As far as institutions go, few are as revered and beloved as Chicago’s Buona Italian Beef. Since its founding in 1981, the family-owned and operated restaurant chain has established itself as a top destination for indulging in one of the city’s most popular street foods, Italian beef sandwiches.
Having become famous for serving extremely meaty sandwiches, Buona shocked fans everywhere when it released a fully vegan version of its iconic Original Italian Beef, made with Upton’s Naturals seitan, in the spring of 2021. It wasn’t prepared for the response – in less than 24 hours, the Plant-Based Italian Beefless Sandwich sold out 1,800 pounds of seitan at multiple locations due to “overwhelming” customer demand, with fans enthusing the plant-based beef was indistinguishable from the original. The sandwich became so popular, Buona eventually added the limited-time offering to its permanent menu.
Now, following the retail launch of the Beefless Sandwich in regional Whole Foods stores and a new Beefless Bowl on the Buona menu, vegconomist spoke with Joe Buonavolanto III, Buona’s VP of Franchise Operations and Dan Staackmann, founder of Upton’s Naturals, for a deeper dive on their successful collaboration and the power of veganizing iconic menu items.
Please tell us – what inspired your collaboration?
Buona: Upton’s Naturals, a prominent plant-based company based in Chicago, and us, had a shared goal of collaborating on a signature Chicago dish that could be savored by everyone.
Upton’s: One of our food service distributors connected us with the Buona Beef team in the summer of 2020. They’d been looking into adding a plant-based option, and as we’re both independent, Chicago-based businesses, it just made sense that we would work together.
How did Upton’s get its seitan to taste like Buona’s signature beef?
Buona: We chose Upton’s Naturals Seitan as our protein base because it is all-natural like our other meats, easily paired with our authentic Italian recipe, and created a similar beef texture when eaten. Our goal was to make it feel like you are eating one of our Buona Beefs, so the texture, flavor and ability to slice it thin was key.
Upton’s: Upton’s Naturals Seitan has a meat-like texture, and savory flavor on its own, but we’ve developed a knack for mimicking well-known flavors with simple seasonings and spices. The real secret to a Buona Beef, though, is their signature gravy. We consulted with Buona Beef on a plant-based version, making suggestions for ingredients that would mimic the flavor and mouthfeel of their one-of-a-kind gravy.
For customers who order the Beefless Sandwich, what percentage of them are not vegan/vegetarian?
Buona: While we don’t specifically track the dietary preferences of our customers who order the Beefless Sandwich, we take pride in offering a diverse menu. Our aim is to offer tasty choices that cater to individuals irrespective of their dietary preferences, including those who follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, as well as those who consume meat. We believe the appeal of our Beefless Sandwich goes beyond dietary restrictions, as it offers a tasty and satisfying alternative for all of our customers to enjoy.
The Beefless Sandwich was so popular, it launched as a retail product in regional Whole Foods stores. How has it performed in sales?
Buona: We’re excited to share that the Beefless Sandwich has created its own category for us, resonating with both vegans and non-vegans alike. The initial launch at regional Whole Foods stores was met with great enthusiasm, and due to its success, we have recently expanded distribution to include Fresh Thyme as well.
We’re thrilled to see the positive response and will continue to explore opportunities to bring this delicious, plant-based option to more customers.
You recently launched a new Beefless Bowl – are there any future plant-based menu items in the works?
Buona: As of right now, our focus remains on our signature vegan items. We are committed to offering high-quality, plant-based options that are not only delicious but also environmentally sustainable.
Upton’s: We would love to continue innovating with Buona Beef. Should there be opportunities in the future to expand their vegan offerings, we make a fantastic Chicago-style vegan hot dog, the Updog, and have been working on an Italian sausage that would make a great addition to their menu.
A recent study showed that less than half, or 48%, of US restaurants are currently offering plant-based options. Given the success of your sandwich launch, what advice would you give to other food service operators who have not yet considered adding plant-based dishes to their menu?
Buona: It’s essential to understand the growing demand for plant-based options among consumers. When adding plant-based options to your menu, it’s important to make them more than just an afterthought. Plant-based dishes should be carefully crafted, with the same level of attention and creativity as other menu items. It’s crucial to ensure that they are delicious, satisfying, and visually appealing to entice customers to try them and come back for more.
Upton’s: Veganize your best-selling menu items. Buona Beef easily could have added a pre-fab vegan burger to their menu, but they went the extra mile and found the right partner to develop a plant-based version of the item they’re famous for. Its uniqueness and authenticity is what has made it so successful.