It seems like there are four basic food groups in Chicago: pizza, either deep dish or pub style; hot dogs (with no ketchup, of course); and gyros.
Then there’s the fourth — the Italian beef sandwich, which some say is the most important one. This week, we’re celebrating National Italian Beef Week (who knew, right?), and Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia talks to Chris Zucchero, co-owner and manager of the legendary Mr. Beef in River North, which was founded by his father and uncle.
Here are some interview highlights.
On Jay Leno asleep in the parking lot outside Mr. Beef
Tony Sarabia: Your dad became friends with Jay Leno before Leno got famous. How did that happen?
Chris Zucchero: This strange story. Leno started out in Chicago, and he would do the comedy clubs in Old Town. Wells Street was kinda like our Haight-Ashbury. It was a weird place with all these comedy clubs.
Well, after Leno was done doing the comedy clubs, he would come and wait for my uncle and my father to get to the restaurant. Leno would get out of the comedy club around 4 a.m. Well, he would sleep in the parking lot until my old man and my uncle got there.
Finally, after my dad saw him of Carson, I think, he was like, “Alright, this guy is going to be a big deal.” So my dad gave him a key and would allow him to sleep in the office until they got there.
Sarabia: Just for a beef sandwich.
Zucchero: Just for a beef sandwich. When he comes into town, he can finish at least three or four of them in one sitting.
The ‘peanut wedding’
Sarabia: How did your dad and uncle come up with their recipe?
Zucchero: There mother had one. My grandmother. Certain families had it, it was an Italian-American thing. It started in the early ’20s with these things called peanut weddings. The reason they called them peanut weddings was because that was the appetizer. On the table, there were just peanuts.
And what they would do is whatever roast they used the night before, the next day after the wedding, they would make sandwiches of whatever was left over.
Growing up with Mr. Beef
Zucchero: I was practically born in that place. I’m like a C.H.U.D. baby there.
Sarabia: A what?
Zucchero: You know, the movie C.H.U.D., but I was, like, born in that place and I’ve been there my whole life. My earliest memories are of Mr. Beef, of being there and being behind the counter. It was just a natural, organic thing that happened to me.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which was adapted for the web by Hunter Clauss.