Don’t tell Chicago, but Gianna’s stole their sandwich.
Signature sandwiches are an edible work of art. Done right, they make our mouths water and our bellies happy. They leave us with warm memories of past road trips, vacations and experiences.
Eastern Iowa has a number of restaurants where one can order an Italian beef sandwich. And several of them are quite good. Each has its own style, its own variation on the standard. But very few local spots truly hit the mark of brilliance. (I know this because I have sampled most of them.)
The Italian beef sandwich is a taste of the streets of Chicago: succulent roast beef, au jus, cheese and zesty giardiniera on a thick, crusty Italian roll (constituted specifically to soak up the flavors and juices of each ingredient). The proper balance of flavor is essential. A good Italian beef should leave you in need of a napkin, with an urge to lick your fingers clean and a deep sense of satisfaction.
Gianna’s Italian Beef, a relative newcomer to the area, brings the magic of this traditional Chicago delight to downtown Cedar Rapids. The beef is flavorful and tender, roasted and seasoned in house. Each sandwich is handmade in front of you with your input, and the reward after your very short wait is a mouthwatering delight. The giardiniera is a bold but not-too-hot combo of pickled goodness, and, coupled with the sweet peppers, rounds out and balances the sandwich perfectly. In traditional style, a customer is asked if they want the sandwich “dry, dipped or wet,” which determines how much au jus is included.
Gianna’s overall menu is not expansive, but what they do, they do very well. If the signature Italian beef is too simple for you, you can choose instead the combo, which includes all the ingredients listed above and centers them around a flavorful Italian sausage. The combo is a carnivore’s dream, sure to sate any appetite.
Gianna’s also offers a lovely veggie panini, a chopped salad, rotating soups and a well-seasoned grilled chicken sandwich, for anyone not in the mood for the mainstay selections. The Vienna Beef Hot Dog is as close as I’ve had to a real Chicago dog outside the city itself. The sides and dessert portions of the menu are limited, but delicious, and it should be noted that the Shoestring Fries come as fresh and hot as they would from a food cart off Navy Pier.
It’s a rare thing for me to consider a sandwich shop as a “dining experience,” but Gianna’s staff takes pains to make it one. While watching your selection being made, it’s easy to have a friendly conversation over the counter. In one such exchange, I learned the history of the restaurant’s evolution, from a vague idea between old friends to the long-distance phone call where the owner invited his friend Carlos to become the business manager, move his family from Chicago to Cedar Rapids and set down new roots. Believe me, Carlos — and Gianna’s — is a welcome addition to the Corridor.
Gianna’s is a terrific lunch spot, a quick and easy place to grab dinner on your own or with friends. And it’s a great atmosphere for a fun-and-friendly date night — so long as you’re not afraid to get your hands a little messy in front of your date!
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.