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As a Jersey native, chef Barbi "Red" Newman has eaten her share of Philly cheesesteaks. But ever since her days as pastry chef of Chicago’s Ritz Carlton Hotel, Newman's heart has belonged to another city's hot sandwich--and now she's bringing it to New Jersey.
It's the Chicago Italian beef sandwich, and the Windy City has sworn by it since 1938. Newman fell in love with it in the 1980s. In January, she opened Red's Dips and Flips, bringing her own version of the classic to a strip mall in West Caldwell.
Dips and Flips?
Yes. In the depths of the Great Depression, meat was a luxury few could afford. That year, Al Ferreri and his sister, Frances Pacelli, along with her husband, Chris, opened Al’s Beef, a curbside stand in Chicago’s Little Italy. Their signature creation was a hot hero sandwich of thin-sliced beef that could stretch a roast to feed many hungry mouths. The finishing touch was dipping the whole shebang in hot beef juice. Al's is still going strong, and has been expanding in and around Chicago through franchising since 2001.
“There’s a whole Midwestern culture built around this sandwich,” Newman says. When ordering, “. . . all you have to do is walk in and say, ‘dipped, hot and sweet.’ And then there’s the stance: you spread your feet a little, roll up your sleeves, and put your elbows on the high counter. ” Leaning forward like that keeps the juicy dribbles from landing on your person.
As for the venerable Philly cheesesteak, Newman admits it's "delish in its own right," but adds that it's too often "greasy and cheesy and made with Steakums, which gets its juiciness from beef particles held together with fat."
On the other hand, she continues, "The Italian beef is gorgeous, fresh-roasted top round—lean, dipped in au jus, very light on the fat." Her customers do order the sandwich with cheese, she allows, "but it's still a cleaner sandwich than the cheesesteak. And when you're done eating it, you don't have that artery-hardening feeling."
Nothing at Red's Dips and Flips costs more than $8.75. Yet as a 1980 CIA grad, Newman brings a lot more sophistication--and modernity--to her menu than you'll find at an Al's.
Her $8 Chicago Italian beef sandwich is made from roasted top round simmered in its own juices, the base for a spicy beef broth that provides the dip--actually a total dunking with the sandwich held in tongs.
She will not divulge the spice mix that goes into the beef broth in which the meat is slow roasted. But the flavors concentrate so that the quick dunking puts the sandwich into orbit..
The bread, a 6-inch hero roll made by Anthony and Sons Bakery of Denville, is “really, really important,” she says. “It has to be soft white on the inside, but tough enough to hold up to the dipping.” The dipped sandwich is wrapped in waxed foil to hold all the juices. Needless to say, she goes through a lot of napkins.
Not liking the green peppers of the Al's original, Newman roasts her own sweet red peppers. She adds a generous garnish of fresh, crunchy, lightly spiced celery relish. Provolone, cheddar or pepper jack cheeses are optional add-ons.
The menu includes a grilled turkeyburger--the "flip"--and items like mac and cheese, beef or turkey or veggie chili, a chopped BBQ chicken sandwich, hand-cut russet fries and sweet potato fries and brownies and ice cream sandwiches.
Newman, 56, grew up in Maplewood. She is well-known in Essex County for Mardi Gras Fine Foods, a Verona catering and take-out shop that she and her older sister, Kim, ran from 1984 until they sold it in 2007. Kim now manages boxers--pugilists, not canines.
After selling Mardi Gras, Newman worked as a personal chef. A little over a year ago, she visited Chicago. At an Al's in the airport before flying home, she was getting her final fix of beef on a roll while talking to her sister on the phone. She was going on so much about how delicious it was that Kim finally said, "Why don’t you just bring some home with you?"
“So I went and bought a cooler, packed it with sandwiches, and that was it," Newman says. "Everyone at home convinced me to get back into the retail food business, and I couldn’t wait.”
“I held focus groups for all my foodie friends.” With their feedback, she developed her recipe, trying different cuts of meat before choosing top round, which works well even if the sandwich is served cold.
Finally, after a whirlwind, one-day fact-finding trip back to Chicago, she opened Red’s Dips and Flips.
Since Red's opened, so many of Newman's old Mardi Gras fans have stopped by in hopes of finding their favorite dishes, that she’s begun to stock a freezer full of her most beloved soups, mac and cheese and chicken wings.
Full disclosure: Barbi was my first boss in the food business. I served as her pastry chef. She was a major influence on me as a chef and particularly as a baker, giving me a foundation in everything sweet, from cakes and cookies to pies and pastries.
I was overjoyed to see that she is still making her delicious treats, including brownie ice cream sandwiches and a weekly "sweet-tooth special." Last week, it was her moist devil’s food cake with an inch of marshmallow frosting on it.
Nostalgia never tasted so good!
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.