Aug. 10 2011 12:00 AM

Old Town’s Chicago Deli has plenty of atmosphere — but seems to be running short on everything else


I wanted to like Chicago Deli. Located on Grand River
Avenue, east of Cedar Street, Chicago Deli looks the part of a
redevelopment pioneer, expanding Old Town another couple of blocks.  

It’s modest, with only a couple of tables inside and as much patio space outside.  It’s quaint, with an order window that looks back into the kitchen where meals are assembled.

And it’s quirky, with headshots of Oprah Winfrey, Barbra
Streisand, Elvis Presley and other celebrities in high school
graduation-style frames on the wall. (I get the Oprah/Chicago
connection, and a Michael Jordan photo makes sense, too; the others
remain a mystery.) 

But I didn’t go for the atmosphere, I went for the proclamation on the roadside sign: “Home of ‘The Italian Beef.’”  Quotation marks and a definite article — such a claim deserved investigation. 

A bit of research before the trip indicated a
Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich would consist of thinly sliced, long
marinated folds of beef served dripping wet on a dense roll and topped
with hot peppers or giardiniera vegetables (typically pickled carrots,
cauliflower, onion, celery and zucchini).  

Three high-school-aged girls operated the
place during our visit. They quickly informed us of what Chicago Deli
didn’t have in stock: no potato salad; no cole slaw; no cheesecake; no
onions — until a container of them was found at the bottom of the
fridge. No credit cards — the machine was down. No printed receipt,
either, but one helpful young lady kindly pulled out a notebook and
neatly jotted down the bill. 

Outside, the patio didn’t offer much of a
view, being a few feet away from the road and surrounded by parking
lots, an unfortunate but understandable predicament for many
restaurants.  A preventable problem, though, was no shade from the hot afternoon sun.  

We went with a couple of 99-cent hot dogs, an Italian beef sandwich ($5.75), a bowl of chili ($2) and an orange soda ($1).

The highlight of the meal was looking at the photos of the Italian beef sandwiches on the wall behind the order window.

It was all downhill from there.

Our hot dogs were plucked from a gas-station-style rolling
machine on which they had been traveling up and down an incline,
bathing in their own sweaty juices for an indeterminate amount of time.
By the time we sat down, the dogs weren’t so hot — warmed through at

So we were looking forward to the Italian beef.

I imagined garlic and spices mingling in a tasty au jus, a
sandwich that would stick in my mind, the memory nagging me for hours
afterward. A friend from Chicago practically drooled when I asked for
his thoughts on Italian beef sandwiches.

First, we noticed the color of the beef didn’t quite match
the pink-red photo inside; our meat was only a slightly darker tan that
the crust of the white bun in which it was housed. The broth from which
the beef was pulled, instead of adding depth, seemed to dissolve  most of the flavor from the meat.

The bread for such a sandwich must be
chewy, typically dense Italian-style loaves; some Chicago sandwich
makers actually dip the bread in the broth. At Chicago Deli, the bread
is slightly thicker than an ordinary sub bun. The result is a mushy
mess, all the way through to the crust, by the time you’re halfway done. 

The chili, served in two small containers
because they were out of large containers, was simply ground beef,
kidney beans and tomatoes (canned, we suspected). No seasoning was
detected: no cumin, hot sauce, paprika or, surprisingly, even salt.  Even the canned soda had demerits, tasting flat, as if it had been overhandled.

When little mom-and-pop places sprout up,
I like to give them a shot, hoping for the best. Too bad Chicago Deli
doesn’t live up to its own signboard.  

In the meantime, there’s always a place
southwest of here, just a four-hour road trip away, where you can get a
fine Italian beef sandwich.

It’s called Chicago.

Chicago Deli
801 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing
11:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday
11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Closed Sunday
(517) 367-7697
TO, P, $