Change of scenery. We desperately needed a change of scenery. Winter has been kind to us in Southwest Michigan this year, but both J and I feel like we’ve been cooped up in the house all winter. We looked at the weather and since there was very little snow in sight, we decided to take a trip to Chicago.
If you read this blog often, you know how much I love Italian beef sandwiches….and I don’t care what any body claims, if you’re not in Chicago, it’s not a good Italian beef. The cabin fever really kicked up for me a couple of weeks ago when we went to dinner at Jac’s Cekola’s Pizza and ordered an Italian beef. It was good. It had all of the basic elements of an Italian beef, but it’s just not the same as getting one from some small cramped shop in Chicago.
I’ve gone on and on about how much I love Al’s Beef and, spoiler alert, nothing actually changes there, but I want to try as many as I can. I’ve hit most of the big ones… Mr. Beef on Orleans, Joe Boston’s…as well as several smaller ones in the south suburbs, but there’s one huge Italian beef joint I still haven’t hit. After reading a Steve Dolinsky (he’s known as The Hungry Hound on ABC 7…the food critic I choose to put stock in in the Chicago area) article on the 31 Essential Italian Beef Joints in Chicago(land), I knew I had to make the drive out to Elmwood Park.
J and her parents took the kids to see J’s grandma in Orland Park leaving me in Oak Lawn by myself. After sleeping in a little bit, I decided to get up and make the drive. Elmwood Park is 26 miles from where my in-laws live, but in Chicago time, that takes about 45 minutes.
It was a pretty easy time and my heart was racing when I pulled in front of Johnnie’s Beef. The small shop on North Avenue is in a pretty busy part of the Chicago suburb. I assumed I would have to find street park, but as I turned on the adjacent street, I noticed a parking lot behind the building. There were some open spots even though the line for the restaurant was out the door, so I grabbed one then went to get in line.
The store opened in 1961 and, quite honestly, looks like it hasn’t had a bit of work done on it since then. It’s the ultimate Chicago sandwich. The public area of the building is just wide enough for two people. On one side is the large order counter that overlooks the kitchen. The cash register is in the middle and all of the ordering takes place there. On the other side of the space is the traditional stand up lunch counter. These types of sandwich places are not for the claustrophobic.
The line moved pretty fast and I was in the door within a couple of minutes of getting in line. There may have been 10-15 people in line in front of me…no surprise, all were guys and there were a lot of work trucks in the parking lot and on the streets around the building.
The line moves quick because the menu isn’t that big. The sandwiches include Italian beef, Italian sausage, a Sweet Pepper sandwich, hot dogs, tamales, and, on Friday’s only, a Pepper and Egg sandwich. The only side is French fries and drinks are either Pepsi products or their house made Italian Ice. Oh, and it’s cash only and there is no ATM on site.
I drove all the way out to Elmwood Park for an Italian beef, but the Italian sausage looked so dang good. The sausages are charcoal broiled right behind the counter. Luckily for me, there’s a way to enjoy both. It’s called a Combo.
I ordered the Combo Sausage & Beef hot and juicy. Johnnie’s uses Gonnella French Bread for their sandwiches. The sausage is put in the bottom of this bun then it’s topped with their charcoal broiled Italian beef. The “hot and juicy” part is the customization part (you can also add “sweet” which is grilled green peppers and onions). The “hot” is the Chicago signature giardiniera. Johnnie’s is made with carrots, sport peppers, and cauliflower. The “juicy” is what makes Italian beef sandwiches so good. If you’re like my mom, you order them dry. If you really want the authentic Chicago experience, you order them “juicy” or wet (some places use the term “dipped” as well). What that means is once the whole sandwich is assembled, the cook picks it up with a pair of tongs and dunks the whole thing into the au jus that the beef was cooked in. If there’s a flavorful au jus, like there is at Johnnie’s, the au jus will soak through the crusty French roll and add even more of the beefy, garlicy, oregano flavor to an already delicious sandwich.
While I was still placing my order, the cashier was yelling the instructions back to the cook who is right over his shoulder. One person assembles the sandwich while another wraps it up and handles the drinks. By the time I had my change back, the bag of beef was being tossed to the counter so it could be passed over, by the cashier, to the fry cook. I had also ordered a fry and a large Pepsi to round out my meal costing me a whopping $8 and some change.
The fry cook had dropped in a bag of fries and threw my bag of food up on the counter. There was some room at the stand up counter and I didn’t want to wait the 45 minutes it would take me to drive back to my in-laws to eat, so I squeezed in between a couple of guys and unwrapped my sandwich.
The sandwich had only been wrapped in the paper for a couple of minutes, but this beef was so juicy it was already soaking through creating a huge, tasty mess. The bread held up incredibly well. It had absorbed all of the flavor from the au jus but Gonnella makes a really hearty French roll. That hard roll because so incredibly soft and flavorful once you add juice to it.
The Italian beef from Johnnie’s is always described as one of the best in the city and, no surprise here, I absolutely agree. It’s so tender and the oregano permeates from every inch of the beef. I made sure to get a few bites in without the sausage because I really wanted to try out the beef on it’s own.
When it was time to go all in, I couldn’t have been more excited. The sausage was incredible. It had a black charred outer coating that added a little more crunch to the sandwich and maybe even a little spice. It was hard to tell where the heat was actually coming from. Was it the sausage, the giardiniera or a combination of both. Didn’t matter to me. It all works so well together, I didn’t really care to try and analyze the individual parts.
The giardiniera. It’s hard to describe giardiniera if you’re not familiar with it. Almost every place makes it different. Some use carrots. Some use celery. Some use cauliflower. There are so many combinations of veggies that make up giardiniera in Chicago. Johnnie’s uses three simple vegetables. Carrots, sport peppers, and cauliflower. It’s spicy, but it’s a spicy that you can’t get enough of.
The fries? Well, there’s not much to say about the fries. They’re pretty simple French fries that are just a side compliment to the sandwich. It’s kind of disappointing, but fries aren’t usually the reason you seek out a restaurant, so they tend to focus on the things that do make you drive across town for them.
Johnnie’s was amazing. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this sandwich for two days. In fact, we met my mom and aunt at Portillo’s in Crestwood earlier today for lunch and it was…disappointing. Typically, I like Portillo’s, but it’s not even close to my favorite beef. Today, it was just kind of there…knowing the day before I had a sandwich that is almost life changing.
Will I drive back to Elmwood Park for Johnnie’s? Hell-freakin’-yeah….and you should too. It still doesn’t top Al’s as my favorite Chicago Italian beef, but it’s a very, very close second.