“First you have to tell me what giardiniera is,” my coworker told me when I offered her a bottle of the spicy, pickled celery/carrot/cauliflower/pepper mix packed in oil. “If it isn’t related to giardia [a small-intestine infection caused by a parasite], I will take a bottle.”
She wasn’t the only person I talked to who had never heard of the condiment. Outside of Chicago, it’s hard to find, save for in an Italian grandmother’s kitchen. My coworker was born in the Chicago suburbs, but even there, she didn’t hear the beckoning of hot pickled vegetables drenched in oil, found all over the city, from sub shops to pizza restaurants.
Giardiniera in Chicago is ubiquitous because of Italian beef sandwiches, says Dave Howey, owner of Al’s Beef, arguably the first Italian beef restaurant in the city. Started in 1938 with a single stand on Taylor Street, Al’s now serves its thinly sliced beef sandwiches dipped in gravy in more than 15 stores in Chicago and its suburbs.
“Chicago is the hub of Italian beef,” Howey says, and Italian beef is where you can most often find giardiniera – even though sub shops such as Potbelly and Subway now all offer some form of hot pepper or sliced banana pepper for some added flavor. “But Italian beef operators had it from the beginning,” Howey says. “It’s part of the DNA for those stores, and you don’t find Italian beef outside of Chicago. If you do, it’s usually made here and shipped somewhere else.”
Chicago didn’t invent giardiniera. “Italy has been doing this forever,” says Howey, whose grandmother would make a giardiniera with eggplant and zucchini, “and Italian families would serve it with antipasto, like a tray of olives and hot relish,” eaten like a salad. “Food is such a personalized thing,” he says. “You might call it the same thing, but there can be totally different flavors.”
But the city’s unique giardiniera flavor has to do with the small size of the vegetables, the oil they’re packed in, and, of course, it’s connection to Italian beef. Al’s makes its own giardiniera. “Everything we put in is a secret,” Howey says. They’ll send the blend of spices to each store in a sealed package, and then the staff will dump the spices into oil, mix in the vegetables, and let it sit for about three days to ferment and allow all of the flavors to be saturated into the vegetables. For the heat, Al’s uses hot red pepper flakes.
Most of the other beef spots around the city, such as Portillo’s, don’t make their giardiniera in house. Portillo’s uses V. Formusa Co.’s Marconi brand giardiniera, which has Serrano peppers to add the heat. “It’s a smaller pepper, a little firmer, a little more heat than jalepeño, and more crunch when eating it,” says V. Formusa’s Jeff Johnson, whose Italian great-grandfather, Vincent Formusa, founded the company in 1898.
In the past 15 years, says Johnson, people “have gone berserk” for giardiniera. “I think part of it is the popularity of hot sauce – there’s more media available for spicy foods.” When Johnson, 29, was younger, giardiniera wasn’t a large part of the business—V. Formusa also sells olive oils, pastas, and other Italian foods—but when Johnson started working there during college, he noticed the condiment becoming more and more popular. Now, V. Formusa sells about 1 million pounds of giardiniera per year.
No matter the recipe, both Howey and Johnson say that Chicago-style giardiniera, which evolved in tandem with Italian beef, is a crucial element in the uniquely Chicago sandwich. In Al’s sandwiches, for example, the giardiniera is added to blend with and enhance the strong flavor of the beef.
Johnson agrees. “You couldn’t have the beef without the giardiniera. The two go hand in hand.”