On any night of the week, local comics can be found in the back of dingy bars in neighborhoods all over the city, telling jokes to crowds largely comprised of other comics. By the time the shows let out—usually sometime between midnight and 2 AM—a comedian has one (or both) of two things in mind: food or booze. As such, they’re experts on where to eat late at night, particularly the kind of places that aren’t so suitable for the daytime. Whether you’re looking for a hole-in-the wall taco joint in Humboldt Park, a greasy spoon in North Center, or a hot dog stand in Bucktown, your average Chicago comedian is a connoisseur of ill-advised late-night grazing.
If you happen to have a car (and are sober enough to drive it), the possibilities are endless, which is exactly how I wound up at Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park with Michael Sanchez and Monte LeMonte. Sanchez and LeMonte coproduce and cohost I Shit You Not, a storytelling series in Logan Square dedicated to, well, shit. Accidentally shitting your pants in public, to be specific. In the show, comedians and monologuists share stories most people would rather forget.
But for those ballsy enough to talk (and laugh) about defecation, I Shit You Not is the perfect place to let it all loose, so to speak. After enjoying story after story of inadvertent bowel movements, it seemed all too fitting that I stuff my face with gut-busting junk food.
LeMonte mentions Diner Grill in Lakeview as a particularly popular place among comics. “After a good set, you’ll go there and probably just order a cheeseburger,” he explains. “But after a bad set, you might get a heavy meal, something that fills you up so bad it hurts your lungs.”
If such dietary decisions seem like self-punishment, that’s precisely the point. “There’s comfort in punishment,” Sanchez says. “Your whole life, you’re being punished. Then you get punished on stage, and you get punished by the audience; you punish yourself.”
On a recent Thursday, however, a responsive crowd appeared to enjoy an hour and half of shit stories, and the mood was celebratory. We dined on combos, Johnnie’s hearty if debilitating mash-up of an Italian sausage and an Italian beef sandwich, topped with peppers and dipped in jus. “Most combos you get, the sausage is cooked on a char grill,” explains LeMonte, whose blog, Monteism: Off the Eatin’ Path, details his perusal of the city’s finest fast-food spots. “This is cooked on metal skewers, over a flame. The beef has a nice spice. The flavor is different—I mean, all places are different, but this place is unique.”
The food is greasy, messy, and delicious, exactly the stuff you eat late at night. Despite the unseemly hour, the place is busy: second-shifters grab an after-work bite, stoner kids stumble in to take care of those pesky munchies, and the hushed but efficient crew churns out order after order of Italian beef, Polish sausages, hot dogs, even the occasional Italian ice, which LeMonte considers an essential component of a late-night diet.
“The consistency can vary,” he explains. “In some places it’s slushier, and sometimes the ice is a little thicker. But this is just right. You got the texture of the ice, and it’s smooth; you’ve got the rinds from the lemon peels in there so you can chew on them.” He then wondered aloud: “What would happen if you got a brain freeze, but you just kept eating cold food. Would you die?”
Before the idea of a stage show occurred to him, Sanchez envisioned a blog where fellow comics would recount their most disastrous moments on stage. “The show’s kind of the same thing,” Sanchez says. “It’s all about public failure. And then I met Monte, who had more stories than anybody that I know.”
As we devoured our combos, LeMonte recalled a time when he and fellow comic and Chicago expat Prescott Tolk stopped by Johnnie’s after a stint on the road. “He was like, ‘I want something hot.’ And I go, ‘Okay, this place Johnnie’s has a really spicy giardiniera they put on the beef.’ So we roll up and he tells the cashier, ‘I want it extra spicy.’ And the guy goes ‘Extra spicy?’ And Tolk goes, ‘Yeah, extra spicy.’ And the guy goes, ‘How about the oil [from the peppers], you want a lot of the oil?’ And Tolk goes, ‘Yeah, give me everything,’ all cocky. So they put a ton of the oil on, and the oil itself is just super, super hot. Tolk took a bite, and he just all of a sudden got real red. He got real sweaty, and he can barely talk. He didn’t finish his sandwich.”
That kind of eating—even without extra pepper oil—can take its toll, and LeMonte and Sanchez admit to scaling back in recent years. “As I get older, I eat a lot better,” Sanchez says. “I’m thinking, ‘That looks good, but it’s going to mess my stomach up.”
Still, as we slowly sauntered out of Johnnie’s, our stomachs forebodingly full, he couldn’t help but ask: “Is there a place we can get a milk shake?