What Is Steak Milanesa And How Is It Different From Chicken Fried Steak?

While steak milanesa and chicken fried steak both showcase breaded steak cuts, they are they are not the same dish masquerading under different names.

One primary difference lies in the type of steak cuts used. Chicken fried steak, a Texas staple, usually employs cube steak — a tenderized top sirloin or top round that's been flattened to resemble cubes. In contrast, traditional Italian steak milanesa initially used beef tenderloin. This choice evolved in Argentina, where the dish gained significant popularity. There, flank steak — or rump steak — became the standard, though chicken adaptations are also prevalent. Generally speaking, however, steak milanesa tends to use a superior beef cut compared to chicken fried steak.

Another distinction arises in the breading and toppings. Chicken fried steak, echoing its namesake, has a breading akin to fried chicken and is traditionally served with white cream gravy. Steak milanesa, on the other hand, sometimes features toppings like tomato sauce and mozzarella, especially in its South American iterations.

Steak milanesa's journey from Italy to Argentina

How did steak milanesa make its way from Italy to Argentina? The answer lies in migration patterns. In the late 19th century, approximately 2 million Italians relocated to Argentina due to severe economic conditions in Italy. This massive influx didn't just alter Argentina's demographics, but also had profound cultural impacts. Italian cuisine became increasingly prevalent in Argentina and its neighbor, Uruguay. 

Tracing back to Italy in the 12th century, the dish was originally named costoletta alla milanesa. It featured breaded veal cutlets cooked in butter. However, after its introduction to South America, several variations emerged. The most popular was milanesa napolitana, a name blending Italian regions, yet originating not in Milan or Naples, but Buenos Aires in the 1940s. This rendition, often paired with french fries in South American eateries, is topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and a slice of ham. While mozzarella is the favored cheese for melting, parmesan can be incorporated into the breading.

Chicken fried steak, despite its similarities in beef and breading, has its unique origins. Believed to have originated in Texas, it's thought to be an adaptation of wiener schnitzel (breaded veal) brought by German immigrants. The wiener schnitzel, in turn, had evolved from the Italian costoletta alla milanesa.

The two steaks often come with specific side dishes

The two dishes, steak milanesa and chicken fried steak, share common origins and cooking oils. In Italy, steak milanesa was originally prepared in butter. Nowadays, it's typically cooked using vegetable oil, much like chicken fried steak.

However, differences emerge in the beef cuts, breading, and especially the toppings. The emergence of milanesa napolitana has further distinguished the two. Contrary to its name's implication, this variation was popularized by José Nápoli, a Buenos Aires restaurateur. Though Nápoli's recipe was rooted in Italian tradition, the addition of red tomato sauce made the dishes distinct at first sight, especially compared to chicken fried steak's iconic creamy white gravy.

While side dishes for these breaded meats can occasionally overlap, they often diverge. In Argentina, steak milanesa commonly accompanies french fries. Chicken fried steak, by contrast, is traditionally served with mashed potatoes and green beans.