A Real Italian Beef


All sandwiches are not created equal.  One only need order an Italian Beef from a local hot dog stand or gyros restaurant to be convinced of that.  What you get is often relatively dry and bland.  A visit to Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park will, by comparison, be a religious experience.  According to Metromix people with long layovers at O’Hare Airport have been known to make the trip over to Johnnie’s.  People can also be found discussing that on Chow Hound and Trip Advisor.  Metromix says Joe Mantegna is a fan, as was the late Robin Williams.  Anthony Bourdain visited in 2012.  According to oakpark.com he tweeted a picture of himself eating an Italian Beef with the caption, “the glory that is Chicago.”

Johnnie’s is located at 7500 West North Avenue, just a few blocks west of Harlem Avenue and the Chicago border.  Keep your eyes fixed to the north side of the Street when you are getting close.  The building is not imposing and you could miss it.  According to the official Facebook page Johnnie’s opened in 1961 and it is safe to say the exterior has not changed a bit since then.  Don’t be surprised to see a line snaking out the door even in cold weather.  There is a large parking lot behind the restaurant.  Since Johnnie’s is takeout parking should not be a problem, even during rush periods.

Do not be intimidated if there is a line out the door.  Johnnie’s is an all cash operation and the staff is well-trained and efficient.  The result is that you will move into the restaurant and out with your food with little delay.  It is reminiscent of the earlier days of Starbucks back in the 1990’s.  At that time there might have only been twenty Starbucks locations across Chicagoland and they tended to be jam packed in the morning.  Everyone still got their drink delivered quickly however.  Practical Chicago is not sure if Starbucks is like that now that there are numerous locations.  But just as the Starbucks of the 90’s Johnnie’s understands the concept of setting up a good system of crowd management and sticking to it.

The menu is sparse.  It is common at neighborhood restaurants today to find a wide selection catering to diverse tastes.  But the entire selection at Johnnie’s fits onto two small plastic panels behind the crew area.  They do not even offer more than one flavor of milk shake.  To a lesser establishment this could result in lost revenue.  But it illustrates another business essential Johnnie’s puts into practice: stick to what you know and do it really well.  Do not try to be everything to everybody.

There is a language to ordering your food.  It is not posted anywhere that Practical Chicago could find.  Apparently the only way you learn is by being a frequent customer.  For instance if you order an Italian Beef “juciy” it will come nearly dripping.  This is again reminiscent of Starbucks in the 1990’s.  Back then people would come in the front door and order things like “an iced half-decaf tall Americano in a grande cup with extra ice.”  A couple minutes later, despite a large crowd, the drink would come flying off the espresso bar and onto the delivery counter.  Another solid business principle comes into play here: it’s fun to try and master a system you see others are fluent in.  Chicago Magazine ran an article recently where the author tried to get the language right and did not quite make it.  He expressed good-natured exasperation and his intention to keep trying.  Practical Chicago felt the same way.

Italian beef is not the only success story at Johnnie’s.  Our lunch order consisted of Italian Beef ordered “juicy”, an order of fries, a chocolate shake to drink and Italian Ice for desert.  Just as with the Italian Beef these things are all top notch and the portions are satisfying.

The prices are a pleasant surprise.  Restaurant bills have gotten expensive over the years.  It can be a challenge to even get out of a Panera with a hearty lunch without a bill pushing fifteen dollars.   The bill for the items mentioned above was $11.11.  That is a great value considering the quality of experience.  They have something good going and they must know it.  But they are not trying to hold people up at the cash register and that builds customer loyalty: it makes the customer want to go back.  On a trip some years ago to the Billy Goat on lower Wacker Drive the price paid for a burger, a few fries and a drink was pretty close to robbery.  It is not worth it just to hear those guys say “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” and there has not been a return visit.

The only downside is lack of seating.  There are round cement benches outside.  Those are great for summer.  But they will not do you any good in January.  There is a counter inside where you can stand and eat your order in colder weather.  But it gets so crowded in there during a rush that you might not be able to find a comfortable space.  You may end up eating in your car or driving to a nearby location to open your bags.

Johnnie’s is an all around great place.  It is a fantastic meal experience and a well run business.  The people of Elmwood Park might take exception to all the Starbucks comparisons in this article: the location in town is reported closed by Yelp and there seems to be a large gap around the city on the official Starbucks location map.  But when you are doing things like one of the most successful large American companies of the last forty years it says a lot, especially since Johnnie’s came a full ten years before the first Starbucks opened in Seattle in 1971.

Click here to view the full Practical Chicago Gallery of Johnnie’s photos.

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