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Restaurant Sun Nov 09 2008

Johnnie's Beef Pilgrimage

johnniesbeefWhen I decamped from New York to the Windy City almost six years ago I did so with love, instantly going native on many things including food. Except for Italian beefs. Local friends still don't believe me when I try to explain neither Gothamites nor most other Americans grow up eating the juicy bovine wonders. They're a peculiarly Chicagoan palate-pleaser.

Until this year, you couldn't get me to touch one of the soggy sandwiches with a plastic-wrapped ten-foot pole (with or without a wet-nap). Then pastry-chef Chris dragged me to Johnnie's Beef in near-west suburban Elmwood Park and much like my relationship with the flat shores of Lake Michigan, it was love at first sight. Well, bite really.

Although I live downtown, a stone's throw from River North's urban beef palaces Al's #1 and Portillo's, every few weeks I nudge my Oak Park friend to take us on the quick drive up to North and 75th avenues for the stellar beefs and quirky ordering experience available at Johnnie's ramshackle roadside shack.

Unlike at the first two establishments, a regular beef at Johnnie's is a modest affair. Some Yelpers have criticized the sandwich as small. Packed inside, however, are myriad layers of uniformly sliced paper-thin beef swimming in a pungent yet delicately spiced au jus. Not as butt-kicking but more interesting than Portillo's cow juice, Johnnie's broth could be savored on its own with a spoon.

Juicy beef fans (like me) will equally appreciate the buns in use at Johnnie's. Like any good beef bun, their innocuous flavor doesn't get in the way of the beef, but they're sturdy enough to stand a good dip into au just followed by a 10-minute car ride back home.

Homemade giardiniera is top-flight if excessively spicy--I prefer my Italian beefs with the milder (green) Italian peppers. Cheese fans will go home disappointed and rightly so. It's not on order at Johnnie's and to this foodie's mind has no more business being on a beef then ketchup has being on a Chicago dog.

Other personal favorites include the Italian sausage, charred yet juicy and extraordinarily flavorful, here's where Johnnie's flavorings really do get butt-kicking--you'll want to ditch the bun and eat these meaty wonders by hand, and the nearly foot-tall lemon Italian ices, a size the happy likes of which I never saw back in Gotham.

As for that quirky ordering? Johnnie's is an old storefront barely accommodating inside a cashier's counter and a teeny kitchen beyond. That space constraint means you'll be eating your beefy booty (yeah, I said beefy booty) outside at one of the few picnic tables, in your car if it's cold, or back home. It also means you better know what you want and be prepared to be brief when you ask for it.

The team behind the counter is efficient but has a paltry level of patience that leaves no room for error. Examine the menu board, watch how the folks in front you order, and don't argue. (The muscle-bound but clueless first-timer who thought he could bully Johnnie's staff into giving him extra beef to impress his date the last time I was there was laughed/shamed out of the place by staff and patron alike, so you've been warned.)

That said, this raging, 'L'-taking urbanite has no qualms sitting in a car seat to get to this suburban juicy-beef paradise. That's among the highest praise I've got.

Johnnie's Beef
7500 W. North Avenue, Elmwood Park


Ann / December 4, 2008 7:31 AM

Like you, I never understood Italian Beef til I tried Johnny's--my shame is that it took me 25 years after I moved to Chicago. But you can eat, and in winter should eat, inside. There's a stand-up counter.

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