Chicago’s Most Famous Obscure Sandwich

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

Comments on “Chicago’s Most Famous Obscure Sandwich

    Billy on February 7, 2012 11:56 AM:

    2 Beefs! Dip ’em!!

    Ben Kowalski on February 7, 2012 11:58 AM:

    I can’t say that you’ve lived until you have devoured one or more Jonnie’s Beefs. I’m glad to see a post on this on a site I frequent so often. I’m not a native Chicagoan, but my father was and he taught me the ways of a good italian beef sandwich. I think this is the true staple of Chicago fast food, the hotdog has nothing on one of these. Beef juicy hot.

    Brett OBourke on February 7, 2012 12:41 PM:

    Mr. Beef is the best … though, admittedly, Al’s fries are better. Note it.

    Jason on February 7, 2012 12:56 PM:

    Now this is right in my wheel house. I am from Chicago and eat Italian Beef sandwiches about the Chicagoland area several times a week. To me Mr. Beef and Johnnie’s are neck and neck. Both are smaller (in terms of locations with Johnnie’s having just one) than the bigger chains we have like Al’s and Portillo’s. To me one of the big deciding factors is the giardiniera. I actually have to say that Portillo’s to me has the best giardiniera. Fries I agree Al’s is the best. But as far as meat and bread quality goes Mr. Beef and Johnnies is too close to call for me.

    Beth on February 7, 2012 1:23 PM:

    Oh Johnnies! How I do miss thee. Must try to get there next time I’m back in Chicago. If only they would mail well…

    Zach on February 7, 2012 1:40 PM:

    Portillos beats all.
    Who’s Kate Dulin?

    mat on February 7, 2012 2:49 PM:

    pretty sure they went their on man vs. food

    Mike V. on February 7, 2012 3:19 PM:

    ^ I think they went to Al’s on the show.
    BTW, how many more years does Adam have left on this earth?

    I’ve never been to Chicago, but if I do go there, I’m hunting down one of these sandwiches.
    It’s strange that you don’t see more places that cater to expats living in other cities. None of this stuff (Italian beef, pastrami on rye, ny pizza, etc..) is rocket science. They just have to want to do it right. We have ONE guy in San Diego that makes a great Philly Cheesesteak. And really only one place for a pastrami (or corned beef) that even comes close to Katz’s, etc..
    We do have some great pizza places now, though.

    Freddy Boy on February 7, 2012 7:34 PM:

    This is the only in thing in life I prefer “hot and dry”.
    Even if they don’t dip the bun, it is still plenty juicy, and the hot giandinera makes it.
    I will also say that pepper and egg sandwiches are the very best thing about Lent.

    Andrea on February 7, 2012 9:12 PM:

    Fortunately, here in PDX we have a Chicago expat in Michael:

    I can say from personal experience that it’s dangerous to work within walking distance!

    Clark on February 7, 2012 9:18 PM:

    + Beef. Sweet & Hot. Spoon of juice.
    + Small ice. No cover.

    I’m salivating right now.

    Zach on February 7, 2012 9:32 PM:

    Awesome. AND with a Squirt? Brilliant.

    carmen on February 7, 2012 9:33 PM:

    A thing of beauty. Going to Chicago in May, and will make it a point to stop by.

    David on February 7, 2012 9:35 PM:

    Buffalo has beef on weck … speaking of famous sandwiches. Gotta show Upstate some love.

    Michael J. Burgess Jr. on February 7, 2012 10:58 PM:

    Johnnie’s is by far the best beef in Chicagoland. How I miss it so…

    Cliff on February 8, 2012 10:49 AM:

    As a native Chicagoan now living in NY, few things (other than Chicago itself) have surprised carnivorous NYers I’ve brought home, more than a beef.

    Caleb Gardner on February 8, 2012 11:22 AM:

    Yes – Love it when Chicago gets representation here.

    DmC on February 8, 2012 11:58 AM:

    Portillos??!! No way. Maybe Mr. Beef. Johnnies is sublime. There is nothing else like a Johnnies italian beef.

    Dennis on February 8, 2012 12:38 PM:

    Well, that does it; that’s what I’m having for lunch. Next time you are in Chicago there is a place you should try in Lakeview. It’s on Fullerton across from DePaul (called Branko’s) and they do a great Italian Beef. Anyway, I love it when you remember your Chicago roots on ACL. NYC is a fine town, but it is no Chicago.

    Michael Williams on February 8, 2012 12:44 PM:

    Those are Kate Dulin’s Chicago roots.

    Israel on February 8, 2012 2:34 PM:

    has to be the best for the heart, right?

    doane on February 8, 2012 5:31 PM:

    greasy tamale goodness

    PeterV on February 9, 2012 9:17 AM:

    There is a place (Wayne and Larry’s) in Lawrence KS (of all places) that has a great beef/sausage combo… since I have spent my whole life in the Midwest, I would have thought everyone knew of Protillo’s and how wonderful the world of Chi City Beefs were…

    Bolt on February 9, 2012 9:43 AM:

    From “Chicahhgo”

    thanks Michael, brings back memories!!!!

    Shana on February 9, 2012 11:58 AM:

    Portillo’s is King. 2nd is Pop’s. 3rd is Al’s.

    Greatest gift my mother ever gave me was flying me a “beef party” from Chicago to NYC. Portillo’s does it.

    I will have to make my way up to Elmwood Park to check this place out!

    Muddy bobby on February 10, 2012 3:23 PM:

    I love portillo’s and Mr beef and Johnnies but the best is J & C on Van Buren across from the old post office

    Gussto on February 11, 2012 9:09 PM:

    Every time you called the juice “gravy”, I cringed. Even the dudes that work there give it the proper label… it’s juicy cause it’s juice. Probably a bastardized derivation from the French “au jus” meaning “with [its own] juice” but will now, and forever, be known as juice. Two rules for visiting Chicago: 1) don’t ever request ketchup on your hot dog. 2) don’t ask for “gravy” on your Italian Beef.

    Otherwise, great write-up! P.S. Portillo’s is for tourists (both price & quality).

    Bob Corrigan on February 12, 2012 12:58 PM:

    Go to Al’s off of the Eisenhower and you can have a very nice Italian ice at Mario’s across the street. It’s a 1-2 combo that is hard to duplicate.


    Thomas on February 13, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Awesome! I lived in Oak Park about 20 years ago and Johnies ruled. There used to be this heavy set guy with coal black hair and tinted glasses who ruled the register. He used different terms back then. Beef! Wet! Travel!, a wet beef to go. And don’t forget the Combo, sausage and beef. He used to yell out to the kid working the french fries… Hey, Be Busy! Don’t forget the Italian Ice, we would get several large and take them home in the summer and mix with vodka. I miss that place. Who remembers Irvings For Red Hot Lovers? They made a great dog.

    C Murder on February 13, 2012 6:56 PM:

    Bravo, Katie. Bravo. Chicago rules.

    Tad on February 13, 2012 11:06 PM:

    I’m hungry at 11p after eating a large dinner.

    That said, if you dig the italian beef, try the ingredients in a deep dish pizza. Giardiniera and sliced beef at Mangia Roma on Halsted are about as good as it gets.

    Junk and Howe on February 14, 2012 4:03 AM:

    On their own, most beefs are ok and do the job – even Portillo’s, Mr. Beef, and Al’s. Johnnie’s is a step up from those, but all three are far from the best, when you taste them side by side with other beefs. Jay’s Beef on North Ave. or Boston’s on Chicago and Grand are tops in my book. Chickie’s and Tore’s are somewhere in the middle.

    Bob Corrigan mentioned Mario’s for Italian ice. Indeed, sir. Indeed.

    Nick on February 14, 2012 6:18 PM:

    Yes – Johnnie’s is what up for Italian Beef here in Chicago! Thanks for this post. Made my frozen Chicago blood feel all warm again.

    Michael Lashmett on February 14, 2012 9:13 PM:

    WOW I long for da beef! The best sandwich on the planet for my money…I now live in Los Angeles but am from Springfield, Illinois where a guy by the name of Huntley had a little joint downtown in the same block as Abe Lincoln’s law office with a great authentic Itallian Beef sandwich made with all the good stuff from Chicagoland……..damn good eatin and could stand proudly with Al’s on Taylor St. in the windy city.

    Barnyard on February 15, 2012 4:14 PM:

    Gonna stop by Johnnies next trip back to the homeland.
    Whats with the tamales?
    My dad is from Chicago too but never mentioned anything about tamales.
    Dammit Pops!

    Annabelle on February 16, 2012 9:23 AM:

    I’m a midwesterner (Michigan) but I’m sorry to say I’ve never heard of the Italian beef before in any of my trips to the city! I’ll have to check it out next time.

    Katherine Cartwright on February 17, 2012 3:47 PM:

    Wow, this is so charming. I was born downtown, but spent 1st -3rd grade in Elmwood Park, living at 7410 North Ave just down the street. It was an Italian neighborhood (although everyone in Chicago is actually 1/2 Polish), and all the little boys in first grade had rattails and little gold Italian horn necklaces.

    In the summer, my Dad and I would walk to Johnnie’s where there would be a line on Friday or Saturday nights for the Italian ice. Watermelon was my favorite. Italian Beef with homemade gardinera (pronoun. “gardinare”) is a delicacy. If you go through this neighborhood, also go to Claudio’s bakery which has old fussy Italian pasteries and petit fours and canolli.

    Joe on February 29, 2012 5:20 PM:

    Tony Gemignani in SF has a slice place next to his sit-down place in North Beach that offers this sandwich and it is good.

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