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Mr. Beef Dishes

When Tony Ozzauto took the helm of Mr. Beef in 1966, he put in place innovative strategies that made it the Chicago institution it remains today.

If you ask Tony Ozzauto for his Italian beef recipe, he’ll give you one ingredient: hard work. As for how many tablespoons of this and that he uses, it’s a well-kept family secret.

But that hard work shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, it took a lot of it for Ozzauto to turn a small beef stand into the Chicago landmark called Mr. Beef. And you can bet Ozzauto sprinkled more than a dash of hard work when he set new standards of restaurant cleanliness unheard of at the time.

When all is said and done, however, Ozzauto’s career and journey to Chicago hero status boil down to a few key ingredients, mixed well with elbow grease.

Getting People Talking

In 1966, a young Ozzauto, born in Little Italy and living just west of the neighborhood at the time, was working at Scala Packing Co., a meat supplier for restaurants across the city. Ozzauto’s boss owned a nearby restaurant at 666 N. Orleans St., but didn’t like the way the managers handled their business. He sent Ozzauto to work at the store and in short time, he was running Mr. Beef.

No scholar of business, Ozzauto was about to learn his first of many on-the-fly business lessons: to get people in, you have to get them talking. Christmas was approaching and Ozzauto was giving a special gift to every customer: a box of chocolate-covered cherries, wrapped by his wife, Annette.

Six months later, Mr. Beef was a lunch staple. At its peak, the stand sold 500 to 600 sandwiches per day, with more than 450 pounds of beef cooked daily between the stand and sandwiches delivered to Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights.

Keeping it Clean, High Quality  

Instinctively, Ozzauto created rules at the restaurant like requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom and not allowing food preparers to handle money. He also took measures like wrapping up meats after they were cooked and cooled to avoid bacteria. “Nobody knew about what I was doing, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Ozzauto said. “I wasn’t making cross-contamination, which I would learn later when I went to a sanitation school downtown.”

Ozzauto told the story of a state restaurant inspector who frequented Mr. Beef — for a good reason.

“He used to bring people in, take them in my place, move my charcoal broiler and let them rub their hand underneath it like that [to] see if there was any grease,” he said. “It was a dumpy-looking place, but it was immaculate.”

At a time when fast food joints were popping up around the country, Ozzauto was taking his sweet time. Only top-quality sirloin went into his sandwiches. The lengthy process of preparation is why Ozzauto calls Mr. Beef anything but fast food. “The prep work behind it isn’t fast,” he explained. “It takes four hours to cook beef. It takes half a day to slice beef.”

Friends and Franchises 

Cemented in its status as a Chicagoinsti-tution, Mr. Beef attracted local and national celebrities including Jesse White,  playmates  from  the  then-nearby original Playboy Mansion and Jay Leno, who performed in Chicago  before  earning  his  “Tonight Show” gig.

Ozzauto fondly remembered comedy duo Allen & Rossi, who were opening for Frank Sinatra at the time, dropping in during a Chicago stop and putting on smocks to make their own sand-wiches. Celebrity endorsements were more than just signed pictures on the wall — they were markers of Ozzauto’s own Chicago celebrity status.

When it came to expanding Mr. Beef, Ozzauto was never against it, but wanted to make sure any place flying the Mr. Beef flag was offering a quality product. Today, several restaurants carry the Mr. Beef name, such as The Original Mr. Beef in Homer Glen (run by  Ozzauto’s nephew Carl Buonovolanto); Mr. Beef & Pizza on Harlem Avenue in Chicago; and Mr. Beef and Pizza in Mount Prospect.

Ozzauto ensured each of them carried Scala meats to maintain consistent quality. For a time, Mr. Beef expanded west, bringing Windy  City  heartiness  to  California’s  sun-kissed Venice Beach.

Hanging Up His Apron

As it would turn out, Ozzauto’s lifestyle running a busy restaurant took a toll: His workday required daily tastings of beef, sausage and bread, inhaling charcoal grill fumes and customers’ cigarette smoke, and standing on a concrete floor for several hours at a time.

The cost of business for Ozzauto was high cholesterol and two open-heart surgeries. This was enough to cause him to step away from Mr. Beef, selling the business in 1980 at 45 years old, but keeping the property until 1995.

“Like my grandfather used to say, you pick the apple off the tree when it’s ripe,” he said. “And I sold the place when it was ripe, when it was doing business.”

Ozzauto stayed on for a month to ensure the new owners carried on his legacy of quality. With Mr. Beef as busy today as ever, he’s convinced they have.

Headed West 

It was one of the Ozzauto daughters who first made the move to McHenry County in the late 1990s. Annette fondly remembered when their daughter told her she was building a home in Lake in the Hills.

“When I came out here, I said, ‘Where are you going?’” Annette said.

Their daughter’s decision and a presentation by Del Webb on its then-new Sun City community in Huntley were enough to convince the Ozzautos, so in 1999, they packed up and made the journey west on I-90.

At first, the wide-open spaces were a bit of a culture shock. The Ozzautos were used to their Italian friends and the restaurants of Little Italy, and found the area lacking in both.

Over time, they discovered many of their neighbors were not only Italian, but from the same section of Chicago’s Taylor Street, as well.

“I met people that I went to school with; I met a guy [who] sat in front of me for 12 years and he lives right down the street,” Ozzauto said.

Not a year after moving to Sun City, Ozzauto was helping organize an Italian American Club. Soon, the couple had new friends with whom to socialize and travel.

The rest of their family followed, as another of the couple’s daughters and two sons moved nearby. And to Ozzauto’s delight, over time, the restaurants got better, and he and Annette discovered new favorites.

“I don’t miss a thing,” Annette said of living in the area.

The Kitchen is Open

Today, Ozzauto is still not technically retired.

In 2009, the Ozzautos were attending a pig roast at the then brand-new Heritage Woods of Huntley assisted living community near Sun City. Impressed with the facilities, Ozzauto asked if he could see the kitchen.

“I go in the kitchen and they’ve got two cooks in there and they’re busy and doing this and that,” Ozzauto said. “I said, ‘You guys look like you need help.’ [They replied,] ‘Yeah we do, you want to join us?’”

Though Ozzauto said he was there just to eat, not long after returning to his seat, he was given an application. Since then, he has volunteered at the kitchen where he makes Italian specialties like marinara and Bolognese sauces.

Though there are no Italian beefs in sight, those dining at Heritage Woods are treated to food made with all the love and dedication Ozzauto packed into his sandwiches for so many years.

Italian Beef’s Storied Past

Although Mr. Beef is a major chapter in the Italian beef’s story, it is not where the story begins. Though many Chicago beef purveyors would like to claim the title of “originator,” conclusive evidence of who first crafted the sandwich is murky at best.

One of the earliest Italian beef vendors still around today is Al’s Beef, which opened its first stand in 1938. Owner Al Ferreri claims his stand first began making the thinly sliced beef sandwiches for Italian weddings that looked to serve many people without spending a lot of money.

A similar story has the Scala Packing Co. as the inventors of the sandwich. This claim goes back earlier than Ferreri’s, as Pasquale Scala began selling meats and sausages in 1925. The company claims the thinly sliced beef was a product of the Great Depression and was also served at weddings.

Another story not tied to a beef stand says it was workers from the Union Stockyards who first made the sandwich. The workers took home the less desirable cuts of beef and slow-roasted them before cramming the meat into Italian bread.

The common theme among these stories? Each tells of people trying to get the most out of the little they had. So if it’s impossible to agree on one person or company, perhaps necessity can be called the originator of the Italian beef.

 

 

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