I recently took a dealer and his wife out to dinner at Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in suburban West Des Moines (see map). I'd eaten at the Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in Moline before, and they suggested dinner at the one in West Des Moines. We had some business to discuss and I thought it would be a good choice for a good dinner and some quiet conversation.
Johnny's Italian Steakhouse is part of the Heart of America chain of restaurants and hotels owned and run by Quad City native Mike Whalen. Whalen got his start in the restaurant business by opening the original Machine Shed restaurant in Davenport back in the late 70's. Two of his Machine Shed restaurants - the other one is in the Des Moines suburb of Clive - are the highest volume restaurants in the state of Iowa. Whalen was most recently known in our area as the failed Republican candidate for Congress in 2008.
Johnny's Italian Steakhouse is designed to be an upscale restaurant, reminiscent of old time big city Italian restaurants that served steaks, seafood and pasta. The decor is what I would describe as a muted formal with large dark wood tables, dark pastel walls with tasteful lighting, and comfortable seating. In addition to the West Des Moines and Moline locations, there are Johnny's Italian Steakhouses in Middleton, WI, Peoria, IL, Omaha, NE, and another location in Des Moines near the airport.
The Johnny's Italian Steakhouse in West Des Moines is attached to a Holiday Inn, not far from Jordan Creek Mall. It's just one of a number of restaurants that have sprouted up in the immediate area over the past few years. I was staying at another hotel close-by, so I ran over to the Holiday Inn to meet my dealer and his wife. When I got there, the large bar area that is in front of the dining area at Johnny's was packed. I didn't have reservations, but the hostess said we could have immediate seating for three when my dealer and his wife showed up. It wasn't much longer before they showed up and we were shown to a booth toward the back of the restaurant.
We were handed menus and a wine list. Our waiter was a nice young guy who was being shadowed by a young girl who was in training to be a waitress. Both were dressed in formal attire and were very friendly. They brought out a basket of fresh baked bread with olive oil and fresh parmesan for us to munch on prior to ordering. I immediately ordered a bottle of the Franciscan Cabernet while we looked over our menus for dinner.
One thing that I immediately recognized on the menu was something I'd had when I first ate at the Johnny's in Moline a few years ago - Johnny's Filet Medallion Trio - three small beef tenderloin filets that were topped and encrusted, one with horseradish, one with Maytag Blue Cheese, and one with parmesan cheese. It was very good, but it was unbelievably rich. Since I was still sort of on my diet, I crossed that off my list right off the bat.
Johnny's also features monthly specials that range from steak dishes to seafood to pasta dishes to some Italian specialty, such as a veal plate. None of the special featured entrees tripped my trigger that evening, so I focused on a couple things on the main menu.
The steaks definitely caught my eye, but I was more in the mood for chicken. Johnny's famous Steak De Burgo was calling my name, but I kept looking at the Chicken piccata - a grilled chicken breast topped with a white wine and lemon piccata sauce and served with a side of broccoli. That's what I ended up ordering when they took my order. I also got a dinner salad that is usually served family style, but my dealer and his wife ended up getting French onion soup, so they just did all the fixin's for me back in the kitchen.
My dealer's wife has two favorite things on the menu - Johnny's Veal Sinatra, which consists of veal slices topped with shrimp, crab, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and basil - and Johnny's Chanel No. 5, which is a pasta dish featuring lobster, shrimp, artichokes, proscuitto and cheese ravioli. But one of the specials that evening was a dish consisting of crab-stuffed shrimp with a side of mixed vegetables. That's what she ended up getting.
My dealer was in a quandary. He said, "Chicken sounds good tonight. I always get the steak here. I'm going to break the monotony and get chicken." He ended up getting the chicken marsala with asparagus spears.
We worked through our soups and salads having a business conversation and catching up on what was going on. Johnny's Italian Steakhouse turned out to be a great place to do a business dinner. It wasn't loud, there were minimal distractions and the service was polished with no hint of pushiness.
Our main entrees showed up and I was disappointed in the size of the portion of chicken breasts I had on my plate. Actually, instead of one whole medium-sized chicken breast, there were three smaller "medallions" doused in the lemon piccata sauce. They were still very good, but I just felt the portions were a little skimpy.
My dealer said his chicken marsala was good, but also commented on the size of the three small chicken portions on his plate. "It's like someone ate part of the meal on the way to the table," he exclaimed.
There was no disappointment in his wife's voice, however. The four stuffed shrimp she declared as "out of this world." She said, "I love this place. I've never had a bad meal each time we've come here."
I didn't think my meal was bad, I just didn't think it was that great of a value. Even trying to cut smaller bites of the chicken and doing most of the talking during dinner, I was finished in well under 10 minutes. Had I been on my own and not talking, I'm sure the meal would have been done in under three minutes.
With the wine and a nice tip for the waiter, our bill came to about $135 bucks. Once again, I didn't think it was that good of a value. But the food - what there was of it - was very good, the service was wonderful and the surroundings were inviting. However, I don't think I'm going to be searching out a Johnny's Italian Steakhouse anytime soon. I just think there are places that are just as nice as Johnny's with greater food values.