Where’s the beef?


Discovering the Italian sandwich~

Recently a friend e-mailed me asking for a “big, fat, greasy, wet, sloppy, Italian Beef Sandwich recipe.” Sadly, I had to tell him that the only place I have ever eaten something like that is in Chicago—and never in Italy. That isn’t to say that something like that doesn’t exist in Italy; I have just never seen it.

But his question did put me in the mood for un panino—a sandwich. In America, paninis have become all the rage and I have even seen them offered at convenient stores. Mamma mia! Actually, my first panino was at a convenient store, of sorts, at one of the autostrada (freeway) exits in Italy. However, this convenient store is leaps and bounds ahead of any convenient store in America.

Autogrill offers a wide array of food, beverages, children’s games, wine, candy, and just about everything else you might find at an interstate truck stop here in America, except that almost all of the food items would be considered gourmet by American standards. Local percorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gorgonzola, Asiago, and a host of incredible Italian cheeses fill the case next to rows and rows of salamis varying in color, size, and texture. The selection of Italian wine is vast—both in region, vintage, and price. The counter bar is packed with standing Italians enjoying their shots of espresso. There are no to-go or “venti”-sized cups bearing a green label. Here your shot comes in a small ceramic cup with saucer and a tiny spoon to stir in your sugar—and no twists of lemon. I have yet to see un caffè—a coffee—served in Italy with a twist of lemon—maybe I haven’t been to that part of Italy yet.

Next to the counter bar is a glass case containing stacks of panini. Some have only cheese, others offer meat and cheese, and one of my favorites is fresh mozzarella, sliced tomato, and arugula. Once ordered and paid for, the panino is placed between the two heated sides of the panini grill, toasted, and pressed down. Crunchy and hot, this Italian sandwich is wrapped in a piece of parchment paper for you hold and eat as you go about the rest of your shopping business.

Every time we are in Italy, we have to stop and eat at Autogrill as we drive out of Rome headed north toward Lazio or Tuscany. It might be due to the fact that we are usually completely exhausted from the flight that the sandwiches, coffee, chocolate, and drinks taste so good.  I have yet to find a panino in America as good as those from the roadside Autogrill.

Sorry that it isn’t “big, fat, greasy, wet, sloppy” but here is my version of a panino:

Marinate 4 (1¼ pounds) beef chuck boneless steaks (sometimes called “breakfast steaks” which are a little thicker than “sandwich steaks”) in a plastic re-sealable bag with 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, the zest and juice of one lemon, a ½ tablespoon Kosher salt and a ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Seal the bag and work all of the ingredients together, making sure that the marinade covers the steaks. Let marinate at room temperature for about 20 minutes.

Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add 1 tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and, using with a fork, remove the steaks from the marinade and place into the heated oil. Discard the marinade and the plastic bag.

Sauté the steaks in the oil until they start to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn the steaks over and cook the second side for another minute before adding a splash (a couple of tablespoons or a ¼ cup) of red wine to the skillet. Lower the heat and cook until the wine has reduced by half, about another 3 minutes. The steaks should be a nice medium-rare at this point. (Cook longer if you like your meat more well-done.) Remove the skillet from the heat and place the steaks on a plate to rest. Reserve the sauce that remains in the skillet.

While the steaks rest and cool, slice, on angle, 8 slices from a rustic Italian bread (either a boule, a long loaf, or a ciabatta). Freshly grate 4 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Pecorino Romano cheese into a bowl and set aside.

Once the steaks have cooled for 10 to 15 minutes (letting them cool to room temperature is even better), place on a cutting board and slice each steak on the bias (on angle) into ¼-inch to ½-inch thick slices. Each sliced steak will make one sandwich.

To assemble: Drizzle a slice of bread with a little of the pan juices. Next, layer one steak worth of sliced meat onto the bread. Sprinkle some of the grated cheese over the meat. Top this with some fresh arugula, followed by a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of kosher salt and a grind of black pepper. Top with a second slice of bread. Repeat the process to make 4 sandwiches. Cut each panino in half and serve.

If you truly want to make this a panino, place the prepared sandwiches into a panini maker and toast until the bread is a golden brown and has grill marks on it.

Don’t have a panini maker? Don’t worry, I don’t either. Heat a dry skillet over medium heat and, as if making a grilled cheese sandwich, place the panino into the hot, dry pan. Using a spatula, press down on the panino until it is toasted and dark brown on one side. Flip it over and, pressing down again, toast the second side. Repeat with the other sandwiches. Panini are best when hot and pressed thin.

Sorry about the no “big, fat, greasy, wet, sloppy” but if you truly desire that—head to Chicago where they make the best Italian beef this side of…hmmm, I was going to say Sicily, but I think it is truer to say…this side of Chicago!

Buon appetito!


The photos: my steak, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and arugula panino.

About the Author

Mark LeslieMark Leslie, seen cooking on NBC’s "The Today Show" and Hallmark Channel's "Home & Family," loves to cook for anyone with an appetite, vacations in Italy every year, and lives to eat his way through every plate of pasta and cone of gelato placed before him. His first book, “Beyond the Pasta: Recipes, Language & Life with an Italian Family,” tells of his life in Italy while cooking with an Italian grandmother. He shares his food experiences on his blog at www.beyondthepasta.com and has taught cooking classes in California, Georgia, Minnesota, Texas, and across Alabama. While judging for high school culinary events, he was chosen by the US Department of Education to judge for their "National Education Startup Challenge." Mark can be regularly seen cooking on NBC-affiliate, WSFA-TV 12's "Alabama Live! each Friday, bringing easy, locally sourced recipes to central Alabama. His iTunes app “Beyond the Pasta” features helpful videos and more of Nonna’s family-style recipes that she shared with him, plus, upon its release, it was named “New & Noteworthy” by Apple. DaVinci Wines chose Mark as their "2012 Storyteller" in Language Arts—where they sent him to Vinci, Italy, to write about wine, food and life. Mark, his home and book have been featured in such national publications and blogs as House Beautiful, Paula Deen, Food Republic, The Kitchn, Apartment Therapy, Field & Stream, and The Daily Meal. A Chicago-area native and “Yankee” by birth, Mark has lived in Alabama for over 24 years, and celebrates the fact that he started life eating farina, progressed to grits, and finally arrived at polenta. Buonissimo!View all posts by Mark Leslie →

  1. Kris KendrickKris Kendrick07-08-2010

    I love steak done this way – and sliced thin… I’m basically a lazy animal. Slice it for me, baby.

"Beyond the Pasta" is owned and operated by Mark Leslie. Unless otherwise specified all content, writing, recipes and photography is original and held in copyright through the Library of Congress. It may not be used without the express written consent of Mark Leslie.