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August 16, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter VII - Johnnie's

Dominic Armato
Ideally, I probably should've left Johnnie's for later in the year. Here we are... chapter seven of twelve... we've already hit Al's, Chickie's and Mr. Beef, and you hate to blow through the heavyweights by the halfway point. But what's more summery than trucking out to Johnnie's for a beef and a lemon ice? Yeah. Couldn't resist.

There are two locations, but by all accounts the go-to Johnnie's is the original in Elmwood Park. In terms of indoor space, it's the king of close quarters. There's a small metal counter along the front window opposite the register, but if there's any kind of a line... and there's always a line this time of year... there's barely enough room to squeeze in two people abreast. Johnnie's is all about the outdoor space. With a number of benches and picnic tables outside, the beef stand spills right into the surrounding neighborhood, a bustling center of activity, an old stalwart that seems like it's been there forever. And it basically has. And with good reason.

Dominic Armato
The fries? Eh... forget 'em... more precut frozen institutional fare (what do all of these places have against fresh potatoes?). But the sandwich has everything working. The beef itself is extremely tender, moist and appropriately beefy. The juice is fully-flavored with the traditional hints of garlic and oregano, strong but balanced with a really nice, natural sweetness and the right amount of oil. The peppers are unexceptional, but certainly tasty. The sweet peppers are cut into strips, tender and slightly garlicky but lacking the sweetness that I'd hope to get from good peppers. The giardiniera is about as textbook as it comes, with big chunks of pickled peppers, cauliflower, carrots, celery and little bits of onion. My only reservation might be that it's a little too tart. I think the giardiniera fights the beef a little bit. But my love for the spicy allows me to largely overlook an otherwise very minor complaint. Though I hesitate to make this comparison for fear of giving the impression that they're anywhere close to being in the same league (they're not), Johnnie's is similar to Portillo's in that it's a textbook Italian beef... the perfect benchmark. But where Portillo's fills out the checklist of traditional elements with clinical precision, Johnnie's takes all of those elements and brings them together in a package that just has more character. Everything works in concert (except for the aforementioned giardiniera) to create a juicy, tender, moist, fully-flavored beef that hits all of the right notes. For me, it doesn't have Chickie's whoa factor... nor does it have Chickie's superlative peppers and delicious, fresh fries... so I can't put it in the lead. But I'm happy to slip it right behind Chickie's, a significant leap ahead of the next tier and my old favorite, Mr. Beef. This now makes two that I've enjoyed more than my old standby.

As such, even though I'm only just barely past halfway through, given the stated goal of the Beef-Off I already feel comfortable calling it an unqualified success. I have friends who are treating the recent unrest in my beefy allegiances as full-on treasonous activity, and a second usurper will only add fuel to the fire. They may or may not be right, but the truth is that I have a hard time caring when I'm buried in one of my new top two. The revised standings, as personal and subjective as always:

Johnnie's Beef
7500 W. North Ave.
Elmwood Park, IL 60707
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Mr. Beef
4) Bostons
5) Portillo's
6) Roma's
7) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.


I think I'm in love with you...

As for Italian Beef, I don't know if you've gone there yet, but Luke's on Harlem has a pretty good sandwich. It's a zesty, salty, beefy, tender...oh it's almost perfect, though I don't know if it's the best in Chicago. I usually go for plain though because cheese ruins the texture for me and I don't need no stinking peppers because I just want to taste dead meat on its own.

Johnnie's is #2? Wow, now I have to try Chickie's when I am back in town. You have motivated me to update my Johhnie's post from my old site to the my new site, chec it out, we took the same photo of Johnnie's from the same angle, but at different times of the year. I love the tart giardinare, the fries are boring, and what about the Italian Ice?

I drive from Youngstown, NEW YORK for this stuff. I hve been eating here for over ten years and it is worth the trip. I drive 9 hours and evry minute is filled with anticipation of the best sandwich I have ever had. They are the number one reason that i come to Chicago. Well them and my family. And the Italian Ice cannot be compared to anything either. A totally top notch flavor sensation. 5 stars ALL THE WAY.

Got a recipe for giardiniera?

Everyone at Johnnie's orders "Ice" the folks that work there call it Ice, but in fact it is still the same recipe as when they first opened which is Italian Lemonade (Lemon Only no Mango etc). The sign on the Stand says it all. I sometimes wonder when it became Ice.

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