EJ's Place - Skokie
EJ’s comes with quite the pedigree: owner EJ Lenzi is the grandson of Gene Michelotti, of old-school steak cathedral Gene & Georgetti’s. He started his eponymous Place in 1997 to keep the classic Italian-American steakhouse lineage not just alive, but thriving. The late William Rice, writing in the “Chicago Tribune” not long after EJ’s Place was opened, was certainly in Lenzi’s corner, saying that “the Las Vegas odds makers have installed [Lenzi] as an early favorite to join the ranks of Chicago's great restaurateurs … bloodlines and training count for a lot to restaurant handicappers, and Lenzi scores high in both categories.”
First time visitors might be struck, as “Crain’s Chicago Business” reviewer Anne Spiselman certainly was, by the “the spacious main room with knotty pine,” with “a handsome stone fireplace at one end, a stuffed moose head on the wall at the other, a long bar and a peaked, beamed ceiling.”
If you sidle up to the bar for a pre-meal drink, there’s a generous selection of wines by the glass, half-bottle, or split from a surprising variety of regions. The beers are mostly classic styles from German producers like Steigl, Warsteiner, and Spaten-Franziskaner, with, for the hop-heads, some “local” representation from Lagunitas. There’s also a full liquor bar, something to keep in mind when all that knotty pine paneling makes you feel northern Wisconsin enough to sip on a brandy Old Fashioned.
The appetizers show their Italian-American influence, featuring Italian sausage with peppers or broccoli rabe, fried calamari, mussels marinara, and baked clams. Spiselman recommended the calamari, writing that “Calamari can be fried or grilled; the latter is reasonably tender and in a rich sauce.” Salads are fairly standard, offering Caesar, mixed greens, tomato and onion, slaw, or the exploded pantry mishmash that is garbage salad. Dressings include blue cheese, Thousand Island, ranch, and creamy garlic.
The meats are plentiful, and the compact roster of steaks are all prime-grade and aged: two sizes of New York strip, two sizes of filet, T-bone, and ribeye are your choices. The selections for chops include lamb, veal, pork, and presumably any other beast with a chop hiding in it. “Big meat is the specialty of the house -- steaks, chicken Vesuvio, veal parmigiana, calf's liver with bacon and onions – but you can also choose from a dozen pastas. Prices and portions are both large,” wrote Holly Greenhagen for the “Chicago Reader.”
If you’re feeling less steak-y (and surely we’ve all felt that way at some point in our eating lives), the freshwater and seafood options strongly come into play. There’s a selection of fresh seafood that includes Lake Superior whitefish, Atlantic salmon, fried shrimp, and a 14-ounce Australian lobster tail.
Some of the pasta selections, including the meat and cheese ravioli dishes, are made in-house, and feature sauces including vodka, arrabbiata, red clam, and meat sauce. House specialties include chicken oreganato, steakhouse standby liver and onions, and that Chicago original, steak house regular and staple: Chicken Vesuvio.
The wine list starts with a red-forward, California-heavy roster of reasonably priced bottles from producers including Frog’s Leap, Duckhorn, and Chateau St. Jean. The imported list is almost entirely Italian, with a few Spanish and French selections sprinkled in, and the reserve list features pricier bottles from Cakebread Cellars, Silver Oak, and Robert Mondavi, among others.
A house salad and choice of potato (cottage fried, baked, or garlic mash) comes with each entrée. There’s also creamed spinach and broccoli, sautéed mushrooms, fried onions, and broiled slab bacon from Wisconsin’s beloved Nueske’s brand (now available in better grocery stores and still some of the finest pork belly around).
Desserts feature both standbys (crème brulee, tiramisu, key lime pie), as well as a float with local Sprecher root beer and imported Bindi sorbet (a good choice if you want to go light after all that meat). There’s also coffee, cappuccino, and espresso for those who like to snap out of their meat-induced comas with a shot of caffeine (no shame in that!).
If you need an absolute slab of meat – the kind you could build a handsome, functional North Side bungalow on – served by a gentleman of a certain age in a white coat, you’ve got to get to EJ’s Place for a classic steakhouse experience.