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Remembering Joseph Zucchero, a pioneer of the Italian beef sandwich

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today we remember Joseph Zucchero, the late owner of Mr. Beef. Mr. Beef is a Chicago restaurant known for a signature Chicago sandwich. That sandwich became popular around the country last summer thanks to the TV show "The Bear."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BEAR")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Twenty-five pounds?

JEREMY ALLEN WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) No, no, no. I ordered 200.

EDWIN LEE GIBSON: (As Ebraheim) Where is beef?

WHITE: (As Carmen Berzatto) You still got that meat connect?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The sandwich is called the Italian Beef. It came from Italian immigrants in the early 20th century who could only buy less-tender cuts of the cow. Chicago historian Shermann Thomas, who goes by Dilla, told NPR last year those cooks had to get creative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHERMANN THOMAS: Those same ladies discovered that if you cook that in its own juices over a longer period of time - right? - it's going to be super tender, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHRIS ZUCCHERO: It's strictly our root food. It really is our food here in Chicago, as opposed to the Philly cheesesteak or a New York - I don't even know if they have a meat type of sandwich in New York.

TONY SARABIA: (Laughter).

C ZUCCHERO: I don't think so. I think it's just some brats hot dogs.

CHANG: That's Joseph Zucchero's son, Chris, speaking to host Tony Sarabia on WBEZ's The Morning Shift. He says there are some crucial components to an Italian Beef - slow-cooked slivers of beef, an Italian relish called giardiniera, good bread - but it also comes in all sorts of textures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

C ZUCCHERO: There's a whole lexicon...

SARABIA: Yes.

C ZUCCHERO: ...For everything food. Italian Beef - you know, you can have it dry. Then you can have it dipped, where you take the beef, put it on the bread and kind of immerse it into...

SARABIA: Well...

C ZUCCHERO: ...The gravy. And then you can have it super wet or extra juicy, which is when you take tongs and you stick it and you...

SARABIA: Yeah, dip it.

C ZUCCHERO: ...Do the same thing, and then you just submerge it into the gravy.

SHAPIRO: Joe Zucchero and his brother started Mr. Beef more than 40 years ago, long enough to develop some famous and loyal customers.

CHANG: When he was an emerging stand-up comedian, Jay Leno would sleep in his car in the parking lot. He talked about it with fellow "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JAY LENO: Oh, that's my favorite joint.

JIMMY FALLON: So I walk in, there's, like, a hundred pictures of you there.

LENO: We go way back. It's a very funny place. There's no tables. It's just a joint.

FALLON: Yeah.

LENO: It's the best beef sandwich.

FALLON: It's delicious.

SHAPIRO: Last year, Joe Zucchero told NPR "The Bear" drove a resurgence in business. Mr. Beef inspired that show. And when a TV crew took Joe to see the set they created based on the restaurant he'd started with his brother, that, he said, was priceless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOSEPH ZUCCHERO: They built this inside a building, and they took me to it. They wanted me to see it. And my mouth dropped. I was like, oh, my God.

CHANG: Joseph Zucchero was 69 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLUES BROTHERS SONG, "SWEET HOME CHICAGO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.