitchen used Gonellas bread, but at some point Gonellas changed up their recipe, and the bread failed to hold up to the brutal soaking a good Italian beef sandwich demands, dissolving into a soggy mess. The Monarchs’ crew switched the bread to the sturdier ACE Bakery swiss roll.

The sandwich has proven to be a hit for the bar. It’s simple to make, just heat the meat in the gravy, steam the bread, put it together, dip it, top with giardiniera. “It’s about as easy as making a hot dog,” said Fanning. So don’t delay, go to Monarchs’ Club and get yourself a sammich! Provolone cheese and extra giardiniera, highly recommended. And if you’re getting a drink and feeling adventurous, ask for the infamous “Gravyback” shot. I dare ya!

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