The Grandmother of All Sandwiches

A Tour of the Merrimack Valley’s Roast Beef Sandwich Shops

At Jillie’s Family Restaurant, regulars come for the consistent quality and warm service. Familial and friendly, owners Lisa and Angelo Koukos, along with employee Ryan Bettencourt, keep the roast beef sandwiches they serve true to those enjoyed by multiple generations of Lowellians. Meltingly soft beef sits on a fresh, grilled onion roll.

At Jillie’s Family Restaurant, meltingly soft beef sits on a fresh, grilled onion roll.

For Lisa Maria Koukos, food is love. When she met her future husband, Angelo, he was working at the drive-thru at Jillie’s Family Restaurant in Lowell. She learned that Angelo was a former farmer from Greece. He had immigrated to the United States to find his fortune, starting as an apprentice baker. His baking skills eventually led him to the roast beef sandwich business. After marrying, the two worked together to make Jillie’s one of the landmark roast beef shops in the Merrimack Valley. Two decades later, Lisa and Angelo continue to work together six days a week to meet the needs of their devoted clientele.

As I sat enjoying my food and waiting to speak with Lisa one afternoon last winter, I noticed a Lowell police officer sitting at the table next to mine. He wore a wide grin on his face. I asked him what he liked best about Jillie’s. “Consistency,” he said without hesitation.

According to Lisa, the sandwiches are made the same way today as they were when she started working at Jillie’s with Angelo. Slabs of beef are roasted and trimmed multiple times daily, the sauces made by hand. The bread still comes from Piantedosi Baking Co., a Malden firm that has been in operation since 1916.

The most popular sandwich at Jillie’s is the giant “three-way,” a fresh onion roll bulging with 6 ounces of roast beef and covered in barbecue sauce, mayonnaise and cheese. Little has changed at Jillie’s since Lisa met Angelo. Pizza has been added to the menu, along with a few other items, including the increasingly popular Greek fries. They are, to Lisa’s knowledge, unique — thick-cut steak fries topped with an aromatic garlic, herb and feta cheese sauce.

As we sat and talked, the lunch crowd began to fill the room. Lisa nodded to a few of them and pointed out the regulars to me. Most were. Aside from the regulars, Lisa has noticed another kind of customer coming in frequently: “Pregnant women,” she said with a gleam in her eye. Food is love, indeed.

I emailed Bee Wilson, a British food historian and author of “Sandwich: A Global History” (Reaktion Books, 2010), to ask her if it’s true that roast beef might be the grandmother of all sandwiches. Via email, she replied: “The source for the idea that the Earl of Sandwich’s first sandwich was roast beef is a text from 1770 by a Frenchman called Pierre-Jean Grosley. Grosley refers to ‘a minister of state’ — we presume Sandwich — being so absorbed at a gaming table that he ate nothing but ‘a piece of beef between two slices of toasted bread.’ We assume the beef was roasted! Roasting was the main cooking method for meat at this time in England.”

When they first appeared on American menus early in the 20th century, according to Wilson, roast beef sandwiches reflected local and ethnic traditions. For example, “beef on weck,” a Buffalo, N.Y., regional specialty, dates back to at least the 19th century and was served on bread baked by German immigrants. In 1931, Wall Drug billed its roast beef sandwich as “A true taste of South Dakota,” serving it with a scoop of mashed potatoes and covering it with gravy. In the 1950s, a regional variation of the roast beef sandwich started appearing on the North Shore of Massachusetts. The meat was gently roasted and then thinly sliced. Typically served on a soft, butter-grilled bun, the overall mouthfeel was delicate, in contrast to the aggressively sized portions and liberal use of toppings found elsewhere.

Harrison’s signature sandwich, served alongside crispy onion rings and its own brand of soda.

Harrison’s signature sandwich, served alongside crispy onion rings and its own brand of soda.

When the roast beef sandwich had a resurgence of popularity in the late 1970s, it was because of its affordability in the face of increasing industrial decline. This is partly why so many local family-owned shops date from around this period.

In addition to Jillie’s, the Merrimack Valley is home to a number of other notable establishments serving great roast beef sandwiches.

Julie Iliopoulos, co-owner of Blue House Family Pizza in Salem, N.H., somehow knew it was my first visit. “You’re going to need a fork with that, hon,” she told me after I deadlifted my order off the counter. Blue House was one of the first roast beef shops of its kind in New Hampshire, according to Iliopoulos — it opened its doors 23 years ago — and it also offers the largest sandwich of all the places I visited. In addition to a fork, I needed a knife as well. Even cut into quarters, the 1 1/2-pound creation required two hands. (Fortunately, Julie had also seen fit to provide me with a stack of napkins.) My “Blue House Super Large” was served with tangy and spicy “James River” barbecue sauce, a Virginia-style condiment used at many of the top local shops and considered by some adherents to be a sign of authenticity.

Courtyard Roast Beef in Newburyport also provides ample portions, particularly when it comes to the french fries. I ordered a small serving that came piled in a mountainous heap, with a tiny red and white takeout box buried on the side — perhaps a sly joke. The massive sandwich wasn’t quite as large as the monster at Blue House, but the double-cooked beef exemplified the rare and tender ideal. Unlike the other super-size samples I had elsewhere, the roll was seasoned with sesame seeds, not onion.

One of the most popular offerings in the Merrimack Valley can be found at Harrison’s Roast Beef in North Andover. Rock posters line the walls, and busy tattooed cooks prepare a steady supply of food in an otherwise laid-back atmosphere. Harrison’s features its own brand of soda, including a raspberry lime rickey flavor for nostalgic diners, as well as a new hot relish sauce, which I enjoyed as a lighter alternative to the “three-way.”

The New England roast beef sandwich has weathered major shifts in the economy and food trends. In a culinary scene that often favors innovation over substance, it not only perseveres, but seems to flourish. Based on the sizable crowds at all four shops, this is a tradition that future generations of mvm readers will get to enjoy, as well.

Jillie’s Family Restaurant: Lowell, Mass.  /  (978) 452-3005  /  JilliesRestaurant.com
Blue House Family Pizza:  Salem, N.H.  /  (603) 890-1131  /  BlueHousePizza.com
Courtyard Roast Beef:  Newburyport, Mass.  /  (978) 462-2144  /  CourtyardNewburyportRestaurants.com
Harrison’s Roast Beef: North Andover, Mass.  /  (978) 687-9158  /  HarrisonsRoastBeef.com

Photos by Kevin Harkins.

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