An Italian beef sandwich should be eaten where it’s made. If you take it away to eat, it loses a lot, and if you order it wet, as I do, it falls apart on the way back to the house and ceases to be a sandwich. We’ve tried that, getting our sandwiches dipped in the juice and then bringing them home, and then you have to eat your “sandwich” with a knife and fork, because you can’t pick it up. That’s no way to eat a sandwich.
Johnnie’s (7500 North Avenue) considered by many to be the best Italian beef anywhere, has only outdoor seating, which can be used (comfortably) only in warm weather. There’s a stand-up counter, running the length of the windows on the North Avenue side. You can eat standing up at that counter, but the space is so tight, with so many guys putting in and picking up their orders, that there’s not nearly enough room to assume the time-honored Italian stance. You know what I’m talking about: elbows on the counter, leaning over at a forty-five degree angle, legs apart, so as to minimize drippage on your shirt and pants or jogging suit.
To appreciate your beef, or any food, it’s best to be seated, and you can’t do that when it’s so cold outside that your ass freezes in place. At Johnnie’s, you also usually have to stand in line outside. When you’re waiting for your beef, especially in winter, with the savory-smelling smoke pouring out the metal chimney on the roof, time spent in line can seem interminable.
The perfect pairing with the beef is the icy Italian lemonade, and god knows you don’t want to eat that when it’s cold outside.
A big part of summer, for me, is having a Johnnie’s beef and an ice in the warm evening air under the yellow glow of what I think are anti-mosquito lights, listening to cars whooshing by on North Avenue and the neighborhood buzz at nearby tables (“She’s not married yet? Marron’,” “Mom, he’s taking my fries,” and so on). More than the hot dog, more than deep-dish pizza, more even than a Rainbow Cone or Mr. Frosty, the Italian beef—dripping, sloppy and delicious—feels like summer in Chicago. Even when you’re in Elmwood Park. (David Hammond)
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org