ONE THING THAT ALWAYS SURPRISED ME when Hot Doug’s was so popular—how come hardly anybody else ever tried doing the same thing? In a city of a gazillion hot dog stands, nobody noticed that you could get lines out the door with exotic toppings?

Starting Tuesday, we’ll be asking another question—in a city of a gazillion Italian beef stands, how come nobody ever thought to try unusual toppings on that, either?

“You could offend a lot of people. There’s an integrity to the Italian beef and people take a lot of pride in it,” says Steve O’Brien, whose Beefbelly opens Tuesday on the northwest side, at Lawrence and Central. That makes it very different from the unusual toppings approach he applied to his original restaurants, the gourmet burger restaurants BRGRBelly in Portage Park and Edison Park, which opened as Leadbelly (but eventually got letters from the long-ago blues musician’s fancy lawyers).

Steve O'Brien at Beefbelly

Steve O’Brien at Beefbelly

“That was fairly easy. You’re not taking a big risk putting in a gourmet hamburger joint, when you have 50 of them in the city and probably thousands around the United States,” he says. “When you get to the Italian beef you’re tapping on some major traditions and what people really care about and what they think is really good. So when we looked at Beefbelly, we needed to make sure we held the integrity of the Italian beef in everything.”

“We do have a original Italian beef, we do have a traditional combo, we do have all the ingredients that you would find in an Italian beef place,” he says. “One difference is that everything we do will be 100% from scratch”—from grinding their own sausage for combos to working with Turano to make the perfect Italian beef roll, which will be parbaked and finished onsite.

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O’BRIEN LAUNCHED WHAT’S NOW BRGRBELLY in 2013 after spending 23 years with the foodservice conglomerate Aramark. He was an international guest chef for their culinary program, traveling the world to do training or to cook for VIPs—such as in 1996, when the Olympic torch and athletes, President Clinton and REO Speedwagon (one of these things is not like the others) all passed through Chicago on the official Olympic tour. It must have been a hit dinner; on their way out of town, Clinton’s team scooped all the remaining cookies he’d baked for an in-flight snack on Air Force One.

It’s not just a matter of throwing quirky flavors on a regular beef—every new sandwich is thought from the broth up.

But O’Brien and his wife wanted to try concepts of their own. O’Brien had seen the success of gourmet burger spots like Kuma’s and DMK Burger Bar, and thought that something like that could be successful on the northwest side, whose restaurant scene tends to be sparse and conservative compared to neighborhoods further east. “I grew up in Portage Park, and I said, all the more hip, happening neighborhoods were getting great burger joints, let’s see what we can do for the area.” The result was like a family-friendly version of Kuma’s Corner, playing music that was more VH-1 than metal, and using meat ground in house, buns baked in house, and a great craft beer list—and giving everyone who orders a burger a cookie. (Which is to say, a Bill Clinton-approved cookie.)

Beefbelly hopes to achieve similar success by treating the basic paradigm of Italian beef with respect—it’s not just a matter of throwing quirky flavors on a regular beef, but every new sandwich is thought from the broth up. “One beef is a chipotle beef, using the broth [from roasting] and reducing it with red wine, finishing it with chipotle and citrus, and topping it with more traditional Mexican toppings like poblano peppers and corn relish.” O’Brien explains. “It will almost be like a barbacoa, in the form of an Italian beef.”

“We’ll have another one that’s a Sriracha beef, which will be more like a kung pao beef, where we’ll have sesame oil, fresh ginger, fresh garlic, peppers, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and Sriracha finishes, so that will be more of an Asian influence, with wok tossed vegetables. You’ll have a big bang of Asian flavors.” A garlic parmesan beef will butter-poach the meat, as steakhouses sometimes do. And so on—there are eight beefs in all, plus chicken sandwiches and even a vegetarian one using portobello mushrooms.

Gallery: Italian Beef (and more) at Beefbelly

Photos by Rob Austin

He used the same method as at BRGRBelly to choose the opening items—”We brought all our chef friends in and drank a lot of beer and had them vote on the ones that they liked.” I ask him for some that didn’t make the cut and he says “Again, we were trying to maintain the integrity of Italian beef. So we were looking at street cuisines, and so we tried a fajita beef—but when you ate it with a sandwich, it just felt like it was jury-rigged. It didn’t make sense on a soggy beef on a sandwich.” O’Brien also said there was a curry beef that didn’t cut it, and he liked a banh mi beef—but nobody else did.

Still, it’s the classic beef that will be Beefbelly’s benchmark. “What I will know to be true success will be if a year from now, we’re on the list of the best beef in Chicago. I’ll be happy with the original beef and everybody saying, this is where you go to get the best traditional Italian beef.”

Michael Gebert is editor of Fooditor and “Beefbelly” is his Secret Service code name.

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