Establishing yourself as a so-called “Chicago institution” usually takes time, effort and an inordinate amount of luck. For Mr. Beef at 666 North Orleans, it was many years before the beef stand’s big break: Jay Leno being named host of “The Tonight Show.”
“He pretty much promised my father, ‘If I make it on ‘The Tonight Show,’ I’m putting this place on the map,’” says Chris Zucchero, Mr. Beef’s co-owner and manager, explaining that Leno would come to the shop weekly and order their now-defunct meatball sandwich. “He was the first celebrity we had walk in this place and after that it just sorta trickled down and everybody started coming in here.”
Now, in its thirtieth year of existence under the Zucchero family, Mr. Beef is not only “on the map,” it’s on the globe, a destination of tourists from countries that Zucchero “didn’t even knew existed.” The most refreshing part of Mr. Beef’s popularity in its current state is Zucchero himself, a no-nonsense but amusingly witty 27-year-old; a second-generation meat-shop owner with a legitimately cool, John Leguizamo-esque hairdo and beat-up Nike sneakers; a guy whose dark circles under his eyes visibly shows how much time he puts into a place where he literally grew up, and explicitly loves. “Meat is in my blood, in my genetic makeup,” he says.
“There’s a science to it, there really is a science to making the sandwich,” he says. “A lot of guys will tell you they have the best beef. I don’t think I have the best beef, people just like it.” This is strikingly odd; how many beef shop owners will openly say they don’t have the best beef in town? He even goes a step further and says the best Italian beef sandwich is at Chickie’s on the South Side.
“They did this thing on CLTV on all the beef stands,” he says. “It was me and these other guys, all of ‘em are in their forties and overweight with gel in their hair, all slicked back, telling people how great their beef is. And I’m on telling everybody to go to Chickie’s.”
Still, Zucchero is willing to at least call his Italian beef “outstanding.” And apparently all of Hollywood agrees, judging by Mr. Beef’s massive wall of celebrities, including “Wheel of Fortune”’s Pat Sajak, Paul Newman, porn legend Ron Jeremy (“he was hanging with us all day”), Siskel and Ebert, the venerable Tony Danza and shot after shot of Jay Leno, donning an apron and apparently helping run the shop with Zucchero’s father, Joe.
Lately, however, Zucchero’s father hasn’t been pleased with a certain decision his son made concerning the shop. The sandwich hasn’t changed, but the hours have, staying open until 5am on Friday and Saturday to accommodate the local bar scene. This has resulted in some unusual occurrences, but nothing too outlandish. “It’s still Mr. Beef, it’s still the same deal, it’s just at night. Just dealing with a different beast at night. Dealing with a different jagoff during the day and then another jagoff at night,” he says, laughing. “For the most part, that’s what makes this place up: celebrities, drunks and assholes.” (Andy Seifert)
Mr. Beef, 666 North Orleans, (312)337-8500