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How to Be a Better Dad by Eating More Italian Beef

Long before ‘The Bear,’ I found my dad mojo in au jus and sliced roast beef

Author and son eating a beef sandwich
The writer and his son enjoying an Italian beef at Roma's. / Photograph by Tim Klein

Thanks to the well-deserved success of The Bear, whose second season is now on Hulu, the world has become obsessed with Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches. But years before everybody started calling each other “Chef,” my weekends were devoted to Italian beef.

It was a Saturday afternoon in June 2020. COVID had shut down the world. On a whim, I texted my 22-year-old son, Nick, asking if he wanted to join me to hunt down the best Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago. Not that either of us is an especially big meat connoisseur — it was just an excuse to see him.

I’ve yet to find a great manual on how to parent adult children. Parenting is always a bit of a crapshoot, but the basic rules are more defined when children are young. I’m 56, and Nick will be 25 soon. While we’ve always had a solid relationship, once he graduated from college and moved out of the house, we just didn’t see each other as often. There are holidays and planned outings, of course, but casually hanging out, like we did when we lived under the same roof, is a thing of the past.

But then we started our quest to find the best Italian beef in the city, and it became our weekly reason to get together. There were no awkward phone calls (“So … how’ve you been?”), no more negotiating visits where we just sat and stared at each other. There was a purpose to our visits. We were on a hero’s journey! A mission from God, as the Blues Brothers might’ve said.

Every weekend, we traveled somewhere new. Soon we learned that the best Italian beef sandwiches aren’t in Chicago proper; they’re in faraway places like Elmwood Park, Cicero and Berwyn. And our opinions of what constituted a truly great Italian beef got more complicated.

We would debate whether a sandwich had the right amount of giardiniera — too much of that spicy oil would overpower it, but not enough and it lacked character — and if the beef was juicy enough to keep the bun sufficiently wet but not enough to dissolve in your hands. We debated the merits of Italian beef like Siskel and Ebert once argued over movies.

I mentioned my weekly outings to Jonah Berger, Wharton marketing professor and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He had a few theories on why our beef journey was bringing Nick and me closer together.

“You’re making all kinds of new discoveries when you head out together,” he explained. “And I assume you’re sitting next to each other in the car on these long drives?” We are, I admitted. “There are studies that suggest that if you want or need to have an honest conversation with a spouse or child, do it during a long car ride,” he said. “You can’t really look at each other, it’s private and you have a good amount of time.”

This all rang true. Not that every beef trip results in an emotional heart-to-heart, but every beef trip is a chance to reconnect with Nick, even in some small way. Sometimes we talk about his life, sometimes we talk about whether that office building across the street from the restaurant used to be a Taco Bell, and sometimes we just talk about beef. But there’s always an intimacy to it.

The journey also changed us, and not just from weight gain. We also explored neighborhoods that we never would’ve ventured near before, and ate alongside people who saw the world vastly differently than we did.

During one trip to Frannie’s Beef & Catering in Schiller Park, a working-class suburb near O’Hare Airport, we sat down at an outdoor picnic table and noticed a group of men next to us in White Sox baseball hats. This normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but I just so happened to be wearing a Cubs shirt.

Though we all live in the same city, Sox and Cubs fans might as well be from different countries. Which, in a way, we are. We’re all just pledging allegiance to our teams now, regardless of who’s on them or whether we agree with anything they stand for. It’s just uniforms. Like Seinfeld said, “We’re essentially rooting for laundry.”

Our backs tensed up and, for a moment, we felt uncomfortable and out of place. But then one of them looked over, smiled at us and said, “Killer beef, right?” 

We smiled back, nodding as we swallowed another mouthful. “Absolutely,” we agreed.

I couldn’t have asked for a better father-son learning moment if I’d planned it. Italian beef, as it turns out, is the great equalizer.

Follow Article Topics: Eating-&-Drinking