When it comes to Chicago-style dishes, everyone knows deep-dish pizza. Most are familiar with the city’s very deliberately topped hot dogs (no ketchup unless you’re a kid). Many are even familiar with Chicago Mix Cheddar Caramel Popcorn. But there’s a Chicago staple that’s equally beloved, but until recently was largely unknown outside of the region: Italian beef sandwiches.
That changed with the premiere of “The Bear,” the critically acclaimed FX series set in a fictional Chicago beef joint. After creating a buzz in the United States in June, the show now airs weekly on Disney+ in Canada, and it’s created an appetite for the greasy and delicious sandwich in Toronto.
This is good news for brothers Mark and Ryan Lim. Their food stand, Marq’s Chicago Beef, is the first and, until recently, only Italian beef restaurant in Toronto.
“At least twice a day (since it started airing) someone will come by and say they just watched ‘The Bear’, then immediately googled ‘Italian beef Toronto’ and came here,” says Ryan, seated with me and his brother at a streetside table outside their food stall in a shipping container at Market 707 in Dundas and Bathurst. “Our website traffic has more than doubled over the past few weeks.”
Marq’s started offering sandwiches shortly before “The Bear” got everyone craving Italian beef – first as a pop-up at the Parkdale Flea, then in the permanent location last May.
The Lims grew up in Ajax but have family in Chicago and its suburbs. Each time they went there, they went to all their favorite restaurants, sometimes driving the nine o’clock there just for a sandwich – a beef, as the locals call it. When the pandemic hit, the brothers found themselves craving a beef with nowhere in town to get one.
“So we decided to take the plunge and do it ourselves,” says Mark.
A hot kitchen, a family, Chicago and sometimes hot burns. Watch the OFFICIAL TRAILER of FX’s The Bear. All episodes air June 23. Only on Hulu. #TheBearFX
Neither had any food training. Ryan worked in software sales at a cannabis company, while Mark still works in pharmaceutical operations at Shoppers Drug Mart. Ryan’s partner, chef Neola D’Souza, has worked in food, but like Carmy, the “Bear” protagonist who pays her dues by cooking dishes for a badass chef at the best restaurant in the world before. to return to his hole-in-the-wall family business, his experience is in gastronomy. She also has a side business that bakes custom cakes for weddings and birthdays. But cooking at Marq’s is a whole new experience. “I’m the one yelling at me,” she laughs.
The brothers had a research stack of every Chicago spot they’d tried over the years, each fiercely championed by their local regulars — joints like Johnnie’s, Al’s, Mr. Beef and Portillo’s. After many experiments at home, they found a recipe that combines the best qualities of each of them.
The beef is seasoned with Italian herbs and spices, rich in basil and oregano, then slowly roasted and thinly sliced. It’s piled into a crispy French bun, topped with piquant bell peppers or giardiniera (pickled peppers and other vegetables), then ‘pressed’, ‘dipped’ or ‘immersed’ in the beef cooking juices. I cut one off while I interview the owners, and there’s no fancy way to do it. They tell me the correct method is to lean over the greasy wax paper and bring your face towards the sandwich. Not the opposite.
To get that experience, you need the right bread. It must absorb the juice without losing its structural integrity. Ryan and Mark sampled buns from bakeries across Toronto and even considered baking some themselves at home, before finally finding a perfect supplier they refuse to reveal on the record.
“With the hype around Chicago beef and us being first, we don’t want a competitor coming in and using the exact same bread,” Ryan says, assuring me they’re not just paranoid. “In Chicago, the competitive nature is also real. In some places, there are only one or two people who know the recipe, and one of them is the 90-year-old Italian who (created) the restaurant.
(The brothers’ fear isn’t unfounded. Within a week of our interview, another spot, Frank Ranalli’s Italian Beef, has already popped up as a ghost kitchen side project of the Woofdawg hot dog stand. )
Even though 20- to 30-year-old Lims aren’t your typical Italian beef types (“I don’t think you’re going to find two Filipino owners in any of the places in Chicago,” Mark says with a chuckle), Marq’s draws inspiration from old mom and pop classics, with framed photos of Chicago icons like Bill Murray and Ferris Bueller and newspaper clippings from the Cubs’ 100-year World Series victory.
And the rest of the small menu is also Chicago-style. There’s a beef and sausage duo, which layers beef and peppers on top of a whole sausage; a Beef n’ Cheddar, which puts the beef on a croissant and tops it with cheese sauce; and classic crinkle cut fries. You can also top them with Beef n’ Cheddar. It’s almost, but not quite, poutine.
The brothers hope to open a second location – not in a shipping container – with a full kitchen and expand the menu, without straying from authentic Chicago classics: hot dogs, Polish sausages, maybe chocolate cake or ice cream. Italian.
In one particularly tense episode of “The Bear,” Carmy and his team are slammed with more takeout orders than they can handle. Marq’s recently went through something similar when a viral video sent a ton of customers the same day. But the Lims aren’t concerned with the momentary hype. Like the spots they mimic, they’re here for the long haul.
“We’ve had people come up and say, ‘I’m from Chicago and I haven’t been able to get a beef in 20 years,'” Ryan says.
After taking a bite, the response is usually one word: “finally.”
(Want more local sandwich options? Hot Dip’s Jonathon Lucas shares his tastiest sammies in Toronto.)
JOIN THE CONVERSATION