Italian Beef and the American Way

I don’t often read food reviews, but when the article concerns one of your favorites, you just can’t resist, right?

Well, as a Chicagoan, when I saw an internet article come up on my screen, by a newcomer to Chicago reviewing the best of Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwiches, I naturally had to click on it.

I didn’t expect to find a political meaning in the piece – and frankly, I’m quite sure that the writer didn’t intend any political undertone either – but there it was, in the subtext, for anyone who knows Chicago.

The Italian beef is a great sandwich.  Over a century ago, Italian immigrants created a way to take a bad cut of beef and make it magnificent. It’s a twist on the “roast beef” that every deli sells, but is shaved thin and loosely, with Italian spices making a wonderfully flavorful gravy.  Served on an Italian roll, with your choice of peppers, it’s an iconic creation.

It looks simple, but it took generations to perfect not only the beef, but also the peppers.  Most Italian beef joints give customers a choice of giardiniera (a hot Italian pickled vegetable mixture) or simmered sweet peppers, or sometimes pepperoncini.

As I read the article, I could see that the writer was trying her best to be fair; she judged each place’s sandwich by the size of the roll, the quantity of beef it contained, how well drenched in the “au jus” it was, how badly all that gravy compromised the structural integrity of the bread, and of course, the overall flavor.  To all this, she gave some added consideration to the aroma from the bag, the surroundings at each restaurant, and the price.

I cannot stress enough that she clearly tried to be fair.


The article begins with her conveying disappointment at the fact that these places don’t serve it with cheese.  And then she also proudly declared that she sampled each one without any peppers, to be able to be completely fair in judging the beef.

This is like ordering a serving of Rigatoni Bolognese, but telling them to hold the Bolognese sauce, because you want to be completely objective in evaluating the noodles.

Peppers are a part of an Italian beef sandwich.  Cheese is not.  While some beef joints will happily add provolone or mozzarella if you request it, and they’ll certainly serve it without any peppers to make a sale, it’s just not a “Chicago Italian beef sandwich” that way.

You can’t judge an Italian beef sandwich without ordering an Italian beef sandwich the way it’s meant to be made.  Before you can evaluate any product fairly – before you can hope to understand whether something is working right or not – you have to first take the time to understand what that thing is.

At the end of the article, as with most such articles, the writer casts her vote for the best of the three she sampled.  Since I’m personally a devotee of one of the chains that she didn’t evaluate, I have no dog in this fight.  But I will say this; the vote cannot be accepted as legitimate, because the voter didn’t really understand what she was supposed to be voting on.

No matter how diligent you are, no matter how much you may try to be fair and balanced in your evaluation, you have to first fully understand the product you’re evaluating.

And that brings us, unfortunately but unmistakably, to the problem with elections in America.

Every other November – in some states, every single November – millions and millions of people look forward to local, state, and federal elections, and try their best to make rational evaluations.  They watch TV and internet commercials; read the mailers, listen to the radio.  They compare resumes and campaign promises, measure their personalities.  “Do I like this one or that one? Which one looks trustworthy?  Which one seems smarter? Which one seems nicer?”

Some voters, of course, are completely mercenary: “which one promised the most to me?” – and some are completely altruistic: “which one promised the most to other people?”  Some voters are foolish: “which one is cute?” – and some are corrupt: “which one will enable my corrupt lifestyle?”

And as we know from the growth of vote fraud over the years, some voters are outright fabrications.

But the issue that jumped out at me, as I read that well-intentioned review of Chicago’s Italian beef staple, was the nature of the well-intentioned voters, the ones who go into the ballot box meaning to do a good job, truly applying themselves to make a wise choice, but failing miserably because they don’t really understand what they’re voting on.

Our grammar school civics classes do (or used to) a decent job teaching children about how the government is put together. They explain the three branches, the bicameral legislature, the president’s cabinet. Teachers ensure that our 8th graders know that your congressman gets two years; your senator gets six, your president gets four.  Children learn at least these mechanics rather diligently.

But these matters have never really been the key to the American system.

Sure, the Framers chose two years for this office, four for that one… but that wasn’t the important stuff; what mattered to them was the limitations on what these candidates could do in office.

How many teachers tell their students “The Constitution exists to protect the people from government”?  How many students absorb the lesson – how many ever even hear it – that the American system is really based on limiting the leviathan, on binding it, shackling it, stunting its growth, for the public good?

We do this figuratively, in our state and federal constitutions. We do it literally, in the way that we surround Washington DC with a Beltway, not unlike a moat or no-man’s-land, to keep people out and to keep its own denizens in.  But do our children’s schoolteachers share this information with them?  Do the teachers understand it themselves?

They sing the praise of “democracy,” cheering our right to select our representatives, our right to run for office ourselves, our right to talk to our assemblymen and have rallies and demonstrations, our right to lobby for more funding or for some new law.

But we don’t teach our children that the government was meant to be slow moving – that the system of checks and balances was intended to slow down legislation, not speed things up.  We don’t grow up knowing that the government that governs best, governs least. We don’t read our children the Declaration of Independence, clause by clause, to ensure they understand what tyranny is.

And so, we have an electorate that includes a very well-intentioned, very dedicated army of voters – 30% of them? 40%? 60%? Who knows? – who are doing their level best to pick the right candidates for office, without having a clue of what each office is really supposed to do.

Voters try to pick the candidate who will spend government money on the best things, the candidate who will try to fix the most problems, the candidate who will punish the most people and groups that the voter doesn’t like.

The voters just don’t realize that the only way our system will work is if it behaves the way it was intended:  we are supposed to pick candidates who don’t want to spend government money, period… candidates who try their best to let problems fix themselves rather than making them worse through government meddling…  candidates who will leave people and groups alone, and who will work to resist their fellow politicians’ efforts to tax, regulate, and impoverish them.

Until the electorate understands what our government is supposed to do, it’s really not entirely fair to blame them for picking the wrong candidates, again and again.

“What have you given us?” the legendary Philadelphia matron asked delegate Benjamin Franklin in 1789.  Came the reply: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

Somewhere along the way, our nation’s elders forgot to leave the instructions out for future voters to read.

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional.  A one-time Milwaukee County Republican Party Chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009. His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon. He orders his Italian beef with sweet peppers.

Photo credit: The Buona Companies CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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