Chicago is the home of some of the best Italian beef sandwiches anywhere. Italian beef sandwiches are a passion with many residents of the area and when you ask a person from Chicagoland which one they like the most, more often than not they'll mention Johnnie's Beef. Johnnie's Beef has two locations, the original one in Elmwood Park (see map); and the one up in Arlington Heights (see map). While in Chicago recently, I stopped into the Elmwood Park location for an Italian beef sandwich and a hot dog.
Actually, I first went to the Johnnie's Beef in Arlington Heights last summer. While I thought it was good, I was told by an acquaintance in the Chicago area that the one in Elmwood Park was better - much better - than the one in Arlington Heights. But he also told me, "It's best to know what you want before you go in. The guys at the counter can get kind of surly." He described a time when he was there and a lady dawdled for about 15 seconds over what to have and the guy at the register just skipped her. "She didn't order and she left," he told me.
The original Johnnie's Beef opened on North Ave. in 1961. (The one in Arlington Heights opened in 2003.) In a city where Italian beef can be a passion with many people, it quickly became one of the favorites. But they're also famous for their lemon-flavored Italian ice. I hear more people may crave their Italian ice more than the Italian beef sandwiches. It's basically shaved ice with a lemon flavoring. I understand it can be habit forming.
There was a line of people standing out the door when I got to Johnnie's around 1:30 on a cold afternoon recently. If there's a line and the door is shut do not make the mistake of keeping the door open like one lady did who was standing in front of me. I heard a gruff, "Inside or out, lady! Close the door!" come from inside Johnnie's.
At Johnnie's, they are rather snooty and provincial when it comes to their Italian beef sandwiches. God knows you do not order cheese on your Italian beef at Johnnie's. And my friend is right - know what you want and keep the line moving. The guy taking the orders at the cash register can be a little brusque. I didn't find that to be the case at the Arlington Heights location, however.
I noticed a lot of people ordering the combo - Italian beef with an Italian sausage. I've tried the combo at Portillo's in the past and found the sausage really detracts from the taste of the beef. I ordered an Italian beef, both kinds of peppers, dipped; and a hot dog, everything. I got a bottle of water to go along with it. They pretty much make up the sandwiches right in front of you. And it doesn't take long. They pull the beef out of the tanks full of tender thin slices and beef gravy (au jus, for the novice Italian beef aficionados). I'm guessing those tanks have been in use since Johnnie's opened up nearly 50 years ago. And I'm sure they have something to do with the succulent taste of their sandwiches.
Johnnie's is small and there's no place to sit inside. (The Arlington Heights location has a dining area inside and out.) In the summertime, there are some metal picnic tables outside, but they're usually full of people enjoying the Lemon Ice that Johnnie's is famous for. I had to take my Italian beef back to the car. Thankfully, I had a blanket in the backseat that Cindy had pulled out of the trunk before we took off to go somewhere just so she would be warm. I draped that across my lap and used a "smeg towel" as a bib that I keep in my car for multiple uses.
(As an aside - I learned to keep a towel in the car from an old rep friend of mine from Georgia years ago. He called it a "chicken" towel. "You get yourself a hand towel from a Holiday Inn," he explained to me one time, "and you use it to clean your hands and face when you're eating Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car. Then the next time you're at a Holiday Inn, you just trade towels." While I don't eat fried chicken in the car, I've found a towel is handy to clean up any "smegma" spills in a car, hence my term "smeg towel".)
While I honestly don't remember the sandwich at Johnnie's in Arlington Heights as being outstanding, I have to say the one at the original Johnnie's was pretty damn good. I liked the bread as it was alternately crispy and chewy, and it certainly didn't fall apart from being dipped in the beef gravy. The beef was tender and had a nice garlic after-taste to it. The giardiniera was spicy, but far from overpowering. It was a very good Italian beef sandwich.
The hot dog was above average, but I don't put it on the same par as the one at Portillo's. Because most of the hot dogs in Chicago are from Vienna Beef, there's not much difference between places and their hot dogs. But it was good, too messy for a car, but good.
Is Johnnie's Beef the best place to get an Italian beef in Chicago? I'm not certain, but it is very good. I still like the consistency of Portillo's - not to mention the convenience of having tons of locations all over the Chicagoland area. But Johnnie's is better than Mr. Beef, Buona Beef or Al's (I think Mr. Beef is severely overrated). I can see why people keep coming back to Johnnie's. But make sure you know what you want before you get to the cash register.