May 22nd, 2018 2:00 PM
Michael's beef sandwich, photo: David Hammond
Oak Park's Michael's Beef House is just east of Elmwood Park's Johnnie's Beef. Anthony Bourdain has visited Johnnie's, as have Steve "The Hungry Hound" Dolinsky, Chicago's Best, me and Cat De Orio from "Check, Please," and many others. Michael's gets less love, though it serves a pretty good Italian beef, which it advertises as "home-made."
Italian beef places season their meat differently, but many Italian beef places source their beef from just a few distributors. In Chicago, a lot of Italian beef comes from Scala Packing Company. Scala, in fact, claims their founder "invented" Italian beef; the people at Al's #1 Italian Beef claim the same. Just as the Cuban Sandwich is claimed to have been invented in several U.S. cities, the Italian Beef, a Chicago creation, is also of disputed origin.
Michael's beef sandwich is a little bigger than Johnnie's, and it costs about a buck more. The cashier asked if I wanted it dipped (in beef juice), and I did, but the sandwich was still a little dry inside. The flavor was fine, and I could detect garlic and oregano, but without more moisture on the meat, it was challenging to pick up flavors.
Johnnie's beef is smaller, costs less, and the meat is very juicy, perhaps from just a few seconds more at the bottom of the dip; this wetness made the whole sandwich taste better, but oh man, what a handful of grease! I loved it, and I ate the Johnnie's beef in one continuous gobble. If tasty fat is not your thing, however, Michael's might be the better choice. And if you're in a group where not everyone wants Italian beef, Michael's has a much, much larger menu than Johnnie's.
Another advantage of Michael's is that it has a large dining room and outdoor seating. It's a comfortable space, though it gives you no excuse to enjoy your beef while assuming the "Italian stance" – a standing position, elbows on the counter, waist maybe a foot from the counter, back bent, legs spread about 1.5 feet apart, both hands on the soon-to-be-savaged sandwich. At Johnnie's, there's usually seating at the outdoor tables, but last Friday around lunchtime, a couple of guys preferred to eat their beeves inside, at the window counters, in perfectly coordinated Italian stances. It was a beautiful thing.
The interior bun at both Michael's and Johnnie's had the texture of shaving cream: soft and giving, but with body, just what we want.
So which beef is better, Michael's or Johnnie's? On any given day, one could be better than the other, though Johnnie's has a solid track record…or at least more publicity. I would recommend that when you go to Michael's, and they ask if you want it dipped, say "Yes, dripping wet."
With Italian beef, as they say about sex and pizza, even when it's not great, it's still pretty good.
National Italian Beef Day is May 27th.