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One day in Chicago - Mr. Beef or Johnnie's?

I'm going to be in Chicago (well, actually Deerfield, but am renting a car) for business and will have some time the day before my meeting to get a beef. I can't even tell you how happy I am. I used to live in the Tampa area, which has some decent (I think) beef thanks to transplants moving down I-75. I've had Al's shipped, so I want to try something new.

If I can only go to one, which is a must-try - Mr. Beef, or Johnnie's? It's like Sophie's Choice. Thanks!

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  1. I'm a bigger fan of Mr. Beef than I am Johnnies, but Johnnies will be more of an "experience" due to the long lines out the door, the anticipation a sometimes long wait can bring and in the end, though it's not my No. 1 choice anymore ... the beef at Johnnies is a good sandwich. You might even get to eat the sandwich from the hood of your car!

    Mr. Beef will be easier for you to get to, though - maybe in 1/2 the time ... and it's an excellent sandwich as well.

    Johnnies is open daily, Mr. Beef is closed on Sunday ... best I can recollect of the hours of the two businesses.

    For a chowhound - both are considered "must-try's" when you want to understand the Chicago genre of it's version of this "street food."

    Both serve sandwiches which exceed in taste and quality those which you may have had from Al's on Taylor St., IMO.

    Have a great meal!

    1. You should be aware that, since you're all the way up north in Deerfield, you can be at Portillo's (either in Vernon Hills to the north, or Skokie to the south) in 15 minutes, whereas it will take you a minimum 45 minutes to get downtown to Mr. Beef and 65 minutes to get to Johnnie's in Elmwood Park, and even more than that during commuting hours. (Johnnie's isn't all that much further, but it's not as convenient to the expressways, and the local streets can be slow, particularly that stretch of North Avenue with all those traffic lights.) And Portillo's makes a very good representation of our Italian beef sandwiches. So you're driving a whole lot longer for something that's not all *that* different.

      It's your choice, but you should be aware that there are places close by that don't require the long trip.

      1. Although I am a lifelong Johnnie's fan, given that you are coming from Deerfield, I would go with Mr. Beef, but only because of proximity. Johnnie's will be a bit of a schlep for you.

        Portillos is a darn decent sandwich, but if you've already had Al's and want to try the ne plus ultra, Portillos is not going to do it for you.

        4 Replies
        1. re: chicgail

          My understanding of the OP's post is that he/she has only had Al's shipped (presumably frozen), not in person at Al's. Which is not the same thing at all.

          Even Mr. Beef is quite the schlep from Deerfield. If you want to go there (or Johnnie's) anyway, by all means do so. But the distances and travel times are what they are, and it's worthwhile pointing them out.

          And if it IS worth it to travel several hours to experience what might be the ultimate Italian beef sandwich, then I gotta ask - why wouldn't you want to go to BOTH Mr. Beef AND Johnnie's, and decide for yourself?

          1. re: nsxtasy

            I'm not a fan of Portillo's beef [or Al's #1 on Taylor for that matter (which is opening up a franchise near my office on Jackson & Wabash)] but, if the OP does go to Mr. Beef, he can try the Portillo's across the street quite easily.

            1. re: delk

              >> if the OP does go to Mr. Beef, he can try the Portillo's across the street quite easily.

              I believe you are thinking of Al's Beef, which is across the street (and a block west) from the Portillo's on Ontario downtown. Mr. Beef is on Orleans, three blocks west and one block north from Al's.

              1. re: delk

                I've found what the Al's franchised location - not owned nor operated by the company - to be substandard and not worthy of mention, other than to warn people not to expect the same product(s) or or quality they'd probably receive at the principal localtion of Al's on Taylor St. Portillo's in River North pumps-out, surprisingly for the volume of business, excellent beef sandwiches and hot dogs ... but I consider them in a class just below Mr. Beef and Johnnies (but far above Al's River North).

          2. As somebody who hails from the Twin Cities and has had both, I'd go to Mr. Beef. I personally think it's the best of the Chicago Italian Beef Sandwiches. I know some will disagree with me, but that's my opinion.

            1. Hi Barbara - I'm pretty much a Chicago lifer, and a fan of both places, although I prefer J's COMBO, but Mr B's beef. (A johnnies combo is a thing of beauty, but just a beef from there is not so magical, IMO)
              That being said, you won't go wrong either way, BUT, if you are strapped for time, and things don't work out, tell ya what - on Saunders Rd, just south of Dundee Rd, there is a newish Wolfy's. Surprisingly, VERY GOOD Italian beef. If you don't get to the other places, if you go to Wolfy's, you will not miss Johnnies or Mr Beef. Just an alternative if you can't get to the other places. Good Luck!

              Mr. Beef
              666 N Orleans St, Chicago, IL 60654

              1. Johnnies is head and shoulders over Mr. Beef. No question. As a lifelong Chicagoan and dedicated IB fan, I found Johnnies about ten years ago and it consistently is better than any IB in town (i.e. the world). But from Deerfield, both might be a hassle. I second the Portillos suggestion (I think its better than Mr. Beef, myself) since a fresh Portillos is gonna be better than a frozen/shipped Als. But another option would be to go to the Johnnie's in Arlington Heights - its about as solid of a beef as the Elmwood Park location, with less ambiance.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Springer

                  Good call! The Johnnie's in Arlington Heights (on Arlington Heights Road at Golf Road) is only about half an hour from Deerfield, so it's significantly closer than either Mr. Beef or the Elmwood Park location of Johnnie's.

                  1. re: Springer

                    What do you mean "No question?" Not in my house. We love both Portillo's and Mr. Beef, but I (excitedly) brought home a bag full of Johnnies beef sandwiches from the Arlington Heights location a few weeks ago to try out and was very disappointed. Really bad. Dry and tough. Did I catch them on a bad day? Perhaps, but I'd stick with Portillo's and Mr. Beef.

                  2. Always loved Jay's. they used to be in Mt. Prospect but i think that one closed. There is one in Shiller park and one in Chicago on North Avenue. Forget the great Al's or Mr. Beef debate. This guy does it right.

                    1. This is such great info - thanks so much! I might go for Johnnie's in Arlington Heights, because I want to drive to Arlington Heights anyway - we lived there when I was in kindergarten and I haven't been back since :) I wish I had more time there, I'd actually try them ALL.

                      1. Oh wait, just saw post about dry beef at the Arlington Heights. I may need to change my flight.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Barbara

                          Don't panic. There's a Portillo's on Golf Rd. at Wilke, no more than 5 mins.west of Johnnies. Or maybe you'll like Johnnies altogether- what do I know?

                        2. Personally I don't think it's much of a contest. Johnnie's wins hands down. A combo dipped (no peppers for me), fries, and a lemon ice is about as good a lunch as I can imagine. I have not been to the AH location, but I hear it holds up well to the original, even without the same atmosphere. I've probably had Italian Beef or combo's from 30-50 places in the Chicago area over the years (counting multiple Portillo's locations as one), and Johnnie's is special...the sandwich is great, and the atmosphere of the Elmwood Park location is interesting for sure.

                          Mr. Beef is good, and when I am downtown, I will make the trek there, but I've never been wow'd by it.

                          1. Having Al's shipped is always a good idea for ex-pat's, but you can't ship the atmosphere, the great, grungy fries, or the Italian lemonade from Mario's across the street (at the original location). And, of course, the beef, though very good, and the day-or-two-old bread can't match the in-store versions. So I strongly recommend the long trip down to Taylor St. to inhale a beef, gravy, and hot giardiniera. Once the deed is done, you'll find that it's just not that far to Elmwood Park for another sandwich at Johnnie's. Not that far if you're an IB fanatic, I mean! I've been going to Johnnie's since 1983 and still tremble with anticipation as I pull into the parking lot. I just wish Mario's would open a branch of the Taylor St. lemonade stand in Elmwood Park. By comparison, Johnnie's own lemonade is minor league, but that's the only flaw I've ever spotted at this Chicago treasure.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: Harry Niletti

                              In the end I went to Johnnie's in Arlington Heights (I was only able to get downtown for a few hours and met someone at Giordano's - beef stunk there).

                              I was in absolute food heaven at Johnnie's. I only wish I'd brought some home. Also wish I'd gotten the Italian ice as well!

                              That was absolutely incredible.