If you have followed this column throughout the years, you know it is no secret that I have a particular affinity for the Italian beef sandwich, a Chicago regional staple. Aside from the previously reviewed Big Mike’s Café at 96th Street and College Avenue in Indianapolis, I’ve pointed out that nothing in this market really matches what you can get up north (although the recently opened and not reviewed Detour An American Grille in Carmel does a respectable job). When asked by my law partner, Jess Paul, to join him for an outstanding Italian beef at the intersection of Virginia and College avenues in Indianapolis, I skeptically agreed, despite Jess’ high marks from a previous visit. After all, what can a native of New Albany know about Chicago-style Italian beef anyway?
Upon our arrival, I noticed a sign in the window bearing the Gonnella bread logo. I immediately quipped to Jess that that is a good sign. The restaurant is small and the menu is limited. They serve Italian beef sandwiches with chips and a drink for $5.99, a definitive bargain, meatball and Italian sausage sandwiches and both Chicago-style deep dish and conventional pizzas. More about the meatballs and the pizza shortly.
Sorry Big Mike, but this ranks as Indy’s No. 1 Italian beef, hands down. To put it mildly, I’ve had worse Italian beef in Chicago. Critical to any stellar sandwich is the bread, and this place hits a home run with the Gonnella bakery as a supplier. The beef is all you can ask for, thinly sliced and flavorful in a rich broth that soaks the bread without breaking it apart. Add hot or mild peppers and (non-traditional) cheese and it will satisfy even the most ravenous appetite, including Jenny’s.
The deep dish pizza simply rocks, especially one that contains sausage. They sell an individual size at lunch that is plenty for one person. If you accompany someone for lunch there I recommend one beef sandwich and one individual pizza. By getting both you can split each dish and fully enjoy most of what this place offers in one sitting. The thinner crust pizza is likewise excellent. Both pizza varieties are rapidly becoming traditions at our noon office meetings.
Now, about the meatballs. On one visit I was joined by my lifelong friends, Cameron Cefali, who is also my financial advisor at Wells Fargo Advisors, and Dan Dakich, current host of his own sports talk show from noon to 3 p.m. on WFNI 1070 The Fan in Indianapolis. Dan is also ESPN’s Big Ten basketball color analyst this season alongside Mike Tirico. Both Dan and Cam are fellow Lake County “Region Rats” and fully appreciate the glory of Italian beef.
Cam generously offered to buy lunch in celebration of his and Dan’s birthdays. Since at this lunch I tendered Cam a tidy sum to fund my retirement account, I gladly allowed him to do so. Cam questioned the cashier about the total, telling her he thought he was undercharged. Upon recalculation he was, by about $8. He then asked her if he could try a meatball and promptly heard a shout of “no!” from the back. Upon reminding her he just saved them $8, he was again met with a resounding “no!”
We met at 11 a.m. so Dan could be on the air by noon. After Cam sat down, Dan told us how he couldn’t wait to get on the air and tell this story. I noted how it would make this column. Then the food arrived.
After about three bites of his beef Dan decided it was too good to give this place any bad publicity. He talked about how he would instead mention that small businesses should always be wary because they never know who their customers are. Cam had the beef and sausage combo and we all split a small deep-dish sausage pizza. The three of us left very satisfied, despite the blip in customer service.
There is a lesson for all of us here. Over the cost of one meatball, this place flirted with some extremely bad radio and print publicity. Keep this in mind when dealing with your clients. If you lose a nickel here and there, consider the consequences of complaining too loudly. You might just want to chalk it up to the cost of marketing yourself with the reward of increased business. Please patronize this place, just offer to pay for your meatball. South of Chicago Pizza and Beef, 619 Virginia Ave., Indianapolis, IN, 46203. 317-203-7110. www.southofchicagopizza.com.•
Fred Vaiana and Jennifer M. Lukemeyer practice at Voyles Zahn Paul Hogan & Merriman in Indianapolis, focusing in criminal defense. Vaiana is a 1992 graduate of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Lukemeyer earned her J.D. from Southern Methodist University in 1994 and is active in the Indianapolis Bar Association, Indianapolis Inn of Courts and the Teen Court Program. The opinions expressed in this column are the authors’.