Popped by Al's in Scottsdale for opening day today and had a pretty damn good Italian Beef. The place was a zoo with a line of close to 50 people out the door at one point and it took close to half an hour to get a sandwich in hand, but considering the crush they got on day one, I'm impressed by how well they handled it.
There's no mistaking the fact that this is a franchise operation. They have about as much authentic charm as a Disney attraction, the logo is plastered everywhere and every IB is weighed out on a digital scale. But I guess every crusty old beef stand in Chicago was clean and new at one point, right?
For those unawares, when folks talk about the best Italian Beef places in Chicago, Al's is always on the very, very short list of top contenders. It's a little polarizing due to an unusually heavy spice/herb blend, but is generally regarded as one of the city's finest even among those for whom it isn't their cup of tea (my preferences tend towards the naturally sweeter end of the spectrum). Of course, all of this applies to the original Al's on Taylor street, and not to the numerous Chicago area franchises, which aren't very highly regarded by those who care about such things.
As for Scottsdale, there are nits to pick for hardcore beef nerds, but there's a whole lot more right than wrong going on here. Admittedly, it's been a couple of years since I've hit Al's on Taylor, but a few differences stuck out to me. The spice blend didn't seem quite as aggressive here, while the chile heat was actually stronger. Consistency and flavor of the beef was great -- a lot better than my last (admittedly substandard) visit to the Taylor Al's, actually. There's a whole lot less of it, but I believe it's a significantly cheaper sandwich. I also got a lot more sweetness, perhaps owing to the fact that the place was a madhouse and the beef was turning over very, very quickly rather than sitting for a long time in the juice (this is a good thing). The bread is baked on the premises, and gets a touch gummy when saturated but they've done a mighty fine job of preparing the kind of bread in-house that I imagine is rather difficult to source outside of Chicago. Peppers were sweet and juicy, and the giardiniera was the signature shredded Al's style, celery and fennel swimming in hot red oil. Mine wasn't quite as oily as I typically expect in Chicago, but a side of it one table over looked about right, so I might've just gotten a dry scoop.
Bottom line, while it generally isn't quite Al's on Taylor, this particular IB-obsessed Chicagoan would proudly put forth today's sandwich as a fine example of his fair city's most notable contribution to the pantheon of world sandwiches. Great job, fellas.