The smoky aroma of charred, griddled meat is the only thing separating my agnosticism from full-blown atheism. Even the slightest scent of carne asada or a Double Whopper sends me into an euphoria-induced fervor that somewhat resembles a mild panic attack. In fact, the only thing better than grilled meat is grilled meat enshrined between two pieces of bread.
Like great women, meat sandwiches come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do they disappoint. Last week, I was feeling hard-core rebellious and decided to try out a Philly cheesesteak at Monti’s, an off-the-beaten-path neighborhood bar near Lincoln Square. With neon window lights and red curtain drapes, Monti’s exudes a true neighborhood kind of vibe. In fact, it’s just me, the musician bartender, two old ladies sipping straight vodka, and a single sport fan watching football from the bar.
In addition to their cheesesteak specialties, Monti’s also offers standard bar food options, including great wings and pizza. They import chewy, pliable rolls from Amoroso’s Baking Company (based in Philly), and their cheesesteaks employ top-notch ingredients, including black Angus Rib-eye and aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce. I start with the pretzel nugget appetizer before ordering the Authentic Philly Cheesesteak with provolone, 12 inches, no onions. What ensued is too pornographic to describe, but let’s just say I was licking the greasy bits from under my fingernails as I drove home.
But let’s face it—it’s pretty hard to fuck up charred meat slapped onto a bun. But what makes Monti’s special is its high level of hospitality, something many restaurants like to pretend they’re good at. In fact, owners Jennifer Monti and James Gottwald make it a point to treat their customers (and employees) as well as possible. Jennifer understands that her employees strive for other life goals besides serving cheesesteak lovers, so she’ll arrange their work schedule around a band gig or a stage rehearsal. And when Jennifer’s not managing the back kitchen or serving/chatting with customers, she sits at the bar with her laptop, probably responding to a Yelp review. In fact, her responses are quite elaborate and thoughtful.
“We are all very busy, so when someone takes the time out of their crazy schedule to write a review I think it is important that I thank and acknowledge it. People will often tell great stories about how ours was their first cheesesteak or how they moved to Chicago from the East Coast years ago and we are a ‘taste of home’, which are all nice to read,” she tells me.
And homey is a perfect way to describe Monti’s. Not only have Jennifer and James developed close bonds with their patrons, but their customers have also become great friends as well. “I still get a kick out of learning a guest went to James’ High School or grew up in the town next to mine in Jersey! It’s the type of quick personal connections you thought were a thing of the past,” she adds. If Jennifer reads like an upbeat and grounded individual, it’s because she is. I’m not talking about the sleazy restaurant owner who small-talks like a real-estate agent, throwing blatant promotions into casual conversation. Jennifer is that genuine, non-judgmental kind of friend you want around when you’re ravaging a 12-foot meatwich like a rabid heathen.
Jennifer and James met in Washington D.C. where they both worked for Michael Jordan at his restaurant, jordans steakhouse. James eventually moved to Chicago to open up Rockit Bar and Grill, and they remained friends until Jennifer followed suit a few years later. In fact, they got married four years ago on Halloween (the best diabetic holiday in the world). Jennifer tells me that coming up with the concept for Monti’s was easy: “We are both from Philly and were craving an Authentic Philly Cheesesteak! We also knew it was a close cousin to the Italian Beef, so we figured Chicagoans would embrace. She adds that Chicago and Philly are both “very down to earth, friendly cities [that] pride themselves on their neighborhoods”.
So in nuce, Monti’s reminds me of how much I adore the Windy City. I love small local joints; I love nice Midwestern people that aren’t actually from the Midwest but brought great food to the Midwest and therefore awesome; and above all, I love great food.