Italian beef is as fundamental a marker of Chicago’s culinary character as deep-dish pizza, shrimp de Jonghe, and red hots dragged through the garden. I think of it as the signature dish that embodies Chicago’s personality better than any other: brawny, intense, symphonic and, for all its apparent disarray, audaciously composed. As sandwiches go, it is brash and impertinent, but it demands savoir faire in its ordering and eating. And nobody does it better than Johnnie’s.
I answer “yes” to the question Roadfood reviewer Phillip Roth asked about Johnnie’s beef: “Is this the ultimate Chicago sandwich?” (Indeed, I think of it as not just a taste of Chicago, but the Alpha and Omega of American street food.) Johnnie’s beef is soft and fairly softly seasoned – just garlicky enough to halo its protein magnitude. Add Johnnie’s vibrant giardiniera and you have a taste-buds epiphany. Get the beef in a “combo” (with a length of chewy, char-cooked Italian sausage) and, as Mr. Roth said, “you will hear angels sing.”
To accompany Italian beef or to savor its afterglow, Johnnie’s makes delicious Italian ice that is a tantalizing balance of sweet and tart.
Service is eat in the rough, cash only, tote-your-own. While not quite soup-nazi gruff, the staff does not go out of its way to make customers happy. They don’t need to. The food does that.
While I have enjoyed Johnnie’s for years at catered affairs and picnics, I had never really gotten out of the car and into the line. It’s Friday afternoon at 2:35pm, hardly lunch hour, and the line snakes around the back. It moves fast with the ever-present smell of sausage and beef in the air. The door sign says to keep it closed, and everyone is pretty much measuring their party with the avaiable inside space. No sense getting anyone mad before you’ve got the goods.
Once inside, it’s pretty spartan. Even more surprising is the fact that one order-taker runs the entire show. Now he does have a half-dozen specialists putting the orders together, but he takes every order, translates to the staff, completes the payment process and hands you the correct order… after checking your bag for accuracy.
As it’s my first time, I decided to go with the standards. As a quick study and a master of Chicago beef places, I’m ready to order well before my turn. Important as the order-taker is, he as unfriendly as they come… and you can sense it with each person’s turn… perhaps, the Beef Nazi?
Beef, sweet, small fries, small ice. A look as if, not bad! $6.72; gotcha as my money is already in hand and extended. Change is in my hand in seconds followed by the goods. The beef. Fantastic! Great bread and sweet, which means a mixture of sweet, green peppers and sweet giardinare. Nice touch. I ordered regular, so no extra juice or dipping for me. Much too hard to hold the bread when over-wet.
The fries came out smoking hot, salted just right and were very good. But the star of the show was the small ice. Small ice means small, Italian lemon ice. It seems lighter than most I’ve tried, is really lemony, and may be the best ice I’ve ever had.
It’s funny how a place this good, this close, and this famous, takes me 40 years to get to.
Johnnie’s is not just another beef joint. This place is included at or near the top of anyone’s “Best of the Best” list for beef sandwiches in Chicagoland. Johnnie’s is easy to find. When you get close you can smell the aroma of roasting sausages that surrounds the building in a self-generated fog that focuses the mind on the treasures inside. There will probably be a line out the door, but do not despair. The line will move fast because the time between placing your order and you walking out the door with your meal is less than one minute. Make sure you know what you want when it’s your turn, place your order and step to the left!
The subject here is Italian beef. This is a food delicacy unique to the Chicago area: beef shaved extra thin in a garlicky, peppery gravy. The tender meat is loaded into a sturdy Italian loaf and garnished with sweet bell peppers and/or hot giardiniera. Ask for the sandwich dipped in the gravy for a genuine Chicago experience. Order a combo and get a roasted Italian sausage running the length of the bread, tucked under the beef. This version packs a one-two punch that has no equal.
Top off the meal with an Italian ice – ice shaved very fine with a sweet and tart lemon flavor that is a perfect complement to the meal. The ice is hand packed to order from a bucket sitting in the freezer.
There is ample parking available in the lot behind the restaurant. The half dozen tables outside turn over quickly but you will see many patrons eating in, or on, their cars.