August 31, 2013

By Gian Pogliano

Though not typically accorded high visibility in sandwich fare, the Italian beef sandwich is a creation that is American and a surprisingly difficult thing to do well. It requires a perfect balance of heat and piquancy in the toppings, mouthwatering flavors in the meat, and savory herbs in a dip.

Since Beef-E’s, a new food cart debuted July 8, it has been steadily gaining momentum. Owners Eric Manke and Dave McGuinness have created sandwiches of distinctly high quality.

Unlike many of the city’s brick-and-mortar options that offer the sandwich, Beef-E’s meats are prepped from scratch on the same day they’re in the cart. Both meats and vegetables are undeniably fresh, as opposed to the reheated food service products that most greasy spoon diners rely on.

Pals Manke and McGuinness found themselves traveling to Chicago regularly for authentic Italian beef sandwiches from legendary restaurants like Al’s in the city’s Little Italy.

They resolved to learn how to make their own, and eventually felt they wanted to share the real thing with Milwaukeeans. But to create the menu for their future food cart, they went through a long trial-and-error process to invent unique new twists on the sandwich.

They have created seven sandwiches and offer four per day, rotating the mix daily.

Beef-e’s Classic ($6), the standard Italian beef sandwich, comes with sweet peppers and hot or mild giardiniera. It is available every day.

A true Italian beef sandwich experience is fast and intense, as your mouth is pummeled by spicy bites and your hand drips with dip and giardiniera bits. It is not for the faint of heart.

The Italian Stallion ($6) delivers this in spades. A variation on a Philly cheesesteak, it includes mozzarella, pan-fried mushrooms, fried onions, and green peppers, along with the obligatory hot giardiniera. The roast beef was bold, seeming to leap straight from the slicer. The mushrooms were big, flavorful, and clearly fresh, with just a slight veneer of char. The onions were soft and caramelized and the mozzarella was subtle but an incredibly important element of the whole package. (Mozzarella is a free add-on for their sandwiches that don’t include it.)

The Stallis ($6) conferred multiple types of spiciness that collided with each other and jockeying for supremacy. The creamy yet peppery Southwest sauce blended nicely with the gravy-like savoriness of the dip before its hot chipotle aftertaste sets it back at the top of the hill. I tried it with green peppers and mild giardiniera. Even with the mild giardiniera, the sandwich packed a pronounced kick.

The Brew City Beef ($7) is Beef-E’s spin on hometown pride with its white cheddar cheese curds and bacon. The plump curds are surprisingly mild but flavorful, with a pleasing, lightly-fried outer texture in contrast to an almost fluffy interior. The bacon is smoky and crunchy, and the sandwich works well with a dip as the curds give its flavor more subtlety while still preserving some of its light heat. The dip also highlighted the bun, the unsung hero of a good Italian beef. Made at Canfora Bakery, the bun held together without fail, even after a 20-minute walk home.

Beef-E’s cart is at The Bubbler in Bay View most Monday nights.

Consult or for up-to-date location announcements.

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