When Chicagoan and respected Kansas City Chef Jennifer Maloney of Café Sebastienne starts raving about a place in Kansas City that makes authentic Chicago Italian Beef sandwiches, I sit up and take notice.
I am by no means an Italian Beef expert, but I have visited some of the “go-to” places in Chicago, so I’m pretty familiar with where the bar should be.
On our first trip to Mo’s Italian Spot at 5932 Prospect Ave., my wife, Gay, and I were immediately greeted by Raheem, who is one half of the husband-and-wife team that owns the restaurant.
Raheem is so welcoming that we decided to sit at the counter. The walls are covered with bright paint, giving the place a fun atmosphere. You can see the personalities of the owners shining through. As I look up from the menu, I see most of the menu staring me in the face — on the wall, with pictures. These people are proud of the food they make.
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I tell Raheem that we heard that they are the real deal for Italian Beefs. A huge smile lights up his face.
“Yes we are,” Raheem replied emphatically, “The best in Kansas City, and maybe even Chicago, too.”
I told you, they take pride in their food.
So we both order a Chicago Italian Beef with sweet and hot peppers, dipped, only I order the combo. Yeah, they do the combo here too, which is the Italian Beef and an Italian sausage. Apparently that’s the way to have the true experience in Chicago, so I figure that works for Kansas City, too.
As we’re waiting for our order, Gay and I want to find out how the heck these two came to open a place that specializes in Chicago Italian Beefs. Turns out that Raheem and his wife, Mo (ah ha, that’s where the name comes from), are sort of food travelers.
These native Kansas Citians love to travel to different destinations and just “eat their way” through the city. I can really relate to this couple. Anyway, they used to love the food festivals in Chicago and decided that Kansas City needed an Italian Beef place. This is another great example of a passion turned into a business.
I see our food coming to the counter, and although I’d love to chat some more, I’ve got some serious eating to do. With the first bite I can tell these people did their homework – the overstuffed bun, dripping beef juice and the snap of the sausage … I’d almost think that I’m looking out on Taylor Street from Al’s in Chicago.
Except at Mo’s I get to sit down and enjoy the juices dripping down my chin. Right now would be a good time to employ the “Chicago Lean”* posture for rest of this dining experience. After all, I need to go back to work not looking like a novice double-shift fry cook.
I look over at my wife to get her reaction. She normally is pretty subdued when it comes to these sorts of things. Watching her take that first gush-producing bite was hilarious. The poor girl was not prepared for the onslaught of juice.
But as she got a taste of the sandwich, her eyes widened. “Orph, em, gaad,” is what I heard her say. According to my wife-to-husband translator that I’ve honed over the years, I think that meant that she really liked it.
If you read my blog posts about how to get the most out of your dining experience (click here and here) you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of talking to the chefs and servers (or in this case, the owners) of the restaurant to find out what they wished that more people would try. So of course I had to put the question to Raheem.
“Our other food is really good too, not just the Italian Beefs,” he said. Hum, I thought to myself, this may call for another trip back to Mo’s.
A few days later, Gay and I were at the CCVI Food Fight fundraising event. It was packed with Kansas City’s top food enthusiasts. Very late in the evening during one of many conversations, the topic of Mo’s came up.
“Why don’t we go there tomorrow?” I said. And with that, a plan was formed.
The next day, we meet up at Mo’s. In our group of eight or so, we have a mixture of chefs, caterers, restaurant workers and food nerds. I mentioned to everyone that Raheem said that he wished that people would try menu items other than the Italian Beefs.
And so we did: Fish tacos, fried rice balls, wings, meatball subs, Chicago dogs and more. The quickest way to get this group of people quiet is to bring them some good food. Raheem was right: Everything we had was really good.
One in the group was Shannon Bowman. I like to refer to her as an “enthusiastic superfoodie.” Her family is Italian. And while she truly enjoys the Italian Beefs, she says “My must-have here is their arancini — little balls made of rice and heaven fried crispy with that red dipping sauce that I swear my grandma made.”
She says arancini is tough to find in Kansas City “and for one reason or another, they do not compare to Mo’s.”
Since our initial visits, we’ve been back several times. Each trip, we’ll try a favorite from an earlier visit and then we’ll try something new. I figure that’s a good way to pace ourselves. The funny thing is that each time we go to Mo’s, we run into other people that we know as well as more native Chicagoans. The word is getting out there.
I’m sure by now you’re thinking, “I need to check this place out.” Or at least I hope you’re thinking that. Please do go and check out Mo’s. The first time you go there, you’ll probably order the Italian Beef. That’s a solid choice. But be sure to check out the rest of the menu, even if it takes several visits. When you do, I know you’ll thank me.
*The Chicago Lean
Italian Beef joints in Chicago often have long, thin counters without stools. The Chicago Lean is a way of eating the Italian Beef without dripping on yourself.
▪ Stand about half an arm’s length from the counter.
▪ Lean forward until you are at a 45-degree angle to the counter.
▪ After picking up your sandwich, rest your elbows on the counter.
▪ Enjoy. And hopefully you won’t get too much beef juice on yourself.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.