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Homemade giardiniera recipe creating a buzz

(Sarah Nader -
Josh Downey, maker of Chicago Johnny's giardiniera, prepares an italian sausage with giardiniera at home in McHenry.
(Sarah Nader -
Josh Downey puts giardiniera on italian sausage at his home in McHenry.

McHENRY – Josh Downey had never set out to run a small business selling hand-packed giardiniera.

“I didn’t even eat giardiniera until a few years back,” he said. “I fell in love with it and started eating copious amounts of it.

“Then I started making giardiniera for myself and some families got a hold of it and really liked it (beginning of fall). So I started selling it to see if I can make something out of it."

When his hand-packed giardiniera straight from his parents’ kitchen kept selling out, Downey realized he could be on cusp of something bigger.

The 28-year-old with a history degree from Monmouth College had worked in retail while living with his parents in McHenry before the buzz over Chicago Johnny’s spread through word of mouth.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm from friends and family, Downey went on to put in more time and effort into the newfound venture. Downey’s middle name is John, which spawned the namesake product.

He started selling Chicago Johnny’s as a vendor at a flea market in Wilmot, Wis., in late summer. And relying on his Johnsburg High School ties, Downey partnered with a small deli shop and a gas station to stock the items.

“I went to school with some of the employees there,” he said.

And, “One, two, three. Things just clicked.”

In August, Downey reached out to Joseph’s Marketplace, 29 Crystal Lake Plaza, Crystal Lake.

“I just brazenly walked in there and asked if they would carry it. I don't know how many times I called them, but it was a two-week period."

The store manager allowed him to return on a Saturday with a half batch – 10 gallons of giardiniera – and “set up a table by the deli.”

The test runs on two Saturdays were a success, Downey sold seven cases, or 84 jars. In the meantime, Chicago Johnny's was selling online through its website

The early days of hand-packing giardiniera in his kitchen are a blur. The work ran like a marathon, going 36 hours to produce a batch. One batch amounts to 20 gallons, Downey said.

Soon after the success at Joseph’s, Downey researched manufacturing options and found a business in Chicago that hand-packs giardiniera.

“I thought it was going to bring some side money and then once I saw that it could be a real business, I decided to go for it,” he said.

By early November, Chicago Johnny's partnered with Joseph Antognoli and Co. in Chicago after Downey visited the facility.

“They had an old-fashioned way of doing things, which I liked,” he said. “It's about quality control. If something's not given enough love and attention, the product could go south pretty quick."

The mix of pickled vegetables adds a kick to virtually any meal, not just Italian beef sandwiches, Downey said.

‘Grilled cheese, hot dogs, pizzas, chili, pasta dishes,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll be eating it out of jar with a spoon.”

As creator of Chicago Johnny's, which is relatively early in the business, Downey admits the experience is nerve-wracking.

Downey takes deep pride in the labor involved in his product and how it all began.

“It wasn’t created out of a box,” he said. “With the flavor, I developed it based on what I like… bold, smoky and earthy.”

* * *

Chicago Johnny’s:

What: Homemade giardiniera product available at Joseph’s Marketplace in Crystal Lake and other locations.Information: Call 224-243-1045, email, or visit

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