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Since 1961, Johnnie's Beef on North Avenue in west suburban Elmwood Park has been operating as one of the most storied family-owned and -operated Italian beef stands in the Chicago area. The least expensive item on the menu is a tamale—$1.70—and the most expensive is a “combo” sandwich with their famed Italian beef and sausage, at $6.80. All sandwiches are 6 inches long.
Current owner Frank Stompanato is the son-in-law of the restaurant’s founder and namesake, Johnnie Aretos. He says the place is "proof of hard work," and credits the customers as well as the reliability of the food for keeping business alive. "The people is what keeps you coming back everyday. We have a product that’s consistent every day—same product, day in and day out."
Photos and text by Kathleen Hinkel.
The staff arrives at 9:00 am to begin prepping for a busy Saturday at Johnnie's. One of the first activities is pre-cutting the French bread into 6-inch slices for the sandwiches.
Sides of giardiniera, which make a beef “hot” in the parlance of the countermen, are also prepped during the 9:00 am hour.
Around 9:19 am, 55-year-old cook Felix warms the roaster while 21-year-old Marco Antonio prepares to trim the fat off the beef before they toss it in the roaster to cook.
"That's the meat of the operation," jokes owner Frank Stompanato while looking at the sizable amount of meat being prepared to be cooked in the morning.
Hundreds of lemon peels are prepped for Italian ice before opening.
Just before opening, Italian sausages are charred over charcoal.
The beef roasts for just over four hours. There are only a few people in the world that know the seasoning for the beef at Johnnie's, says Stompanato.
Once the beef is cold, it can be sliced. A slicer is running in the back throughout the day.
Italian beef sandwiches can be served “juicy,” or dipped in gravy, and topped with sweet peppers and giardiniera.
When Johnnie’s opens at 11:00 am, a line of about ten customers has already formed. The swiftly moving line tails out the door through most of the day. Steve and Pamela Moody are among those waiting later in the day. They ventured from another area of Chicago for a sandwich. Why? Steve says, "Love the beef. She wants it and it's our anniversary."
29-year-old George Ascencio works the hot dog station as Jesus Escobedo serves up an Italian ice behind him.
Anne Morley and Matt Harms traveled to Elmwood Park from Chicago specifically for Johnnie's. "She grew up in the suburbs and had never had Italian beef—so we're going for the defining one," says Harms before digging in.
"Isn't that a beautiful thing?" says longtime customer David Catalano as he unwraps his dipped Italian beef sandwich with both sweet and hot peppers. "My father used to say, ‘Why would you eat anywhere else?’" says his friend Carlos Munoz. Both have been coming to Johnnie's for as long as they can remember.
"It has not changed. It's like we're going back in time," Catalano says.
"I lived here for 50 years and moved away two years ago, and still come back for Johnnie's," says Elsie Sutter, who spent over two decades as the Elmwood Park Village Clerk. Through the day, out-of-town visitors also make their way to Johnnie's as part of their Chicago tour. Paul McGee says, "It was everything I thought it would be. I'm from Louisville, Kentucky, and this was a big part of our itinerary to come here."
Johnnie’s is only halfway done with its business day when the sun sets during the 6:00 pm hour. It’s open until midnight, seven days a week.
Customers leave Johnnie's in the evening. Everything will start over again the next morning.