A lot of American cities have an iconic sandwich. In Philadelphia, it’s the cheesesteak. New York’s got pastrami on rye, New Orleans: the muffuletta. In most cases, these sandwiches are well known enough outside their respective cities that tourists hunt them down and imitators attempt to introduce them in new cities with limited success. But there are also sandwiches that manage to escape national recognition and remain untainted by Subway (unlike The Big Philly Cheesesteak).
Often eclipsed by the Vienna hot dog in the national sandwich dialogue, the Italian beef is the most famous Chicago sandwich that no one outside the Midwest has ever heard of. After moving to New York, I was shocked to find out that none of my East Coast friends had ever tried a beef. The only way I can explain it to outsiders is by comparing it to a French Dip, although the ingredients in these two sandwiches are similar, the end results are entirely different. The Italian beef at its most basic level uses thinly shaved roast beef that is allowed to soak in its own garlicky, seasoned juices for hours until it has fully absorbed the flavor of the gravy. The beef is then piled inside chewy Italian bread and topped with sweet or hot peppers. Of course, this foundation allows for a number of different sandwich combinations, and every beef stand in the city offers its own flavors and variation on the classic style.
By some lucky twist of fate, I grew up a few blocks from the greatest Italian beef place in the Chicagoland area (and, therefore, the world). Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park offers an ethereal sandwich that must be tasted in order to be fully understood, because in this case, looks can be deceiving.
Johnnie’s beef is not attractive. When made properly, and by that I mean soaked in gravy after assembly, it barely even resembles a sandwich. It is a beige, green, and brown mess that falls apart after your first bite and leaves your hands and arms covered in meat juice. But its salty, greasy siren song beckons to me from across the country and it’s one of my first stops when I go home.
In the summer, the line outside the tiny stand snakes around the corner and down the block. The guys behind the counter work hard to keep everything moving, and call out orders with a few code words. For instance, “beef juicy hot” means dipped in gravy and served with hot giardiniera, a mix of pickled hot peppers and vegetables. “Beef juicy sweet” is the same, but with sweet peppers. There are a few other things on Johnnie’s menu, besides the beef. There’s the obligatory hot dog, as well as a fantastic, charred Italian sausage that can be ordered as a sandwich on its own or added to a beef to form a “combo”. Sides include greasy fries and tamales, another hot dog stand staple that can’t really be found outside Chicago. On Fridays, Johnnie’s serves a pepper and egg for Catholics and anybody else who wants it, and they are nearly as famous for their lemony Italian ice as they are for the beef sandwich.
Chicagoans sometimes complain that Johnnie’s beef is too small, but that’s only in comparison to other gut-busting beefs around the city, from places like Al’s, Portillo’s, and Mr. Beef. Over the holidays, my Johnnie’s lunch of a juicy beef sweet, tamale, and fries was enough to put me out of commission for the rest of the day, but not so large as to stop the cravings from New York City. —KATE DULIN