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Jul 22, 2007 11:56 AM

Johnnie's Beef review -- good beef but underwhelmed

Took a first-time trip to Kiddieland in Melrose Park with our family and some others this past weekend, and was pleased to learn that the highly-touted Johnnie's beef was just down the road on North Avenue, which would mean an opportunity to experience for the first time what many bill as the best beef in Chicagoland.

The beef itself was excellent -- tender, good juice, near-perfect hot gardienera. Only criticism of the beef itself is that is could have been a warmer temperature (it was almost luke-warm). The rest of the experience, however, was sub-part. First, the fries were mediocre. I would expect good hand-cut, fresh fries from a place like this -- they were nothing of the sort. Second, the homemade lemon ice was good, but the chocolate shake (malts are one of the few other items they appear to feature) was like mediocre soft-serve from a machine poured into a cup -- granted that's not a bad thing, but I would expect a much better shake or malt from a place like this.

As an aside, my kids had the hot dogs which were nothing special. Also, they don't even have packets of ketchup (forget a plastic bottle) for the fries -- this is not part of the charm, it's absurd. We needed to use the one plastic bottle inside and dump it out on a piece of paper for consumption on the few tables outside.

To top it all off (and this did not prejudice my comments above), as we were leaving the Johnnie's "Security Guard" (yes, they have security in the parking lot), barked out to me with my toddlers in hand that we needed to watch where we park, because he had just called for our car to be towed. I thought perhaps I didn't park between the yellow lines (not that this is a towable violation either), but instead he accused me, again with my children in tow covered with chocolate shake and ketchup, of using the parking lot without eating at Johnnie's. He claimed to have checked with everyone around the restaurant as to who was driving our particular model car, but we never heard him. Probably because we relinquished our seats after eating and moved to the bench in front for our dessert so others could sit. The "security guard" (and I use that term loosely) finally relented and acknowledged his error after apparently recognizing my wife as eating at one of the tables. But, we did not get a word of apology, despite the fact that a tow-truck was apparently already on its way.

Bottom line: Great beef (if it were served warmer), but everything else left much to be desired. I would not run back. Maybe my expectations were too high in light of all the hype, but I don't think so.

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  1. Had you heard any hype about anything except the beef, sausage, and lemon ice?

    If not, why would those possibly be a disappointment? It's a beef stand, not a hot dog stand.

    3 Replies
    1. re: gleam

      Hype is all Johnnie's has going for them these days. Johnnie's may be considered a legend...unfortunately, it's a legend that's been resting on their laurels for many years, and frankly, is no better that a dozen other places in metro Chicago.

      For the record....why shouldn't a "beef stand" have great dogs, shakes and fries (Johnnie's fries are miserable and on my last visit the the portion miserly) and for that matter why couldn't a "hot dog stand" serve great Italian Beef?

      For my money, Max's on the far Northside is serving up one on the better beefs in town. Tender, garlicky and plenty of meat. I also enjoy the tubs of paprika tinged, oil based giardeniera found on every table.

      1. re: Vinny Barbaresco

        I personally dislike Max's and I'm not familiar with Johnie's.

        But I'll weigh in with this; for my money Al's Beef on Taylor reins king. They have some of the best fries, beefs and sausage around. Just be sure to go to either the Taylor street or Ontario street locations for the real thing.

      2. re: gleam

        I went for the beef. It was very good, but could have been served hotter. While I would not expect the hype to extend to the fries and condiments, I would expect any exceptional beef or hot dog joint to have better than average fries. I would also expect them to have some ketchup (for the fries, of course) in an easily portable format, even if it were plastic packets like McDonald's. And would it be too much to ask for a plastic fork (there were none of those either). I don't think these are high maintenance requests, and the lack of condiments and plastic utensils did not add to Johnnie's "charm." As for the hot dogs, I realize this is a beef stand, and was just noting as an aside that the hot dogs were nothing special (and far from it). If I lived closer to the area, I might go back for the beef; but IMHO, it's not worth a special trip from the city.

      3. Interesting takes. I haven't been there in 2 years (looking forward to going when I visit in August!), but I have never seen any "security" there. I thought the fries were pretty good, and the beef/sausage and lemon ice is simply the best I've had. I have gotten hot dogs for the kids and while they are what they are, nothing that special, they are an extremely good value considering they come with fries (I want to say it was $1.75 last time I was there).

        If you want more of a sit-down place with very good but not great beef that's not too far away (maybe 5-6 miles), Carm's in Hillside is worth a stop. With Johnnie's, you have to put up with some inconveniences but it's worth it to me. I'd make a 2nd trip to settle it in your mind.

        1. I have never eaten anything but the beef at Johnnies, and sometimes the beef is better from one visit to the next. My only complaint about Johnnies is the size of the beef sandwich, I typically need to eat two.

          The security guard is a regular fixture on the weekends.

          1. I'm very familiar with this area. I'm not really clear on why Johnnies gets all the hype either. IMHO, I know of better beef spots, but to me, the combos are the way to go at this place to make it a destination beef joint. Other than that, it's not worth a trip if you've got a decent beef joint already. There's a lot of personal pref involved with choosing a stellar beef sammich. I like a less salty beef to balance with the salt from the giardinera, and I also prefer the giardinera to BURN! Therefore, I personally prefer a Luke's/Tore's to Johnnies/Al's/Scatchells (haven't had a Chickie's yet.) If you're ever in the area again, go with a combo, and you might be happier. If you go for anything else, then you are on your own. Better yet, get the other stuff (fries/shakes/ hot dogs) from Michael's on Oak Park and North, then go get your combo at Johnnies. Eat it all outside at Johnnies. You'll be MUCH happier with Michael's fries.

            11 Replies
            1. re: gordeaux

              It's been a LONG time, but I also remember that the fries at Parky's (yikes, my memory is fading...on Harlem just N of the Ike IIRC) are outstanding. Michael's is a new one to me...have to give it a try! One of the probs, however, is that fries usually don't travel well!

              1. re: RSMBob

                Yes, Parky's fries are outstanding, but MIchael's are pretty much the same, but cut a little thicker. Skin on, crunchy outside, tender inside. Michael's is MUCH closer to Johnnies, and the fries would travel fine. Seriously, if you want fries w/ Johnnie's beef, I'd heavily consider getting them from Michael's. Maybe ask for them extra crispy, but it's just a quick jaunt down N. Avenue.

              2. re: gordeaux

                now thats chow fries-shakes at one place beef at the other
                eat in the parking lot
                i bet you bring your own giardeniera
                gord- you know how to chow

                1. re: foodbeast

                  Actually, the last time I went to Johnnies (few weeks ago) THIS was my execution:
                  1. Small italian sub at Alpine food shop (North and Lathrop - and one of my all time fav sub sammiches in Chcagoland)
                  2. Combo from Johnnies with hot guadalajara
                  3. Fries from Michael's
                  4. Home to eat it all
                  5. Back to working on the plaster walls of my house and sweating it all out.
                  Now, THAT'S chow.
                  P.S. Lol - I do make my own guadalajara at summer's end when my habaneros and serranos are ripe for plucking. I will wager anyone that it's the best they've ever had.

                    1. re: gleam

                      I see your ? and raise you another - guadalajara??

                      1. re: gleam

                        Guadalajara. Noun: A localism for giardiniera.
                        also see: Gudalcanal, or Guadalupe
                        "Gimme a combo, wet, with hot guadalajara, small fry, and a large orange."

                        1. re: gordeaux

                          wow. i've lived in chicago for over 20+ years and would have been laughed out of johnnie's for requesting guadalajara... wtf?

                          1. re: bryan

                            Wow. I've lived in Chicago for over 35 years, and would NEVER be laughed out of Johnnies or any other biff joint for asking for guadalajara.
                            It will usually bring a smile to the face of the person taking your order.

                            1. re: gordeaux

                              Who knew. Wish I liked gardinara, so I could give a shot.

                          2. re: gordeaux

                            What would be the reference tome from which this was taken? Or did you just make it up?

                  1. I made a weekend ritual of visiting Johnnie's. I never remember seeing security, though it has been a few years since I have been there. I have definitely seen a decrease in the quality of the beef over the years, as well as a gradual increase in the price, though it is still one of the best out there. Get it "juicy" with gardinera, and let the juice drip over the fries, end it with an ice with no cover, a grape pop, and viola. As already reported, a two beef minimum is almost required, and hot dogs aren't what they are known for. Hot dogs can be done right not too far away at Gene and Jude's. Stick with the beef, ice, combo, fries, and pepper and egg during lent, and you will be pleased. Lines are usually out the door, though move somewhat quickly. Not the best beef in the world, though definitely worth a visit.

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: sirball

                      Ok, your last line got me..."Not the best beef in the world...". I've had italian beefs (or better yet, combos...wet/dipped, no peppers or giadinera) from dozens of places during my at least semi-annual trips to Chicago, usually guided by recs here and from LTH...the Beef-a-thons. Johnnie's seems to be the consensus favorite for the most part, and I personally have not had a better combo anywhere. Heck, it may not be the largest sandwich out there, but if there are better ones, I want to know. Chickies is very good, Carm's in Hillside is a nice comfortable sit-down place with decent beef, Al's on Taylor is an institution with a somewhat unique beef that is way overpriced and Portillo's is consistent, one of the best restaurant chains out there IMHO. There are a number of very good beefs/combos at places in the western suburbs in and around DG where I visit, but none have touched Johnnie's, and that makes it worth the hassle of getting there!

                      1. re: RSMBob

                        Speaking of the LTH Beef-a-thons has anyone taken a trip to the south side to visit Freddys. I really believe they are one of the best. They are a Beef-a-thon favorite that I think compares favorably with Johnnies but you never have to worry about portion size. The large sandwich is huge.

                        1. re: RSMBob

                          "Al's on Taylor is an institution "
                          Without stirring up a hornet's nest... it has to be said that for every Al's fan, there is a detractor.

                          Just about every "taste-off" places it where it belongs.

                          Should you try one? Yeah...
                          Should you try others? Definitely!

                          In fact, you can walk a block south and get one at Carm's on Polk and have a taste-off of your own.

                          Al's Beef
                          1079 W Taylor St, Chicago, IL 60607

                          Carms Beef & Snack Shop
                          1057 W Polk St, Chicago, IL 60607

                          1. re: delk

                            If you are at Al's on Taylor and walk a block _south_ you definitely won't be on Polk St. If, however, walk south you must then start at Carm's and _then_ walk south to hit Al's. (for the record, I'm one of those in the "detractor" category when it comes to Al's)

                            1. re: Original Kman

                              Thanks Mr OK...

                              Late night posting, plus I'm the worse in terms of directions...
                              I did get some keys cut at the hardware store on Taylor and Laflin this morning... talk about a flashback!

                              Anyway, I still think, if you are gonna go to one, you might as well try the other, they are so close!

                              1. re: delk

                                Well, I won't disagree with your try one - try both mentality, but I'd forget about Carm's and walk a few blocks west of Al's to the Patio. The Patio's beef is the only one that comes close to my Johnnies cravings. (I am also a very vocal Al's detractor, which you can see if you visit the Beefathon threads)

                                1. re: Flip

                                  Flip, you are absolutely correct!
                                  (I actually had one at The Patio yesterday!)

                                  I said Carm's just to make it easy, but, you should hit all three if you make it to that part of town!

                                  1. re: delk

                                    Well now I'm going to just have to hit both Carm's and The Patio (been to the former but never the latter) and compare (for me, no need to compare to Al's). It's a very do-able walk from work so probably next week, weather permitting. I'll be sure to post an update on my experiences, thanks for the reco's.

                                      1. re: bryan

                                        A few blocks west of Al's:
                                        1503 W. Taylor St.
                                        Chicago, IL 60607
                                        312 829 0454