If you think Chicagoland politics are a contentious topic, try debating which restaurant serves up the best Italian Beef Sandwich in the “City of Big Shoulders.” Opinions don’t necessarily vary that widely as there are just a handful of restaurants which have truly distinguished themselves in the preparation of this Chicago staple. It’s in the intensity of the debate with which you might be surprised. Each of the anointed restaurants has its vocal supporters and each has its detractors and some in either party won’t hesitate to explain (with fisticuffs if necessary) why their choice is the best and yours is not.
In 2009, the Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” program pitted two of Chicago’s most famous culinary rivals against one another in a showdown designed to settle the debate as to which makes the best Italian Beef sandwich in town. The two heated rivals were Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef, two inner city institutions which have been serving up some of the city’s very best Italian beef sandwiches for generations. In 2010, the Food Network’s Food Feuds, a show with a similar concept also vied to settle the score between Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef. How wholly unoriginal!
The walls at Mr. Beef are adorned prominently with photographs of the glitterati who consider their Italian beef the very best in the city. Tonight Show host Jay Leno considers Mr. Beef’s his very favorite while Roadfood.com founder Michael Stern, a Chicago native, casts his lot for Al’s Beef. Both Al’s Beef and Mr. Beef are very popular choices. They’re also very safe choices. They’re “in the city” choices with top billing on just about every travel guide you’ll find for Chicago. I’ve tried both and found them both quite good, but in my estimation they’re not the very best.
Count me among those on the camp which names Johnnie’s Beef as the restaurant which prepares the best Italian Beef Sandwich in the Chicago area and therefore, the world. I’m in good company here. In the September, 2006 edition of Details magazine, Ed Levine, a James Beard award-winning blogger whose work I greatly admire, wrote an article on “22 sandwiches that will change your life.” The beef and sausage combo from Johnnie’s was on that exclusive list of the 22 best sandwiches in America.
The original Johnnie’s is a mainstay in the Chicago suburb of Elmwood Park where patrons line up around the building to partake of this juicy, succulent masterpiece that is simplicity and complexity alike. In 2003, Johnnie’s Beef opened a second location in Arlington Heights. Since it wouldn’t be Johnnie’s without the “attitude” they brought their famous counterman who kept things running in production line fashion, meaning get your order in and get out of the way. The famous counterman is no longer at the Arlington Heights location, but efficiency still reigns.
Aside from the rapidity with which Johnnie’s lines move, the first thing you’ll notice is the fragrant bouquet of spices and beef co-mingling in a vat of gravy to form a captivating and enrapturing aroma–the perfect prelude to a near perfect sandwich. The prices are very reasonable with a combination sandwich of beef and sausage available for under $6 although it does take about one and a half sandwiches to really hit the spot. You can have your sandwich wet (dipped) or dry, hot (with spicy giardiniera) or sweet or as a combination (beef and sausage) or single meat. Any way you have it, you just may swear off ever visiting the competition. Johnnie’s is simply the best!
Chicagoans grow up worshipping at high counters on which they prop their elbows as they consume Italian beef sandwiches–sometimes because the restaurant has no tables, but more often than not, because no matter how careful they are, they’re bound to spill shards of beef, bits of giardiniera and drippings of spice-laden beef gravy onto their clothing. If it’s an outstanding Italian beef sandwich, it won’t matter. You might even wear the spillage with pride, hoping all along that the olfactory bouquet remains with you.
After perusing through Zagat’s 2003-2004 Chicago restaurant guide where all the anointed restaurants seem to be of the high-end, haute cuisine genre and the working class “people’s choice” restaurants such as Johnnie’s didn’t warrant a mention, I debated whether my lofty rating was warranted. It took one bite during a subsequent visit to remind me, it is. Johnnie’s Italian beef sandwich is one of the best sandwiches in the universe!
The marriage of hamburgers and French fries has nothing on the combination of Italian beef sandwiches and French fries, particularly when those Fries are thin-sliced, served steaming hot and with a nice amount of salt. There’s nothing better to wash down all that delicious saltiness than one of Johnnie’s banana or lemon flavored Italian Ice, which is, what else, among the very best I’ve ever had. Better still is the watermelon Italian ice which comes with a warning that watermelon seeds might be found in the frozen delicacy.
The lines outside Johnnie’s Beef are a testament to just how wonderful this Chicagoland institution is. It’s a line I’ll gladly stand in regardless of weather.
400 East Golf Road
Arlington Heights, IL
LATEST VISIT: 12 October 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Italian Beef Sandwich; Italian Beef Combo Sandwich; Banana Italian Ice; French Fries; Watermelon Italian Ice, Lemon Italian Ice