Food critic Peter Meehan goes on a food pilgrimage in Chicago and chows down on the city’s best Italian beef sandwich.
The line at Johnnie’s Beef moves with relentless purpose. When you arrive at the register, you want to sound like you know what you’re doing. Say: “May I have a combo: juicy, sweet, and hot, please.”
With that, you have made both an order and an incantation that will summon the finest meat sandwich in the entirety of the Middle West.
Located in Chicago’s suburbs, the original Johnnie’s is housed in a low-slung building erected during one of those postatomic pre-ironic decades of American greatness. Outdoor picnic benches are fine for part of the year; the rest of the time, you eat standing at the narrow counter or in your car. This is an entirely agreeable arrangement.
Johnnie’s serves beef sandwiches and sausage sandwiches, but you are there for the combo. The building blocks of its excellence are simple: fennel-spiked sweet Italian sausage that has been charred to the eboniest of mahoganies over an open pit of searing briquettes, and gossamer slices of tender Italian beef. The beef luxuriates in a bath of its own braising liquid—“juice” is what I’ve called it since I was a kid, but maybe it’s really jus when you put it down on paper. It is redolent of herbs that McCormick would bottle as “Italian Seasoning.”
Stuffed into sturdy French bread, the meat is topped with both hot and sweet Chicago-style giardiniera—a mix of pickled vegetables in oil, an astronomical improvement over giardiniera in brine.
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The sandwich itself is, of course, more than the sum of these parts, a precision-calibrated cudgel of flavor, a full-spectrum assault on hunger, a sandwich that, despite its meat-on-meat composition, disappears all too quickly.
Peter Meehan is a former New York Times restaurant critic and co-founder of Lucky Peach magazine. He now works as a contributing editor at L.A. Times Food.
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