Its 6 am Sunday and Im wide awake. Four of my last six meals were vegan and Im thinking of Italian beef. Specifically the beef places I remember growing up on Chicagos west side Marges (defunct as of last year) and Carms (long gone). The Carms I knew was on Cicero Avenue south of the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway. It was populated by guys with hopped-up Chevies and Fords, and had great beef sandwiches.
The Carms of memory is unrelated to the Carms on Polk Street which was by consensus found wanting during Novembers beefathon. I had heard the descendants of my old Carms still had a place in Hillside. During the beefathon I asked the owner of the Polk Street Carms if there was any relation and he said there was not.
After a morning workout with a snow shovel, my son and I began the trek to Hillside. I had promised for his recent birthday that I would take him out for a good meal. Usually its steak, but this time he asked for Italian beef. Carms Beef has a wide variety of food pizza, pasta, subs, burger, dogs, but we were there for the beef. They also serve beer and wine.
We ordered two Italian beef sandwiches, one dipped and one not. Also, sweet and hot peppers on the side along with an order of fries. The fries were OK, of the thin crisp variety. The dry beef was good a generous serving of reasonably flavorful beef on nice Italian bread. The wet was on another level. Upon tasting it my son (the choosy eater who worships at the altar of Johnnies) proclaimed damn this is a good beef sandwich.
He doesnt care for peppers, but I tried them. The sweet peppers were OK but nothing special slightly bitter as is often the case. The giardinera was something else. It was smooth and subtle with a modest heat level. The veggies were thinly sliced so flavors could mingle. Celery was predominant followed by dark green hot peppers, a smattering of carrots and other bits I couldnt decipher. I dont know much about peppers, but they looked like the fairly large green ones you find in many Thai dishes though without the intense heat. In a light oil base, the giardinera enhanced the sandwich very well. Its different from Als fine giardinera, and a bit more to my taste.
Did I say that we liked it? After knocking off our sandwiches, we shared a combo (dipped) which was also very good, though satiety was affecting our taste buds. The sausage has a firm texture and is grilled over charcoal; it was good though it seemed not quite up to Johnnies. If we had started off with the combo we might have appreciated it more.
I had talked to the young woman at the counter about my memories of Carms on the west side, and she said that had been her grandfathers place. When I returned for a third time to order two beef sandwiches to go, she laughed and gave me a discount.
We decided not to use the numerical score sheet from the Beefathon because food memory is tricky. Our subjective judgment is that Carms certainly is in the top tier of Italian beef sandwiches. If we had to rank it, we would place it a close second only to our beloved Johnnies and slightly above another favorite Patio.
Italian beef $3.99
Italian Sausage $3.15
Peppers $0.50 (each)
Fries: small $1.49; Lg $1.74
Comparing the two Carms, both have friendly atmosphere with helpful staff and both agree they are separately owned and not related in any way. The difference is the beef: the Hillside Carms is excellent, but Polk Street is not quite up to snuff.
Finally, I have to say that I am a little stunned to find that Carms Beef lives up to my memories of long ago. Its like running into a high school sweetheart many years later and finding shes still a knockout. Was it worth the 60-mile round trip? You bet.
I encourage other chowhounds to check out Carms in Hillside and let the board know what you think.
To put all this in perspective, especially for those new to Chowhound, here is info on past Italian beef posts. The thread giving results of the November 2003 Beefathon is linked below.
For a related thread see Renes post of Als giardinera recipe:
[BROKEN LINK REMOVED]
Carms Beef Established 1947, The Original
1801 S. Wolf Road
Open every day 10 - 9 (hours are from memory, call to check)
Carms Beef & Italian Ice
1057 W. Polk
Mon-Fri: 8am - 7pm
Saturday: 10am - 5pm
June-Sept: Open 7 days/week
Started 1929 as a grocery store, featured Italian Ice. Became a fast-food restaurant about the time Circle Campus was created.