A place that I had been reading about in a list of good Italian beef restaurants around Chicago was Jay's Beef with three locations around the greater Chicago area. It turned out that the Schiller Park location for Jay's wasn't far from the hotel I was staying at near O'Hare Airport and one afternoon after a dealer visit I decided to go to that Jay's Beef location for a sandwich.
Justin Fortuna was a noted athlete in the Chicago area who ended up playing basketball for DePaul University in the late 40's and early 50's. But his first love was baseball, a sport that he played well past his 50th birthday after transitioning to softball. Fortuna was a member of a national championship 16" softball team from 1969 thru 1972. And when he wasn't playing softball, Fortuna was a basketball official and baseball umpire for over 30 years, culminating in 1996 when he was named to the Chicago Public League Coaches Hall of Fame for officials. (Fortuna was also inducted into the Chicago 16" Softball Hall of Fame in 2014.)
Justin Fortuna had a stint in the Army after graduating from DePaul, and coming back to Chicago after his tour of duty was over he became a clothing salesman. In 1958, Fortuna opened his own clothing store - Justin's Mens Wear - a place he ran for three years. After getting out of the clothing business, Fortuna sold aluminum siding for a number of years before changing vocational directions once again. This time he got into the restaurant business.
Justin Fortuna's wife, Muriel, came from an Italian family that had their own secret recipe for Italian beef. Muriel's mother, Edith, and Edith's sister Margie came up with the family recipe in the 1940's and passed it along to other family members. Margie and her husband, Al, first owned an ice cream shop that they turned into an Italian beef sandwich shop. Justin Fortuna decided to get into the Italian beef business and he took over a small building in the village of Harwood Heights in Northwest Chicago that was reportedly owned by notorious Chicago mob boss Tony "Big Tuna" Accardo. Named after Justin and Muriel's oldest son, Jay's Drive-Inn opened its doors in 1976 in what Fortuna called a "shack". (The original location was demolished in 1994 and a new building was built in its place.)
In 1982, Fortuna opened the second Jay's - now called Jay's Beef - in Schiller Park, while a third location opened in Des Plaines in 1987. Justin Fortuna passed away in 2000 at the age of 72 and his son Jay carried on with the restaurants. Jay Fortuna opened a Chicago location on North Ave. in Wicker Park in 2007, but closed the Des Plaines location about five years ago. Jay Fortuna's brothers - Frank and John - and his sister, Ginny, currently help out with the restaurants.
The Schiller Park location for Jay's Beef is on W. Irving Park Ave. in the flight path of one of the runways from nearby O'Hare Airport. (see map) There's a small parking lot along the west side of the building. The interior of the place is small - it seats maybe a couple dozen people, max - and is counter service only. The menu is located on a small board next to the ordering area of the counter.
The menu primarily consists of Italian beef and sausage sandwiches - there's an Italian beef/Italian sausage combo available - along with hot dogs, Polish sausages, a grilled chicken sandwich, burgers, and a ribeye steak sandwich. On Friday's, Jay's serves up their famous pepper and egg sandwich. Sides include fries, onion rings, chicken tenders, fried mushrooms, chicken wings, tamales and jalapeño cheddar poppers.
For my first visit to Jay's Beef, I had to try the beef sandwich. The Italian beef is cut thin and is very juicy from the gravy its simmered in. Red pepper flakes and spicy giardiniera topped the sandwich that was served on spongy Italian bread from the Gonnella Bakery in nearby Schaumburg. The sandwich was simply delicious. The roast beef was tender and flavorful with a zesty taste thanks to the pepper flakes and the giardiniera.
I also wanted to try one of their Chicago-style hot dogs. Like many other places in the city, the hot dog came with crispy fries. I got it with everything - chopped onions, neon-green sweet relish, tomato slices, a dill-pickle spear, sport peppers, yellow mustard and topped with celery salt. The Vienna Beef hot dog had the signature "snap" to each bite. It, too, was a very good Chicago hot dog.
I wasn't all that interesting in the fries since I had an Italian beef sandwich AND a hot dog to eat, but I did try a couple just for the hell of it. Those two turned into two more, then two more, etc., etc., because the French fries were very good - crispy on the outside, fluffy potato taste in the middle. I find most French fries are either limp and greasy, or they're frozen, then deep-fried where the life is cooked out of them. But the fries at Jay's Beef were fresh, crispy and flavorful.
With all the Italian beef places around Chicago, there's a huge debate as to which one is the best. I've found that most people like the ones they grew up with and many people in the Schiller Park and Harwood Heights areas think that Jay's Beef is the best. I thought both the Italian beef and the hot dog were very good and delicious. But the French fries were simply wonderful. Jay's Beef is a simple, no-frills place with good Chicago-style food at reasonable prices. And it's been that way for 40 years.