Meet the Best – Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse: Wine Room
Johnny's Italian Steakhouse consistently ranks #1 for Best Fine Dining in Volume One's 2021 Best of the Chippewa Valley Reader Poll.
When Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse of Eau Claire opened in August 2013, general manager Matthew Rashid and executive chef Shawn Wamsley knew they wanted to become nationally recognized for their fine wines.
“I was laughed at a little bit,” Wamsley said, “because we’re in Wisconsin, we drink beer. And we drink a lot of brandy, and we drink a lot of bourbon, and we drink a lot of whiskey, but not a lot of wine... But at some point, we started seeing trends in our sales seeing massive support of wine.”
Initially, local interest was particularly picqued by high-quality and high-end $100 bottles of wine – which quickly jumped to higher- and higher-quality wines – from $190, $250, and all the way up to $750 bottles of wine – as locals realized just how good good wine can be. But enjoying spectacular wine doesn’t have to cost a pretty penny.
Contemporary Coravin technology allows Johnny’s to extract a glass of wine from a high-end bottle to allow locals to have a taste of wine, without investing in the whole bottle. For example, the popular Caymus Cabernet runs for about $130 or more for a bottle. Johnny’s can offer a $20 glass pour to try the wine. The advanced technology replaces leftover space with argon gas – which sits heavier than air – and essentially re-seals the wine to keep it fresh.
“That came from someone’s work,” Wamsley said, “from their hands... from their blood, sweat, and tears. We should represent the little guys as well as the big guys, and we do.”
Most wines are an approchable $8-10 per glass to keep prices affordable (yet reflect their high-end ingredients) and allow locals the opportunity to try something new and unique. “We don’t want it to be pretentious,” Rashid said. “We want it to be approachable for all guests.”
Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse has also notably received national recognition for its outstanding wine program from Wine Spectator. With over 1,000 different wines, a unique temperature- and humidity-controlled storage unit (dubbed “The Wine Room”), and custom wine racks made to fit the space, it’s no surprise how Johnny’s fit the criteria for the prestigious recognition.
“It’s finding that balance of high-end, niche wines – ones that are unique – to also the ones that most people are going to drink,” Rashid said. “You need the ones that are going to move, the ones that people are familiar with, that they feel comfortable ordering... (but) it’s nice to always have some really off-the-wall items – ones that someone who knows wine looks at and goes, ‘Ooh, I’ve never had that one before.’”
Having an assortment of diverse – and delectable – wines is one thing, but having a staff trained on wine is another, and Johnny’s boasts both. Each of their hosts have tasted the restaurant’s various wines to offer authentic recommendations and understand the nuances, intricacies, regions, and cultures of wine and their respective winemakers.
“We have to always and consistently challenge ourselves and challenge our staff and continue to progress,” Wamsley said.