I ordered an Italian beef sandwich from three Chicago staples: Buona, Portillo's, and Al's Beef.
Buona's beef was a bit underwhelming, and Al's beef was a bit overpowering.
Portillo's sandwich took the longest to order, but it was by far the best and worth the wait.
Italian beef is a Chicago staple, and I was excited to try it.
Italian beef is a classic Chicago dish that's increased in popularity after the debut of Hulu's "The Bear" earlier this year. The show follows a chef returning to Chicago to run his family's sandwich shop that sells — you guessed it — Italian beef.
Originating in Chicago in the 1900s, the iconic sandwiches consist of slow-cooked, thin-cut roast beef and au jus on a French roll.
I moved to Chicago from Hawaii just over a year ago, so it seemed like it was about time for me to try Italian beef for myself.
I wanted to order it at some of the most popular chains, so I asked a Chicagoan for recommendations and settled on three: Buona, Portillo's, and Al's Beef.
To keep things fair, I ordered the original beef without extra cheese or peppers from each location. I also visited each chain on a Saturday around lunchtime.
First, I stopped at Buona.
Joe and Peggy Buonavolanto opened the first Buona in 1981. The chain's specialty is Italian beef.
Buona has 26 locations throughout the greater Chicagoland area.
The chain was spacious and welcoming.
When I walked in, I was surprised by how spacious and open the seating area was — it made for a very welcoming and relaxing environment. There were tons of places to sit, too.
I didn't feel rushed, squished, or like I was in anyone's way. It was a friendly atmosphere, from the reggae music playing over the speakers to the kind employees I interacted with.
The Buona employee who took my order seemed confident I'd love the sandwich.
After I ordered, the cashier told me I'd be seeing her face a lot because everyone always comes back. She seemed very confident, which made me extra excited to try the sandwich.
My Buona sandwich was wrapped in foil and placed in a paper bag.
I could smell the beef and au jus before I even took the sandwich out of the bag. I hadn't tried sandwiches from the other two chains, but I felt like we were off to a promising start.
I was a little disappointed by how skinny the sandwich was.
When I peeled back the paper from the sandwich, I was surprised by how small it appeared. It looked like a skinny log and felt light in my hands.
The sandwich was 6 1/2 inches long, though it was advertised on the menu as being 7. It was also 2 inches wide. Still, not a big deal.
Buona did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment when asked about the sandwich's discrepancy in size.
Before taking the first bite, I reminded myself that size doesn't matter and I should let the flavors do the talking.
This sandwich didn't quite meet my high expectations for Italian beef.
Upon my first bite, I wasn't sure I'd be back frequently like the cashier said.
Buona's Italian beef was simple. It was flavorful, but the main flavor I tasted was pepper. It wasn't overpowering, but the peppery taste lingered on my tongue long after finishing the sandwich.
The bread was fluffy, and the sandwich wasn't messy to eat.
The roll was light and fluffy and didn't steal the show — there was also a great beef-to-bread ratio.
But the bread was just there and didn't bring much flavor or personality to the sandwich. It felt like just something plain to hold the beef in place.
The sandwich wasn't messy at all, and I barely needed a napkin since the beef wasn't overly juicy and didn't drip onto my fingers. Still, I wish it had been moister with more of the flavorful au jus.
Overall, Buona had a solid sandwich — but it didn't blow me away.
Measured length: 6 1/2 inches
Measured width: 2 inches
Wait time to order: none
Wait time for beef: two minutes, 54 seconds
The beef on this sandwich kind of reminded me of flavorful, rehydrated beef jerky, which was not disappointing but didn't meet the high expectations set by the cashier. I wasn't sure the beef was enough to make me a Buona regular.
Next, I went to Portillo's.
Portillo's began in 1963 as a small trailer opened by Dick Portillo. Since then, it's become a Chicago staple known for its hot dogs, chocolate cake, cheese fries, and, of course, Italian beef.
Most of Portillo's 70 locations are in Illinois, but it's in some other states, including Florida, Michigan, and Arizona.
Portillo's was bustling, but I immediately felt welcome.
As soon as I entered Portillo's, I was greeted by a lively employee who jokingly pulled me in on an invisible rope and guided me to the lines to order in.
The inside of Portillo's felt totally different from the outside. It felt like a funky train station, and there were props and decorations scattered from the floor to the ceiling. The Dean Martin-esque music playing in the background transported me to the 1950s.
There were two lines that each had about 10 people. Customers were constantly coming in and out. Within five seconds of standing in line, two groups had already entered behind me.
It felt like an experience, not just a place to eat.
Based on my phone timer, I waited a little over nine minutes to place my order. But there was so much going on and so much to look at that I didn't even realize I was in line that long.
While the place was crowded, the ordering system seemed clear and organized.
I even enjoyed the fun way order numbers were called out with phrases like, "number 292, you know what to do" or "number 249, you're next in line."
I couldn't smell my sandwich through the bag, but it looked thick.
There weren't any beefy smells coming from the bag or out of the wrapper.
When I unwrapped my sandwich, I was shocked by its thickness.
It was love at first bite.
Buona set my baseline for Italian beef, so I was immediately surprised when I bit into Portillo's sandwich.
Portillo's Italian beef was super meaty and rich and had layers of flavors, which I felt were somewhat lacking during my Buona experience. The beef here was also generously packed.
The gravy and beef in the Portillo's sandwich were very flavorful and had an even balance of seasonings so one didn't overpower the other. All the seasonings melded very well together.
I didn't see a measurement for the regular sandwich on the menu that I ordered, but this was 6 inches long. It was 2 1/2 inches wide, thicker than the Buona sandwich.
It was clear this sandwich wasn't just thrown together.
The flavors of the beef tasted like they were developed and created over time during a slow process.
The French bread that kept the beef in place was soft and fluffy but crusty on the outside, which allowed for the tender beef to nicely mingle with the pillowy inside. It smelled and tasted freshly baked.
I felt like I could taste the time, effort, and care that was put into this sandwich, which was extra surprising considering how busy the chain was.
Overall, Portillo's beef was worth waiting for.
Measured length: 6 inches
Measured width: 2 1/2 inches
Wait time to order: nine minutes, 23 seconds
Wait time for beef: three minutes, 48 seconds
I initially had my doubts about Portillo's because it has "hot dogs" on its signs instead of beef, but after devouring its Italian beef, I was blown away. Each part of the sandwich was incredible.
Lastly, I visited Al's Beef.
In 1938, Al Ferreri and his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris Pacelli Sr., opened the beef stand that would become Al's decades later in a new location.
Al's logo says it has the "#1 Italian beef," a title the chain added after being named the best Italian beef sandwich in Chicago by Chicago magazine in 1980.
The award-winning chain has six locations, and four of them are in Chicago.
Al's felt a bit cramped, but it was beautiful inside.
As I opened the doors to Al's, "bold" was the first word that came to mind.
All the chairs and accent colors of the interior were bright yellow. The seating area was clean and pretty, but it did not seem as open as it was at Buona and Portillo's.
Al's felt much smaller and tighter than the other chains since the tables and seating arrangements were very close together. Still, this place looked good. It felt cool.
Al's had a very hip and fast-paced energy.
With the hip decor and Jack Harlow and Harry Styles songs playing in the background, Al's felt like a trendy local spot for 20- to 30-year-olds to grab a quick bite to eat with friends.
There were a handful of people eating their sandwiches at Al's, but no one was in line to order.
I don't know whether it was the setup of the eatery or the attentiveness of the workers behind the counter, but Al's felt fast-paced. I almost felt rushed into ordering, even though it wasn't very busy.
Al's sandwich was definitely the messiest.
As soon as I got my sandwich, I could tell it was going to be a doozy.
Unlike at Buona and Portillo's, the paper wrapping of the sandwich was soaked in au jus. I could tell this would be the messiest of the three and that napkins and moist towelettes would be needed.
Still, I was excited — this meant the sandwich wouldn't be dry.
The sandwich from Al's almost had an autumnal taste.
I ordered the regular sandwich, which clocked in at 5 1/2 inches. With a thickness of 2 3/4 inches, it was probably the most well stuffed.
As I leaned in for the first bite, I immediately smelled a ton of indistinguishable spices. It was a bit overwhelming — the smell of Buona's sandwich was more appetizing to me.
It might sound weird, but the taste of the beef and its au jus kind of reminded me of a fall-themed candle.
The beef was flavorful, but I wasn't sure about it.
The beef had incredibly bold flavors, but I wasn't sure I loved how these spices paired with beef.
I loved how fluffy and thick the French bread was, and it mostly did a good job of soaking up the au jus. If I loved the au jus, this would've been a good thing. Unfortunately, I didn't exactly want to hold on to the flavors.
Still, this beef is award-winning, so it might just be my personal preference, or I may have just gotten an extra-seasoned batch.
The bread also got pretty soggy while I was eating.
Since the bread soaked up all the meaty juices, it quickly became soggy.
As I picked up the sandwich between bites, I felt like I had to be really gentle. It felt like the bread could fall apart at any moment.
Still, I have to give the chain kudos for such a moist sandwich — I was glad it wasn't too dry. That said, it was so soggy I don't think it would hold up well enough for me to eat the rest of it later.
Al's Italian beef wasn't No. 1 for me.
Measured length: 5 1/2 inches
Measured width: 2 3/4 inches
Wait time to order: no wait
Wait time for beef: two minutes, 8 seconds
Al's beef had a very bold and distinct flavor, but I found the execution a bit lacking. In Al's case, I think less might be more.
The amount of meat I got on the sandwich was impressive, but I thought there were too many seasonings and spices that took away from the fluffy bread and super tender beef.
Overall, Portillo's is the only chain I'd go back to if I wanted Italian beef.
The sandwiches from Buona, Portillo's, and Al's each had their own distinct appearance and taste. The chain locations also had unique personalities and vibes, which I also loved.
There really is a chain for everyone, whether you prefer your sandwiches simple or loaded to the max or want a chill, cool vibe or vibrant, bustling one.
For me, Portillo's had the perfect balance of everything I wanted.
Buona's sandwich felt a little too skinny and dry to me, and I wished it had more flavor. On the other end of the spectrum, the sandwich from Al's felt a bit too overloaded with flavor and au jus.
Portillo's Italian beef had complex and delicious flavors, and I loved the fresh-tasting bread. The vibes inside the location I visited were also so fun. I get why the line was so long, and I'd easily wait 10 minutes to order this sandwich again. In fact, I'd wait even longer.
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