Meet the Best – Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse: Wine Room
With a broad wine list and well-trained staff, Johnny's reputation for wine is something to savor.
When Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse of Eau Claire opened in August 2013, General Manager Matthew Rashid and his staff had a goal: becoming nationally recognized for their fine wines.
They knew it wouldn’t be easy: Stereotypically, Wisconsinites are known for drinking beer, brandy, and bourbon, not wine. Yet Johnny’s sales trends started to show otherwise.
Johnny’s initial wine list consisted of a single one-sided page. Over the past nine years that has grown to four pages of by-the-bottle options and an additional menu with a by-the-glass list, which rotates weekly.
“Predominantly our wine menu is red wines,” said Zac Zubal, Johnny’s bar manager. “Usually, bigger bolder reds because we’re a steakhouse. Big bold reds with a lot of tannin and backbone to stand up to the steak we offer and the flavors that come out of the dishes we have. If your flavors are elevated to that point your wine needs to be as well, otherwise the flavor can get lost.”
We don't want it to be pretentious. We want it to be approachable for all guests.
Most of Johnny’s wines are an approachable $8-10 per glass to keep prices affordable (yet reflect their high-end nature) 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.”
Included in their wine menu of 160 different bottles are wines from some of the top producing wine regions that pair best with their menu. Once dominated by California and Washington winemakers, the menu now it includes dozens of varietals, the newest being French and Italian. These options, along with members of their staff receiving sommelier training, have added another layer of respect to Johnny’s already stellar reputation.
“Each type of wine is so different,” Rashid said. “You can have the same grape grown in California, Washington, Europe, South America, and they’re all going to taste differently. We want to represent each and every possible option, and we continue to push toward that goal.”
In addition to its dozen appearances on Volume One’s latest Best of the Chippewa Valley Reader Poll – including top-tier rankings for Best Restaurant in Eau Claire, Best Restaurant for Italian Food, and Best Wine Selection – Johnny’s has also received four consecutive annual awards and national recognition for its outstanding wine program from Wine Spectator. With hundreds of wines, a uniquely customized state-of-the-art temperature- and humidity-controlled storage unit (dubbed “The Wine Room”), with custom wine racks made to fit the space, it’s no surprise how Johnny’s fit the criteria for the prestigious recognition.
Having an assortment of diverse – and delectable – wines is one thing, but having a trained and knowledgable staff is another, and Johnny’s boasts both. Zubal, the architect behind the current wine menu, is working towards completing his second stage of sommelier certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers. His training has helped educate staff to build their knowledge base and ultimately to help navigate wine selections for the varying palates of our many guests.
Jared Hughley, who recently took over as Johnny’s executive chef, said the restaurant’s commitment to quality and friendly service have been the keys to its success. “Every day we’re coming up with new features, showcasing a lot of experimental techniques while coming up with new recipes,” Hughley said.
“We want to continue to deliver on the promise of quality food, service, and experience,” Rashid said. “We’ve continued to do that for almost a decade now, and I believe that is why people continue to come back and support us.”