BRIDGEPORT — A gathering of New York City foodies won’t know what hit ‘em next week when they line up to experience the gluttonous joy and painful heartburn of a true South Side delicacy — the “Mother-in-Law” sandwich from Johnny O’s.
A New Yorker called the iconic hot dog spot to invite owner Johnny Veliotis and his son, Pete, to New York to showcase the working-class eats they sell through a sidewalk service window at a swanky celebrity chef bash in a trendy Manhattan spot where sexy models strut on the catwalk during Fashion Week.
That's when the Bridgeport guys called “B.S.”
“They’re calling from the East Coast — come on. We thought it was a scam,” Pete Veliotis said. “I told the guy, ‘You’ve got five-star restaurants and five-star chefs, why are you calling us?’ They said they wanted some comfort food. Well, no offense to us, but there’s a thousand hot dog joints you coulda picked in Chicago.”
Turns out, the folks at Baldor Specialty Foods — a Greenwich Village farm-to-restaurant produce distributor — did some research on Johnny O’s, a local favorite at the corner of 35th and Morgan for 45 years that had a flash of fame in 2010 when TLC Network’s "Best Food Ever” show ranked the “Mother-in-Law” No. 6 on its best sandwich list.
“They said, “You guys are small, not too big for your britches and just the place that fits what we’re looking for,” Pete said.
So on May 18, Pete and Johnny O’s “chef” Nick Shallawani are set to serve Chicago hot dogs — that’s a Vienna Beef frank on a Rosen bun topped with mustard, relish, pickle, tomato, onion and sport peppers — along with charred Maxwell Street-style dogs served with grilled onions and mustard and, of course, the Mother-in-Law sandwich.
No one knows for sure who invented the Mother-in-Law, but legend has it some “neighborhood genius” came up with recipe that’s still popular today — a Chicago-made Tom-Tom tamale on a steamed bun covered with all the fixings you get on a Chicago-style dog, slathered in homemade chili and topped with cheese.
It’s spicy. It’s messy. It’s ridiculously delicious.
“I don’t even know how the Mother-in-Law got it’s name but I used to sell it off a push cart when I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old,” Johnny Veliotis said. “We used to put a hot tamale on a bun and what made ours special was that we threw the kitchen sink on it. So years ago, for 5 cents you got a meal.”
Veliotis is a true Chicago character — a Greek kid from a broken home who grew up fighting his way to make a buck selling hot dogs outside to fans at Old Comiskey Park and workers at the factories near Bubbly Creek.
Veliotis said he picked up the nickname that his hot dog stand is named after while playing semi-pro football for the Chi Allies — a collection of guys from neighborhood teams called The Dirty Dozen, Junkyard Dogs, Alley Cats and Choir Boys.
“I looked like a choir boy, but I wasn’t,” he said with a laugh.” I was the quarterback and had shortened my last name to Otis. They started calling me Johnny O and before you know it, it stuck.”
One alter ego wasn’t enough for Veliotis, who also used the stage name “Johnny Powers” during a short career as a Chicago crooner who’d sing the same ballads and old jazz standards made famous by guys like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett at the Conrad Hilton and other music halls around town.
He even recorded two records — at the urging of the Chicago mob.
“The guy who wrote the songs — an Outfit guy, can’t remember his name, but he was always dressed immaculately —said, ‘Johhny O, we hear you can sing.’ I told ‘em I did a little singing. And he said, 'We’d like you to record our songs,'” Veliotis said.
“They were ’Back to Rome’ and ‘Lovers Quarrel’ They said, ‘If Frank Sinatra gets ahold of these songs …’ So I recorded the songs. I did a hell of a job singing but, eh, they didn’t go anywhere.”
On of his favorite singing memories came when the White Sox invited him to sing the National Anthem in the late '70s and Hall of Fame broadcaster the late Harry Caray gave the crooner-turned-hot-dog-vendor kudos on the air before the first pitch.
Ultimately Veliotis gave up the “showtime lifestyle” when he got married, went into business for himself and ultimately opened his namesake hot dog joint in 1970.
The place used to be just a neighborhood favorite. But now Johnny O’s is a roadside attraction for adventurous foodies who hit the road to sample regional delicacies made relatively famous on reality TV shows and food blogs.
“We started getting people from other neighborhoods and the suburbs. Then we started getting people from out of state. New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, St. Louis, New Orleans, a dozen or more people from towns in Iowa coming just for us,” Veliotis said. “The best one was … a couple from Australia. They saw us on the g----- food show in Australia.”
In a lot of ways, the foodie culture saved Johnny O’s from suffering the fate of a lot of restaurants and taverns that died when the factories that provided working class jobs in the neighborhoods shut down.
And for that, Pete’s happy to trek to New York to serve his father’s Mother-in-Law — the special South Side sandwiches that put the family business on the map — to high-class folks who really know their food.
But if the New York City foodies there want to taste what Johnny O himself considers the best dish on his menu — the glorious best breaded steak sandwich that’s soaked in marinara, covered in melted mozzarella and topped with peppers — they’re gonna have to come to Bridgeport.
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