90 years and going strong — Moon’s Sandwich Shop still serving up fabulously no-fuss American diner staples

Moon’s Sandwich Shop on the Near West Side has been cooking up stick-to-your-bones fare since 1933.

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James Radek, owner of Moon’s Sandwich Shop in East Garfield Park, sits at his shops counter with their famous corned beef sandwich, Wednesday, April 5, 2023. Radek has owned the 90 year old sandwich shop for 44 years now.

James Radek, owner of Moon’s Sandwich Shop in East Garfield Park, is photographed with the diner’s famous corned beef sandwich. Radek has owned the 90-year-old shop for 44 years.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Walk into Moon’s Sandwich Shop on any given morning, and you’ll be greeted by the delightful symphony that can only be heard in classic American diners: bacon sputtering and onions caramelizing on the flat top grill, bread popping out of multiple toasters, stainless steel spoons stirring sugar and cream into white ceramic cups filled with coffee, the drip, drip, drip of the Bunn-O-Matic coffee maker.

Since 1933, this old-fashioned diner has cooked up the staples of stick-to-your-bones American cuisine that promises to fuel a hard-working day in Chicago (or cure a hangover): fluffy pancakes topped with melted butter and maple syrup; soft, buttery French toast; eggs, served scrambled, sunny-side up, over easy, or nestled into omelets with gooey American cheese. Juicy hamburgers snuggled in soft buns with mayo, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle, and Moon’s must-have grilled onions. Chopped steaks served smothered in from-scratch, rich, thick, brown gravy, with mashed potatoes and corn on the side. Classic patty melts, grilled and spiced ground beef with mayo, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle and caramelized onions all sandwiched between caraway-infused rye bread.

Simple, traditional, energy-dense, consoling … this is comfort food par excellence.

Moon’s Sandwich Shop on Western Avenue is celebrating its 90th birthday.

Moon’s Sandwich Shop on Western Avenue is celebrating its 90th birthday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Named after their railroad counterparts, diners began popping up across Chicago in the 1920s and quickly earned a reputation for fast, hearty, inexpensive food.

Anthony Gambino opened Moon’s in 1933 on the city’s Near West Side, at 16 S. Western Ave. Four other Moon’s locations, since closed, sprouted at 3756 Chicago Ave., 1649 W. Roosevelt (1936), 1403 N. Pulaski Rd. (1946), and 4600 N. Clarendon Ave. (1948-1951).

Typical of early diners, Moon’s Sandwich Shops were tiny, a small footprint on relatively inexpensive lots.

Today, the Western Avenue shop is dwarfed by adjacent buildings; a single, long countertop takes up most of its interior space.

The “Jumpball Scramble” (clockwise from far left), the chop steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, the French toast, and the corned beef sandwich are all beloved staples on the menu at Moon’s Sandwich Shop.

The “Jumpball Scramble” (clockwise from far left), the chop steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, the French toast, and the corned beef sandwich are all beloved staples on the menu at Moon’s Sandwich Shop.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Seven days a week — from 5:30 am to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays — the cooks in the open galley kitchen whip up classics-to-order with such ease it looks like a well-orchestrated dance performance. Perfectly toasted white bread is precisely buttered, then sealed in a wax paper envelope; multiple burgers are flipped over the long grill; a hunk of corned beef is cut paper-thin on a deli slicer.

Every week, the cooks here crack open more than 200 dozen eggs. Today, the corned beef sandwich — made with tender, Vienna corned beef and served with lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mustard on rye bread — is the most popular item on the menu, with more than 500 sandwiches sold weekly.

In its early days, Moon’s was famous for its 5-cent hot dogs and 10-cent hamburgers, which Joe (Di Nina) Canzoneri (one of Anthony Gambino’s nephews through marriage as well as an early employee) prepared Italian-American style, with Italian spices, bread crumbs, and egg mixed in with ground beef — essentially a flattened meatball, squeezed into a bun.

The classic corned beef sandwich at Moon’s Sandwich Shop.

The classic corned beef sandwich at Moon’s Sandwich Shop. The diner sells more than 500 sandwiches each week.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Moon’s invented the “Jumpball Scramble,” the quintessential breakfast sandwich: three eggs are scrambled on the grill with onions, potatoes and savory, house-made Italian sausage. American cheese fuses the ingredients before they’re cradled between two slices of expertly buttered toast.

Owner Jim Radek was once a police officer in the 18th District, one of many cops who mingled over coffee and breakfast sandwiches at Moon’s.

“The original owner, Anthony Gambino, died in 1964,” said Radek. “He had three sons, Anthony Jr. (Tony), Joseph, and Kelly, who managed the business after he died. In 1978, the oldest of three brothers died, and in 1978 the other two brothers asked me to be their partner.”

Radek’s training in the restaurant business began at home on the city’s West Side, where he lived with his parents, both Austrian in origin, and his six brothers and sisters.

“My mother taught me how to take a more inexpensive cut of meat — say, a pork shoulder — and transform it into something sublime, through time, attention and careful preparation. And Joe, the best cook of the three Gambino brothers, taught me how to cook Moon’s specialties, like our classic meatloaf, tuna salad, chili mac, and mashed potatoes and gravy. Kelly, the middle brother, who manned the grill, taught me how to make the burgers, chopped steaks, ribeyes, pork chops and pancakes that everyone loves here to this day. Tony Gambino worked the front, and taught me how to take care of our customers.”

Cynthia Brown puts the finishing touches on a chop steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy in the kitchen at Moon’s Sandwich Shop.

Cynthia Brown puts the finishing touches on a chop steak dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy in the kitchen at Moon’s Sandwich Shop.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Though Mayor Daley seized the food license of the Chicago Avenue location in 1964, claiming that the diner was a “hangout for many notorious hoodlums,” including William Messino, an alleged “underworld juice man,” Moon’s second owner, Joseph Gambino, sued to have it reinstated.

But according to Radek (and the longtime customers I spoke to on a recent visit), Moon’s on Western Avenue has always been a neutral ground of sorts.

“In the ’70s, gangs were divided by Western Avenue. The Gangster Disciples ruled east of Western; the Four Corner Hustlers ruled west of Western. There used to be a car wash nearby that was run by three young brothers; one of those brothers was ‘Big Louie.’ Well, one day, Big Louie was being chased by 20 or so guys, so I flagged him, and he ran inside Moon’s. Moon’s is like a sanctuary. As a general rule, people knew then, and know now, to respect this space,” Radek said.

Marcus Funches, who grew up in the neighborhood, agreed. “Moon’s quality food has never changed. I’ve been coming here for over 30 years, ever since I was a kid. Even when it’s packed to the brim, it’s a place of peace. People just want to enjoy their food. I love the roast beef sandwich, and I always have the lemonade. For breakfast, nothing beats the grits with butter.”

Radek can be seen most days manning the register or the griddle alongside his employees, many of whom have been working at Moon’s for years.

“We’re like family. Penny, our cashier, has been here since 1989, and the young lady who answers our phones for takeaway orders has been working here since 1988.”

The interior of Moon’s Sandwich Shop on Western Avenue.

The interior of Moon’s Sandwich Shop on Western Avenue.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

He’s retiring after 45 years at the end of the month, when he’ll pass the torch on to his son, Bob Radek. “Bob has been working here by my side on and off since age 15. He started out slicing corned beef.”

“Our customers today still mostly live or work here on the West Side, but with so many new food delivery services, we have customers placing orders from across the city,” said Radek. “We’re also a stop on campaign trails: Both Lori Lightfoot and J.B. Pritzker have dined here, hoping to engage residents from our surrounding community.”

What’s the secret to 90 years of staying power?

“It’s simple,” said Radek. “Take care of your customers and serve good food at a fair price. Maintain a relaxing, friendly atmosphere, where people can pause for a moment to enjoy delicious food and a good cup of coffee. The original owners instilled these values in me, and now my son will carry these values into Moon’s next ninety years.”

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