Ray Ray’s Italian Beef & Sausage
Finding a good Italian beef outside of Chicago is hard. A lot of places claim to be “Chicago style” but very few are actually true to what you can actually get in Chicago.
A little over six years ago, I found a place in Kalamazoo that actually was true to it’s Chicago roots. It was owned by a guy who ran the same type of joint in a Chicago suburb and he took the time to get the locally made bread just right and comparable to what you can get in The City.
A year after Ray Ray’s Italian Beef & Sausage opened on Miller Road near the Post Office, J and I moved to the other side of town. Now, it’s a pretty good drive to get back to this little shop for lunch, so I haven’t done it much over the years, but one day last week, B and I were running some errands before we had to pick J up from a doctor’s appointment on that side of town, so I made a point to stop in for lunch.
Ray Ray’s Italian Beef & Sausage is exactly the kind of joint you find on every corner throughout Chicagoland. It’s not a fancy place, it’s covered in Chicago sports memorabilia, and the food is super greasy, but also super irresistible.
B and I stopped in at Ray Ray’s just before noon on a Wednesday. The place is mostly a carry-out restaurant and there were a couple KDPS cars out front picking up large orders for lunch.
The entire public space doesn’t feel much bigger than a walk-in closet. There are a couple of tables and a stand-up lunch counter along one wall. To Michiganders, this counter may seem odd, but in the city, this is a super common way to eat lunch. A lot of the restaurants like this do a large portion of their business over the lunch hour. Tradesman come in needing a quick lunch, so grabbing a beef or a sausage and some fries then standing at the counter and eating it is the quickest way to get in and out. Ray Ray’s has a couple of stools at the counter, but if you’re doing it right, you’d push them out of the way.
There are two openings in the wall that lead in to the small kitchen. The menu is written on chalkboards all around the openings, but they also had paper menus on the counter. The menu is actually really large. They do a lot of the Chicago favorites, ie. beef, sausage, hot dogs, as well as BBQ, burgers, and a number of other sandwiches and chili.
I was tempted to order a combo (beef and sausage on the same bun), but I stuck to just the Italian beef. I ordered it what they call “plain” (no onions or sweet peppers). I then added on the giardiniera and had the sandwich dipped and tacked on an order of fries. The total was a little over $10 and, as I found out, they just started accepting credit cards. Until pretty recently, they were a cash only spot. Not anymore.
I grabbed B and took a seat at one of the tables and started looking around. There is a lot of Chicago sports memorabilia hanging on the wall, but there’s one thing missing. There are no White Sox posters or jersey’s hanging anywhere. That’s….disappointing to a Sox fan. 🙂
The sandwich took a little less than ten minutes to be wrapped up tightly in multiple layers of wax paper and aluminum foil to keep all those juices in. I was handed a bag that immediately started to disintegrate from the grease.
It took me a little longer than I thought it was going to when I went to pick up J, so it was quite a while before I was actually able to eat this delicious smelling food.
I started in with the fries. I know most people don’t think of Chicago having their own style of fries, but there seems to be a way the good sandwich shops do fries in Chicago and that’s the same way Ray Ray’s does theirs. The fries are fresh cut and fried up to a dark golden brown. The fries have a nice crunch to them, but at the same time, they’re limp and still a little greasy. This is the same way Al’s Beef does fries and it’s part of the reason Al’s is my favorite sandwich shop in Chicago.
Once I was done with the fries, I started unwrapping the several layers of wrappings around the beef. It had been a little while since I ordered it, but it was still hot and the gravy that the sandwich had been dipped in soaked all the way through the bread. That bread is specially made for Ray Ray’s and it took several months of R & D to get it right. The Italian roll used for Italian beef sandwiches needs to be strong enough to hold up to the flavorful au jus that should soak the sandwich but soft enough that it’s easy to bite through. The bun at Ray Ray’s would easily pass in Chicago.
Inside that bun is a pretty authentic Italian beef sandwich as well. The thinly sliced tender beef had a huge beef and oregano flavor and it was overstuffed into the bread. The beef is topped with a green giardiniera. It seems like I remember having a conversation with the owner several years ago where he said he worked at a sandwich shop in Cicero, IL. I’m going to guess that shop was Satchell’s Beef & Pizza because their giardiniera is almost a spot on copy.
Instead of the usual vegetable medley including carrots, cauliflower, jalapenos, and celery, this giardiniera mix is only green veggies. There are three different green peppers and celery plus some red pepper flakes. This is not my favorite giardiniera mix. It’s tasty, but I like the ones that use a wider range of colors and flavors. The two things about this mix are the red pepper flakes really give it some heat and the celery gives that crunch. The peppers don’t do much for me though.
Ray Ray’s Italian Beef & Sausage reminds me so much of Chicago. Kalamazoo just doesn’t have these kind of sandwich shops. My favorite thing about food in Chicago is just driving around town to find 50+ year old shops that are no bigger than a closet that serve amazing sandwiches. Ray Ray’s doesn’t have the age, but this shop would fit in with any shop in Chicago. I wish there were more like Ray Ray’s in Southwest Michigan.