The Leader of the Pack
The Italian sub is an underground Chicago specialty. Its perfect blend of cured Italian meats, imported cheeses, and fresh vegetables doesn’t get the press that Chicago hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and Italian beefs do. And that’s a shame. Because for me, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a constant craving for this sandwich— something that I can hardly say about our city’s other three major delicacies.
I participated in the Great Sub Crawl of 2010, and if I learned anything from the endeavor, it was this: there are a lot of places in the Chicago area that make decent, and sometimes good, subs. Although we only tried six, they were a representative cross section, carefully researched and chosen by our more than capable leader. As we travelled from city to suburb and back again, we enjoyed sandwiches with rich culinary heritage, prepared and sold in our city’s traditionally Italian neighborhoods. It was indeed a learning experience, and one I think we are all better for having had.
That being said, in my opinion, there were only two and a half places worthy of mention. They are, from worst to best:
Riviera Italian Imported Foods: Disappointingly soft bread and a heartbreakingly bad Italian sub (stop using deli ham, please!!) left a literal bad taste in my mouth. Their “Will’s Special” is a marvel of a sandwich, but was brought down by the aforementioned bread and rather rubbery homemade mozzarella. While I have it on good authority that this cheese is excellent the day it is made, I didn’t seem to enjoy this luxury. More on this sandwich later…
Bari Foods: Recent GNR, the crowd favorite, the heavyweight champion of many years, the Colossus of Clout, aaaaaand the sandwich shop that seems to have begun the “resting on its laurels” phase of its existence. Don’t get me wrong— this was my original favorite: the place that made me fall in love with the Italian sub in the first place. It is also head-and-shoulders above the other places we tried and was a welcome palate cleanser after six hours of sub sampling. However, due to their use of sometimes stale bread and inconsistently sliced meat (prosciutto ranging from see-through paper thin to unpalatable poster board thick, to name one example), Bari now plays second fiddle to…
J.P. Graziano Grocery Co., Inc.: This unassuming shop on Randolph Street, though known and loved in some circles, was the definite underdog in the sub crawl, and it was relatively unknown to our discerning panel. However, it quickly rose to the top of the heap due to impeccable ingredients, artful and well executed presentation, and the type of attention to detail that comes from years of sitting at the foot of the masters. Graziano only started selling subs about three years ago, but not before securing the blessing of nearby Bari. In this case, the student really has become the teacher.
Graziano’s Italian sub became the standard bearer of the day. “Still not as good as Graziano’s” was a common critique of even the best laid plans of other sub purveyors. While the other sandwiches we tried were hindered by bad bread, worse meat (more deli ham than you can possibly imagine), and bizarre presentations— romaine Caesar salad topping at Freddy’s? Well pickled, but still Papa John’s-esque pepperoncini at Scudiero’s?— Graziano remained the quiet and subtle epitome of what an Italian sub can (and should) be.
However, even within our group, this consensus was not shared by all. While the first sub of the day had indeed cut deepest, some of our ranks were satisfied with the other places, and even expressed interest in returning. I don’t know if the others were less forgiving or less obsessed with this sandwich, but I absolutely had no interest in looking any further. Aside from Bari (who I have been known to frequent after 2 on Saturdays and around noon on Sundays, aka, times when Graziano is closed), I honestly have no need to search any further.
It is with utmost confidence that I can say that J.P. Graziano’s is the only sub you’ll ever need to order again in Chicago. A (literally) bold statement? Yes. One that plenty of commentators will take absolute issue with? Of course. I’m completely comfortable with saying here and now that I am an Italian sub monogamist. While I may take a new mistress from time to time, I’ll always come running back to Graziano, promising to make it right. And after reading this assessment, I hope that you will too.
So what makes J.P. Graziano’s Italian sub the one? Let’s break a sub down from the bottom up, piece by piece, and we’ll see.
We’ll start with J.P.’s bread. Their subs are built exclusively on D’Amato’s long Italian baguettes, which feature a shatteringly crunchy exterior, toothsome and chewy interior, and enough flavor to stand up to the most cured and picked of Italian ingredients. But this bread is not for the faint of heart. Taking a bite of a sub made on D’Amato’s bread is a commitment, and one your mouth should be prepared for. It will probably seem overly chewy at first, but by the end of the sandwich you’ll wonder why you ever thought that the “freshly baked bread” at Subway was something to admire.
Why would you want crunchy, chewy bread when you can have it soft and pillowy and still warm to the touch? It comes down to composition. As you can see from the picture, the ingredients on an Italian sub are stacked vertically. When they are part of a sub built on soft bread, they have a tendency to slide out of the sandwich when you bite in. This ruins the balance and makes for a messy eating experience. Talk about building a house upon the sand. However, subs built on D’Amato’s chewier bread don’t have this problem: the bread base of the sandwich is substantial enough to grip onto the ingredients, keeping everything completely intact throughout the entire meal. I didn’t realize how important having this traction was until I tried other subs that use softer bread. It may seem inconsequential, but bad bread, in my opinion, is the single biggest factor that can ruin an otherwise good sub.
I should pause to acknowledge that Bari also exclusively uses D’Amato’s bread. It is located right next door, after all. And yes, when it’s good, the bread forms the base of a pretty remarkable sub. However, Bari’s real downfall, in my opinion, is their sometime’s use of (gasp!) stale bread. If you haven’t experienced it, think about how I described good D’Amato’s bread, and picture that stale. Getting bites off of that sandwich is like eating beef jerky. Not good.
After bread comes Graziano’s meat. It is at once noticeably different than the meat blends used on subs at other shops, like Bari. According to their menu, Graziano’s Italian sub features hot capicola, Volpi salami, Genoa salami, and mortadella. Now I would be lying if I said I was some sort of cured Italian meat expert. I’m still very early in the learning phase, and what I know is rather infantile (“mortadella is basically Italian bologna, but with chunks of fat in it,” prosciutto is cured pig leg hung to dry for a long time before being sliced,” etc). And furthermore, in regards to quality, Graziano’s meat quality is extremely similar to that of other shops, like Bari— most likely because as a wholesaler, Graziano provides meat to delis throughout the Chicagoland area.
So why is Graziano’s meat so distinctly superior? Why is their blend so well balanced and inspiring to eat? In a nutshell, the cured meat is freshly and properly sliced and thoughtfully arranged. While most places work off of a stack of precut meat and re-slice when they run out, Graziano slices the meat to order for each and every sandwich. Cutting the meat by the sandwich ensures the utmost freshness and prevents the inevitable drying out that occurs when sliced cured meat is exposed to air for extended periods of time. This alone makes for meat that is worlds better than the competition’s.
However, not only do they cut it to order, but Graziano also slices each meat to different thicknesses, depending on the type. Their slicer is retrofitted with number settings that correspond to each meat, meaning that you’ll never have to worry about your prosciutto being cut the same way as your salami. While this may seem insignificant, the difference is glaringly obvious when you bite into a sub full of poorly sliced meat.
Finally, Graziano’s meat is stacked on the Italian sub in a specific order, with the wider capicola forming the base and the creamy and rich mortadella spaced between the two peppery salamis. This placement ensures that each bite is well rounded and balanced, with each meat playing a different, but equally important role in the sandwich’s final flavor. Think of the blend as the cured meat equivalent to the barbershop quartet from the Music Man.
While these extra touches might mean that you may be waiting in line for a few extra minutes when Graziano is busy, the difference you’ll taste in your first bite will more than make up for the lost time.
Next comes cheese. J.P. uses thinly sliced provolone, and honestly, there really is not a lot to say about it. The cheese is a domestic brand that plays a minor, though important, role on the sandwich. Think of it as the sandwich’s midsection. While it definitely adds some flavor to the finished product, its main purpose is to tie together the percussive crunch of the bread to the booming bass notes of the cured meats to the bright and immediate high notes of…
…the vegetable and condiment embellishments of the sandwich. These components round out the sandwich, contributing to the Graziano balance that is a hallmark of all their subs. Most Italian subs contain tomato, lettuce, oil, vinegar, oregano, and giardiniera, and Graziano’s is no exception. However (and you’re probably sensing a theme here), what is different is their execution.
Tomatoes come first. They are uniformly sliced and consistently fresh, even during the tomato’s mealy winter season. They are one of only two fresh ingredients on the sandwich, and they impart immediacy and vibrancy into the otherwise cured, aged, and pickled affair. Toothsome and acidic, these slices got me over my fear of tomatoes on sandwiches in general.
After the tomatoes is lettuce. At most shops, lettuce is piled on top of one open face side of the sandwich, followed by a drizzle each of olive oil and vinegar (usually red wine), and finished with a sprinkling of oregano. What this usually means is uneven fat and acid coverage on the lettuce, resulting in some bites that are dominated by fruity olive flavor and some that only taste of pungent vinegar. Graziano’s approach is different. Realizing that the topping is in effect a salad, the shredded iceberg lettuce, olive oil, red wine vinegar, and oregano are mixed to order in a container before they ever hit the sub. Graziano’s house “slaw” is crunchy and light, evenly distributing its vinaigrette-like flavor throughout the sandwich.
Finally is the giardiniera. By this point, I may sound biased, but I can honestly say that Graziano serves the best I’ve ever tasted. The pickled assortment of vegetables consists of Serrano peppers, carrots, celery, red bell pepper, cauliflower, olives, oregano, garlic, salt, and vegetable oil. Their giardiniera was originally bottled by a little old lady out of her Cicero basement under the brand name Monte Carlo, but the recipe has since been produced by a small factory and sold under Graziano’s Victoria label.
Now I’ll give you that Bari makes their own— supposedly in the basement. But along with awkwardly sliced pepper pieces, Bari’s giardiniera contains mushrooms (the canned variety, if memory serves…), a nontraditional component that means I’ll be cracking the sandwich open and picking through pickled peppers before I even start eating.
Conversely, Graziano’s Victoria brand features uniformly cut vegetables, including whole olives. Graziano feels that leaving the olives intact not only provides a better crunch, but also ensures that the entire mélange won’t be permeated by broken up olive slices. I tend to agree. What this means for your sandwich is that each bite you take will feature a healthy smattering of extremely crunchy veggies with just the right amount of spice for you to remember their name.
And that’s it. I am continually amazed by the Italian sub at J. P. Graziano. Its strength lies in its unassuming nature and the way that its ingredients are arranged with subtle care. Before you know it, the sandwich is gone, but its memory sticks with you unlike any sandwich I’ve had before. While it can be quickly overshadowed by some of the more vibrant selections on Graziano’s menu, like the prosciutto and mozzarella (featuring fresh basil!), the Italian sub remains the original— the trailblazing pioneer that made all the other sandwiches possible. In short, whether it’s your favorite Graziano sub or not, ordering it at least every once in a while will help you remember your roots before you got all highfaluting with the fancier and flashier options.
The Nail in the Coffin
Now I know that somewhere out there is a small constituency that still isn’t convinced. Even after my extremely “thorough” diatribe on chewy bread, oration on freshly sliced meat, and introductory course on proper embellishments and perfect condiment distribution, there are some that aren’t ready to slip the Graziano ring on their empty fingers. No matter. Apparently it’s convincing that you want, so convincing you’re going to get. Here are two final reasons to have three kids and move to the suburbs to settle down with J.P. Graziano.
If it’s attentive service and obsessive devotion to customer satisfaction that you crave, then look no further than the man with a plan, Jim Graziano. Fourth generation owner, he’s the one behind Graziano’s sub offerings in the first place. After talking with him about the care that goes into each sub, I was amazed at how deliberate his choices are. He treats sub making like and art form, and he is constantly striving for perfection.
So when I told him recently that I wanted to conduct a sort of “sandwich experiment,” he graciously humored my less than traditional request.
To get right to it, I wanted him to copy-cat Riviera. That’s right: I wanted him to replicate the “Will’s Special” of LTH fame. This sandwich, though seriously lacking in the bread and cheese department, was the overwhelming favorite on the sub crawl. I thought it was good, but I had a hunch that it could be better, and I knew just where to go to find out. Rather than balk at this seemingly minor show of strength, Jim took the challenge head on. The first attempt entailed me emailing him both the ingredients list, per LTH (“hot sopressata, hot capicola, salami de prosciutto, prosciutto ham, fresh mozzarella, giardiniera”) and this picture from our sub crawl taken by the folks of the Paupered Chef. The sandwich Jim came up with was well proportioned: meaty with considerable and pickly spice; however, this sandwich demonstrated the same balance and attention to subtlety that Jim’s constructions are known for. But that’s his specialty— not Will’s. So I gave Jim my honest assessment: perfectly balanced, but it needs 3X the meat and 2X the cheese to get the Will’s Special proportions right.
Since he was by this point as dedicated to this replication as I was, Jim did what any sandwich obsessive would do: he stopped into Riviera one night after work to try the original. What he made for me the following Saturday was exactly on target: meat and cheese proportions perfectly comparable to Riviera’s, a fistful of giardiniera big enough to bring tears to the eyes of even the manliest of men… and a sandwich that was entirely TOO MUCH. With all that meat and cheese, the whole thing was a mess: the individual meat flavors were lost, the creamy mozzarella coated every bite with an intense blandness, and the giardiniera smothered the whole thing in an almost caustic spiciness. My wife and I didn’t finish it, a first for a Graziano made sub.
So what does this mean? Was the Graziano version a failed attempt at a masterpiece you can only find on Harlem Avenue? I really don’t think so. Upon reflection, the Will’s Special, whether made by Graziano or Riviera, seems to be based upon quantity above all else. While I had originally admired this approach when I tried Riviera’s, I now feel that this guilty pleasure is a misstep in the art of sub making. It’s too much of a good thing. Whether the subs are made by Graziano or Riviera, subtlety should always reign supreme.
Whether he intended to prove a point or not, Jim insisted on making me his own take on the Will’s Special with each iteration of the Riviera’s he produced. His final version featured hot sopressata, prosciutto di Parma, basil, house slaw, and giardiniera. The meat blended perfectly with the mozzarella, and the giardiniera delivered just the right punch in each bite. However, the star was the basil, which snuck in each bite behind the acidic slaw, tying the sandwich together beautifully and bringing some much needed grace to a sandwich dominated by strong personalities. This sandwich is my wife’s new favorite and can be ordered by the masses under the name “Graziano Will Special.” The moral of the story: when left to his own devices, Jim Graziano can’t help himself but make a perfectly balanced sub, whether you like it or not.
Okay, so duplication isn’t really your thing? You want something that will put your taste buds to the test? One last reason to seal the Graziano deal? Look no further than the “Mr. G,” Graziano’s latest (and dare I say Greatest?) creation yet.
The Mr. G consists of hot sopressata, prosciutto di Parma, Genoa salami, imported provolone, fresh basil, whole quartered artichoke hearts, house slaw, and truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette. Wait, what?? Along with being more than a little out of place in an Italian foodstuff wholesale shop, this vinaigrette is hardly a common sub condiment. And personally, I normally find truffles overpowering and slightly nauseating, but this is different. Think of it as the working man’s truffle experience. You’ll know it’s there the whole time, but it stays politely in the background, waiting to be experienced on your terms. This is accomplished through the vinaigrette’s application directly to the aforementioned D’Amato’s bread, and the continued use of Graziano’s house slaw with red wine vinegar. The two distinct dressings play nicely together, and although you may forget it’s there, the truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette permeates the entire sandwich experience.
While it features a condiment more at home over at Hot Doug’s, the other components of the Mr. G are nothing to sneeze at, either. The meat blend is perfectly balanced, and with the help of a judicious sprinkling of the hot giardiniera oil, it provides a subtle heat that lingers after each bite. The imported provolone is very sharp and almost parmesan-like. When combined with the truffled vinaigrette, it makes for a mouth feel that is rich and acidic, decadent and pungent. As with every sub that Graziano uses it in, the basil provides freshness and instantly brightens the sandwich. The artichoke hearts, left in their almost whole state, contribute both richness and texture to the sandwich’s overall feel. And of course, the slaw provides just the right amount of acidy crunch to balance out the sandwich’s mainly preserved components. In short, this is a wonderful sandwich: a thoughtful combination of well known ingredients with a few unexpected touches. While it is still in the prototype phase, it will (hopefully) be on the regular menu soon. Until then, the truffled vinaigrette can be added to any sub for a mere dollar.
So there you have it: about 10 subs consumed by two people over the course of two consecutive Saturdays. And what do we have to show from it?
For starters, since the work of trying a representative sampling of Italian subs has been done for you, you can rest in the knowledge that sub monogamy is neither a sign of close-mindedness nor laziness, but rather one of carefully researched devotion. We also have a better understanding of a subtle and underrated Chicago masterpiece, the Italian sub.
We also came out of the experience with two new subs, the Graziano Will Special and the Mr. G, two reasons alone to jet down to the West Loop and drive the wrong way down one of Randolph Street’s three confusingly divided lanes. When you get there, take a few minutes to talk to Jim before you sink your teeth into sub sandwich heaven. Not only will you be glad you made the trip, but you’ll be better for the experience.
Go ahead and call me Jon Landau if you’d like. I don’t care; I’ll be the one with truffle mustard balsamic vinaigrette in my beard.
J.P. Graziano Grocery Co., Inc.
901 W. Randolph Street
Mon-Fri: 7:30 – 3:30
Sat: 8-2 (sub orders should be placed by 1:30 on Saturdays)
Graziano Will Special: $6.25
Mr. G: TBA
** Because these sandwiches contain dressed ingredients, they are best eaten immediately**