The simple beef sandwich was born on an August morning in 1762. That day, the notoriously corrupt fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, requested something far from a dainty teacake. He wanted roast beef between two slices of bread so he could eat easily with one hand, and gamble with the other.
The commercial sandwich industry in Britain is worth five billion pounds, according to Jim Winship, director of The British Sandwich Association. “We’re way ahead of the U.S.,” he says, quickly noting that the cheeseburger does not count as a sandwich. However, after some careful thought, he said, he would consider the Italian beef a sandwich. “I suppose if it’s hot beef between two pieces of bread then, yes, technically it is a sandwich.”
The British gentry universalized the beef sandwich, but those who popularized one very special Chicago sandwich—the Italian beef—was a very different group indeed.
As legend has it, Pasquale Scala was an Italian immigrant in Chicago, a sausage and meat connoisseur, who packaged and delivered his goods via horse-drawn carriage to his neighbors in the early twentieth century. After the depression his packing company began to slice the beef thinner and smother it with gravy—a still hearty meal for less money.
It seems hard to believe that one man, Montagu or Scala, could have popularized a form of the sandwich all on his own (there is speculation that Montagu’s estate workers were already eating the roast beef sandwich). So, as is with history, there is another version of the story: During tight times workers at the Union Stockyards brought unwanted scraps of beef home to feed their families. To soften the tough stuff they simmered it in broth, flavored it using typical Italian spices and put it between pieces of hearty bread.
Either way, one thing is true: Chicago is thankful.(Laura Castellano)