Just as the crystalline Fortress of Solitude was where Clark Kent discovered his true nature, purpose, and self in 1978’s Superman, there exists for me a similar place of transformation, illumination, and restoration: Johnnie’s Beef on West North Avenue in Elmwood Park, Illinois.
Granted, Superman leaves his temple as a full-fledged superhero, and I leave Johnnie’s capeless and lumpier than when I went in, but still: as a place of pilgrimage and a source of power, the two are neck and neck. Plus, you don’t have to be an asteroid baby to go to Johnnie’s—you just need, like, $8.
Johnnie’s serves Italian beef. If you are from the Chicagoland area you know what that is, much in the way you know what leaves on trees are. You also already know that Johnnie’s is the best, unless your dad lied to you just like he did when he said the Cubs were finally looking like contenders this year.
For those not from Chicago, an Italian beef is a sandwich. The origin of the sandwich is unknown; it’s not a direct lineal descendant of any known Italian sandwich. The experience in Italy that for me comes closest is eating a lampredotto sandwich on the streets of Florence right outside Cibrèo, but that sandwich is filled with tripe and is challenging, and the Chicagoan sandwich is tender and welcoming. It is served in a sturdy roll that we call Italian bread, except when we call it French bread. The best rolls come from a bakery called Gonnella. They are not what we now call “artisanal” but instead are chewy-tender semi-factory-made loaves, and they are the proper throne on which this king of meat sandwiches must sit.
The titular beef is roasted, sliced as thin as a whisper, and then plunged into a bath of jus scented with oregano and garlic and other things that I have never attempted to divine, because by the time I am in its aromatic vicinity I am all id, consumed by wolf-like hunger.
Which brings us to the functional information you will need to best experience a Johnnie’s Beef. First there is its location: Johnnie’s is not in Chicago proper, but rather a neighboring suburb, and you’ll need a car, not public transportation, to get there. There will likely be a line snaking out the door when you arrive, but do not fret: this is the most efficient, fastest-moving line in the known universe. It is a pleasure to join.
The line moves quickly because ordering at Johnnie’s is systematized. The proper way to order is to ask for your sandwiches first, then your drink items, using an absolute minimum of time and words. Let us review the options and the nomenclature:
You order an Italian Beef with one word: Beef. There are two modifiers you can specify for your beef, one dealing with its condimentization and the other with its moisturization, which I will subcategorize here. There is also an important variation involving sausage, detailed as well.
SWEET: Green bell peppers, cooked until soft and sweet—I can’t imagine eating a beef without them. To add them, say, “Sweet.”
HOT: Giardiniera is a catchall Italianate term for a mix of pickles. In Chicago, giardiniera is an oil pickle, which flips the script entirely and makes it unequivocally one of the world’s greatest condiments. At Johnnie’s, the giardiniera is a spicy, crunchy, umami-rich mix of celery, peppers, cauliflower, crinkle-cut carrots, and more. You get it on a sandwich when you say, “Hot.”
It is possible to get peppers on the side, though I think that’s a development of the last decade or so, so I look on it with disdain.
You can specify a range of “juiciness” to your beef. Know that by default your beef will come as a deliciously damp mess. If you’re incredibly anal and tidy, you may want to ask for your beef “dry,” which will signal to the beef boy that he should drain the beef for a few seconds before filling your sandwich. The next tier of moistness is “juicy,” wherein your sandwich will be quickly dunked, fully constructed, into the beef juice. I can only recommend this anointment if you’re going to eat the sandwich right away, as it starts the clock on a process of complete bread dissolution from which there is no return.
Using the knowledge set forth so far, let us review some sample beef ordering scripts: “Let me get two beefs, hot and sweet” will get you two sandwiches of standard moistness, each topped with both sweet peppers and giardiniera. “One beef, hot and juicy” summons a beef that’s been given a quick plunge in the jus tank before it is anointed with giardiniera.
Just past the beef station is a pit filled with a bed of ashed-over Kingsford briquettes billowing smoke. Propped over this inferno are wide, flat skewers (akin to Turkish kebabs) upon which are impaled a half-dozen or so Italian sausages. They are cooked to an ebony brownness by a teenager in a thin blue work shirt and white pants—the uniform of Johnnie’s employees since time immemorial. He or she may flick a little water on the coals, either to tame them or make the fire give off more smoke; I do not pretend to know the craft. The Italian sausage at Johnnie’s—a perfect triangulation of fennel seed and seasoned pork and backyard-barbecue charcoal-smoke flavor—is the apotheosis of Italian sausage, the one true sausage.
You may order it on its own in a bun, sweet and/or hot. (The beef parlance applies: “One sausage, sweet and hot” and they will fork it over.)
My friends and countrymen, the real truth and the way is the combo. When ordered, a sausage will go down in the bun first, then get capped with beef. When you say “combo, sweet and hot” you will have all of the treasures of Johnnie’s in one sandwich experience. I want to be with you when you eat your first one. Actually, I will want to take it from you and eat it myself.
TO WASH IT DOWN
The noblest and best accompaniment to a sandwich at Johnnie’s is an ice. Other operations around town pander to the lowest common denominator with a wide range of flavors, but lemon is all anybody actually needs. Order it small or large, like this: “Gimme a small ice, no cap,” which means they will not put a flat lid on, but instead artfully shape the shaved yellow-white ice into a steep peak studded with chunks of chopped-up lemon.
Fresh from the freezer truck of a food-service company. Crisp, thin, McDonald’s-y. Perfectly serviceable fries. A reasonable companion to a beef, though my feeling is that if you’re going to eat more than just a sandwich, why not eat two sandwiches? At least that way you’ll die a hero.
Standard make and model Vienna beef dogs, as served at all your finer hot doggeries around town. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but I think they’re mainly on the menu for children and those who can’t handle the meaty truth of a beef. Remember when you’re ordering to ask for a “hot dog with fries” or “a hot dog, no fries.” Then specify what you want on your dog. “Everything” is a good option; “mustard, onion, sport peppers, and a pickle” is the old-line Chicago way. Note that one does not order hot giardiniera on a hot dog; one gets sport peppers, which are pickled stubby little whole green chili peppers.
Avoid. Especially the tamales. Don’t ask.
Now you are prepared, friend, for your trip to Johnnie’s. “A combo, sweet and hot, and a small ice, no lid” is the way I do it. Oh, and to add color and closure, let me share one last tip, drawn from a parable passed among my childhood friends about an experience one of them had at Johnnie’s:
One time a Person From Elsewhere ordered a juicy beef and went to eat it on the narrow few feet of counter that is Johnnie’s’ only indoor eating space. (There are picnic tables in the parking lot outside, otherwise you’re eating in, or on the hood of, your car.) When my friend arrived at the register to make his order, he was interrupted by this person, who was holding his already-bitten-into sandwich. This person protested to the counterman that he had ordered his beef juicy and the beef was not juicy.
The man at the counter was named Nick—Fat Nick is actually the closest thing to a full name I ever heard for him; he had a terrorizing monobrow and looked like a live-action Wario from Super Mario Bros. Fat Nick stopped the line. He stopped all the guys working the beef and the sausages and the dogs. In a place of constant commotion, there was silence. He wrapped the sandwich back up in the paper it was served in, then reached over to the warming station where the beef lives and grabbed the meat fork. He then stabbed the sandwich there on the counter and dipped it, paper bag and all, into the jus, and plopped it back down where the novice had dared to challenge its juiciness. Then Nick said this: “That was a juicy beef. You want it juicier than that, you say, ‘DIP IT WITH A FORK.’” This was both an unholy reproach visited on someone who dared question or fuck with the system and the reveal of a new level of juiciness that neither my friends nor I then knew was possible. The line started again, and everything was as it should be.
Go forth now and get thyself to Johnnie’s. You are ready.