The history of Italian beef is as murky as the Chicago River on a rainy day. Following is the inside story as told by Pasquale (Pat) Scala, Buona Beef founder and patriarch, Joe Buonavolanto and his eldest son Carlo. Pat and Joe are part of the Italian Beef ‘Original 14’, a term that they never use, but their story points to twelve individuals who brought Italian beef to the Chicago masses. The ‘Original 14’ have carefully safeguarded the traditions of Italian beef making. They are steadfast in their dedication to hand trimming, slow roasting and keeping it real (ie no preservatives chemicals, no shortcuts).
The cast includes the venerable Scala family including Pasquale Sr., Ralph, Robert and his son Pat, along with Al Ferreri (Babi), his sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Chris (Baba) Pacelli, Al and Marge Vitullo, Elmer and CarmNebren, Carl Buonavolanto, Jr., his brother-in-law Tony Ozzauto and Joe Buonavolanto.
It’s long been established that, circa 1925, Scala’s Original Beef and Sausage Company brought an incarnation of Italian beef to weddings and banquets where the meat was sliced thinly so there would be enough to feed all the guests. (The typical fare included peanuts, sausage beer and, of course, wedding beef.) According to Pat Scala, the dish was borne from necessity – the gravy soaked bread and super-thin sliced beef replaced a traditional plate lunch (which was not affordable during the Depression).
The close-knit clan of Italian beef originators were friends, bonded together by their heritage and Chicago’s stockyards. In the early days Al Ferreri, Baba Pacelli and the Scala brothers cooked and sold sausage on steel barrel grills at the corner of Cicero Avenue and Arlington Place. Every once in a while, they offered Italian Beef sandwiches (aka ‘soakers’). This, according to Pat Scala, brought Italian Beef out of banquets and lunch gatherings and into the streets. Pacelli went on to open the first documented Italian beef and sausage stand in 1938. Between 1940 and 1960, the rest of the gang perfected their own recipes and drove the proliferation of beef stands serving Chicago’s iconic sandwich. Brothers-in-law Al Vitullo and Elmer Nebren and their wives opened Margie’s Beef and Carms Beef and Italian Ice. This led the way for additional Italian beef purveyors to set up shop in the ‘40s. Scala continued to be the supplier of the beef. The Scala family fostered further growth of the burgeoning market for Italian beef when Robert Scala provided funding for Carl Buonavolanto and Tony Ozzauto to open the now legendary Mr. Beef on Orleans.
At the dawn of the 1980s, Italian beef came to Chicago’s suburbs. Mr. Beef’s Carl Buonavolanto shared the secrets of the trade with his nephew Joe Buonavolanto, Sr, who opened Buona Beef in Berwyn, one of the first Italian beef stands outside of the city limits. Joe Sr.’s dream was to own his own business, and to bring Italian beef to broader social circles by creating a neighborhood place that was always clean, always brightly lit and always operated under the watch of a family member. This helped catalyze the spread of the sandwich’s popularity. The Scala/Buonavolanto connection is long and deep, as both Carl Jr.’s son (Carl III of the Original Mr. Beef ) and Carl Buonavolanto of Buona Beef both worked for and learned from Pat Scala.
The first Buona Beef opened in Berwyn over thirty years ago. Patriarch Joe Buonavolanto Senior took a second mortgage on his home to fund it, and dug the foundation for the restaurant himself, with two of his five young sons in tow. The entire brood chipped in as the restaurant gained a steady following. The original Italian beef recipe was concocted by Joe’s wife Peggy, with the help of their Uncle ‘Junior’, proprietor of Chicago’s iconic Mr. Beef. The process is painstaking, and ardently adhered to by generation after generation of Buonavolantos.
The family’s belief in themselves and each other paid off – over the years, the group has expanded to 18 locations, and their growth plans are aggressive. Joe Senior’s five sons each worked their way up from serving customers and washing floors to running the key functions of the organization. The atmosphere in the executive office is harmonious, as love, respect, compassion, and pride are the core values that unite the brothers, and the Buona family of employees. While the menu has expanded, the original beef recipe has not been compromised, and for the three generations of Buonavolantos who are active in the company, compromise and quality are never uttered in the same breath. The family’s devotion to each other, and to the family legacy, has created a powerful brand that is true to their parents’ founding principles.