photo: Clifton Henri
; a colossal sandwich and barbecue chicken salad at Bat
It doesn't take a huge amount of artistry to pile cold cuts onto a baguette and call it a sandwich. But biting into a great sub—a really great sub—is one of those transformative moments for gourmands and fast-food junkies alike. A good sub can be tasty, but a great sub has you singing its praises to everyone you know. A good sub might be light on your wallet, but a great sub inspires you to trek across town everyday. A good sub fills you up, but a great sub sets you free. Too philosophical for a bunch of loose meat? Try one of Chicago's finest grinders and see if you aren't waxing romantic in the afterglow.
Corned beef at Manny's Coffee Shop & Deli
This Chicago classic brings deli food to new heights—quite literally, as the sandwiches here are piled high enough to scrape new altitudes. But, hey, for over 10 bucks a pop, the sandwich better be a monster, right? Manny's has been around since 1942, way back before anyone thought twice about shoving behemoth mountains of corned beef down their gullet and calling it lunch.
These days, people still appreciate the old-world craftsmanship that goes into a Manny's corned beef sandwich, perfectly salted, thinly sliced beef, heaped onto rye bread and served with a pickle. In fact, people appreciate this classic temple so much that they order it from all corners of the world, but you lucky Chicagoans don't have to. Just grab your spot in the lighting-fast line of this downtown cafeteria, shout out your order, and don't forget the potato pancake on the side.
Italian sub at Bari Foods
It's just cruel to assume that any sub-loving foodie could choose only one Italian deli meat. Fortunately for the hoagie-fiends, Bari Foods isn't at all cruel; it heaps everything it's got onto the mightiest Italian sub in all of Chicagoland. Freshly baked D'amato bread is layered with capicolla, Genova salami, mortadella, provolone and giardiniera for this enormous, spicy meal that won't burn your bank account ($4.50 for the nine-inch version, $5.75 for the 12-inch).
The lunch rush at Bari can be a bit terrifying, so if you forget to call ahead (which is a very good idea), just remember that the Italian doesn't need tampering with. Those in the know never custom order; they simply specify between the hot or mild giardiniera and let Bari do its thing.
Brooklyn Bambino at Bat 17
Not so much a deli as a comment on a deli, Evanston's Bat 17 takes the edge off cold cuts. Bistro spins on deli classics fill out the menu of this haute-low dining spot, but don't let the shiny concept fool you: Bat 17 still has authentic deli-cred. The restaurant's specialty breads come from the endearingly old-school Bennison's Bakery; many of its meats come from Kelly Eisenberg gourmet deli; and it's apparent that the Bat 17 folks have eaten more than their share of enormous deli fare.
The Brooklyn Bambino ($12.50-$13.99) might as well come with a medical warning; an oversize pile of hot Eisenberg pastrami is situated on hand-sliced pumpernickel and topped with swiss cheese, zesty sauerkraut and tangy Russian dressing. Choose from slaw or bacon-enhanced potato salad to accompany your gigantic pickle and jumbo bag of chips. Just like a deli, eh?
Grilled pork banh mi at Nhu Lan Bakery
Okay, so this Lincoln Square favorite isn't exactly a deli—but this bakery is doling out some of the best sammies on the North Side. It's all about the banh mi at Nhu Lan; nine options of the Vietnamese sandwich are available, ranging from pork belly to headcheese, all costing less than three bucks a pop. What's banh mi, you ask? Only the best culinary byproduct of French colonialism around. The sandwich was born in Indochina from French staples (mayonnaise, baguettes and pate) and a local obsession with pickling, fish sauce and indigenous spices. The result is cheap, moderately healthy and a foodie favorite in every city with a hearty Vietnamese population.
Those who aren't quite ready to venture into pork belly territory should order up the basic grilled-pork version. Exquisitely flavored meat is grilled just so, chopped up into tiny bits and piled onto a chewy, eight-inch baguette with cucumber slices and cilantro.