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One of my favorite ways to time travel is to step inside an old school butcher shop. As someone who wanders often around the Midwest, I've been to a lot of great meat markets, especially in Wisconsin. For some reason, these shops aren't as prevalent in Chicago as they once were. Sure, we have some really nice new-to-the-block hipster butcher shops, but they lack the neighborhood atmosphere (and friendly prices) that a place like Joseph's Finest Meats in the northwest neighborhood of Dunning brings. As soon as you step inside and grab your ticket, you're greeted with a hello. The sweet sound of saw blades in use is the only music.
There's no denying Chicago is a great place to eat steak. But when it comes to steak for your backyard grill, I always recommend one place. At Joseph's, you'll get the same steakhouse bang for half the bucks. They get hunks of untouched USDA Prime stamped beef, which are hung in their old world meat cooler for a minimum of three weeks, though most stay for 30 days. Business is never really slow, but there are times when they have chunks that have aged for longer than 30 days. Just ask.
Joseph Camarda was born and raised in Altavilla Milicia, Sicily. He came to the States on November 27, 1951 at the age of 18 and settled in Chicago's Little Sicily area, which was where Cabrini-Green once stood. His uncle in New York owned a butcher shop, and after visiting it a few times, he was intrigued with the business and wanted to learn more. So he decided to open his own spot. During this period, Joseph was managing the meat department for the National Tea Company, which was a large chain grocer in the Midwest. In 1977, when being a butcher wasn't all as hip as it is today, it was a big risk venturing out on his own.
Ordering meat through Joseph's has become a valuable learning experience for me over the years. I've been tipped off on and picked up many tricks of the trade from Joseph's son, Ben Camarda. He's been around the family business for as long as he can remember, working weekends even back in grammar school. Despite getting a degree in Management Information Systems from Loyola University, he decided to follow his heart and return to the butcher shop. Today he runs most of the show, but you'll still see the 81-year-old Joseph doing his thing from time to time. You know how the saying goes, old habits die hard.
They make close to 20 varieties of sausage on site. My personal favorite is the Italian sausage blend, which is an old family recipe from Sicily. The crown roast of pork is also very popular.
They stack a few small aisles worth of Italian groceries, along with some fresh vegetables and just baked bread from a local bakery. Plus, they open at 8 a.m.—since when did it become norm for bakeries and butcher shops to start their day at 10?!
I became a regular over time, but there was never a visit where I didn't feel that way. The same vibe stretches over to the customer side of the counter where loyal shoppers share small talk while waiting for their orders. When you're at Joseph's, you're in a positive mood as you know good food is coming soon. Everything here is still done the old fashioned way.
On this visit, I watched as another customer requested a brisket. Joseph's didn't have any ready to go in the case, so Ben politely asked if he was okay waiting a bit. The repeat customer knew he was getting a top notch product and was happy to wait, and we both watched as the butchers grabbed a quarter of a cow and threw it on the chopping block. First thing to go was the leg, which would be turned into beautiful beef shanks in display in the case. After about 15 minutes of dicing and slicing more cuts for the case, a fresh cut brisket was being weighed.
I was there for the same reason I always am: USDA Prime 30-day dry-aged "Cowboy-Cut" Ribeyes. Joseph's keeps some already cut steaks in their display case, but they'll be happy to cut a fresh steak to your exact specifications. I just suggest calling a day or two ahead, as it makes it much easier for them. There was a time when I thought the fillet was the most baller piece of steak one can eat. Of course, this was also around the same time I thought girls were impressed by things like fake IDs and cigarettes, so what did I know? Not much, because these days I find the fillet to be about as boring as a chicken breast. For me, there's nothing quite as lustful as a bone-in, dry-aged ribeye with beautiful marbled meat.
When I called to place my order, Ben was all over it with the same type of customer service I imagine David Burke get's when he calls his supplier. But i's not as easy as, "I want two cowboy-cut ribeyes." Sure, Ben could of said okay and given me whatever he determined those to be, but that's not how you stay in business for over three decades. Questions needed to be answered. Exactly which cut from the seven ribs was I looking for? "The good one," I replied. Still not enough. Ben went on to explain how each slice from the seven bones is different and how steakhouses prefer a certain slice, while the regular grilling enthusiast consumer may prefer others. Upon arrival for pickup we spent a good 40 minutes going over the details.
I walked out with two beautiful Cowboy-Cut Ribeyes from opposite ends of the prime rib. These were to be consumed early afternoon on Super Sunday.
Well, as we all know now, the game itself was about as glorious as those 50-shades-of-gray-looking steaks Dominick's used to have in its discount display case. On a day which included enough food to feed an entire starting NFL offensive line, it was the Seahawks defense and my ribeyes from Joseph's that shined.
I think it's safe to say the risk Joseph Camarda took back in 1977 worked out—not just for his family, but the neighborhood and city as well. Cent'anni!
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