Chicago's Gym Shoe Sandwich Is A Combination Of Classics

If you go to Chicago, chances are, someone is going to ask you if you've tried deep-dish pizza. Those a bit more in the know may ask if you've had a chance to sample an Italian beef sandwich or a Chicago-style hot dog "dragged through the garden." Then there are folks who really understand the city's culinary legacy and history, who enjoy those often trotted-out Chicago staples but want to know how deep you sank your teeth into the Windy City's eats. These are the people who will ask you if you've tried a gym shoe sandwich.

Yes, the name is a bit off-putting, but the gym shoe — occasionally spelled Jim Shoe — is a testament to Chicago's blue-collar and hearty ethos. Though the city boasts a bevy of Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Alinea, Kasama, and Schwa, it is most proud of the rich, meaty, stick-to-your-ribs dishes that speak to the working-class neighborhoods and various ethnicities that have made the city so vibrant, culinarily and otherwise. The aforementioned pizza style, Italian beef sandwich, and iconic hot dog fall squarely into this category.

The gym shoe sandwich is a bit of a monstrosity — deliciously so — that is cobbled together from bits of other sandwiches in what seems like a hungry fever dream. A hoagie roll is loaded with corned beef, shaved gyro meat, Italian roast beef, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, and tzatziki-adjacent "gyro sauce," with giardiniera being optional. This clearly isn't a sandwich for the faint of heart.

The murky origins of the gym shoe sandwich

If someone tells you they know exactly when and where the gym shoe sandwich was created, don't believe them. As with so many other legendary foodstuffs, its origin is murky and inscrutable. What is for sure is that before it ever caught on around the city, the gym shoe was being perfected in restaurants on Chicago's West and South Sides. There, neighborhoods are peppered with what is most aptly described as sandwich stands. The offerings are diverse: You can get gyros, Italian beef sandwiches, fried fish, pizza puffs, hot dogs, Maxwell Street Polishes, pork chop sandwiches, and tamales. Often open late, these restaurants are meant to satisfy and are frequently beloved neighborhood spots.

With so many ingredients on hand, it was likely only a matter of time before someone put the gym shoe sandwich combination together; exactly who that someone was is lost to time. It might have been a hungry patron who was tired of the regular choices and asked the counter person to load up a super-sized sub. Maybe they were just indecisive. Or maybe it was an enterprising owner who wanted to concoct a specialty that would put their restaurant on the map. Regardless of its provenance, once word got out about the gym shoe sandwich, it quickly spread to other establishments.

How to make a gym shoe sandwich

There's no art to putting together a gym shoe — it's a hoagie. What is a prerequisite is having access to all the ingredients. Most people just don't have a spinning cone of gyro meat at the ready in their kitchen; that's why the gym shoe sandwich is best left to restaurants. And speaking of those ingredients, they are bold, but in their boldness seem to balance each other out.

The corned beef is delightfully salty and a bit tangy, which balances out the seasoned gyro meat, which is made from ground beef and lamb. Italian roast beef is the same meat that is used on an Italian beef sandwich, and it's tender and redolent of oregano and other herbs. These meats can be either layered onto a hoagie roll and topped with cheese or chopped and crisped on the griddle with the cheese mixed in and melted.

The hot meat and cheese are balanced with cold, crunchy shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, and onion. Rounding out the gym shoe sandwich are applications of mustard, the tzatziki-like gyro sauce, and possibly a bit of mayo. Giardiniera — an oil-packed salad of pickled peppers, olives, celery, cauliflower, and carrots — can also be added, and while it is not standard, it adds a bit of tang and spice that balance the gym shoe sandwich's richness quite well.

Where to buy a gym shoe sandwich

Finding a gym shoe sandwich in Chicago is a great way to see parts of the city that most tourists otherwise would not. While the sandwich has spread across the city and into the surrounding suburbs, for an original take, head to the West and South Sides. These areas, contrary to what some who have only a passing knowledge of the city will tell you, are vibrant and active swaths of the city, full of art, culture, history, and food (glorious food).

On Stony Island Blvd., the aptly named Stony Sub offers a stunning take on the gym shoe sandwich that is griddled to perfection. It comes standard with all the regular toppings and giardiniera, which means you don't have to ask for hot peppers if you want a hint of spice. In Marquette Park, Super Sub & Gyro's Jim Shoe sandwich is a mammoth version that is still well-balanced. Bites of steaming meat and melted cheese are tempered by the tangy mustard and cool gyro sauce. But a reminder: Here, you must ask for hot peppers.

You can also find a gym shoe sandwich by simply exploring Chicago's neighborhoods. Find a destination you want to go to and use that as a base from which to walk around and discover. Keep your eyes peeled for a sub shop — generally brightly painted — and scan the menu for the sandwich you're looking for. The flavor explosion will make it all worthwhile.