Milwaukee’s Timeless Deli

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100 years ago, the Packers had yet to be founded.
100 years ago, the Brewers had yet to become a team.
And 100 years ago, a butcher shop stood at the corner of 17th Street and North Avenue.

Now, in 2017, it continues to stand, in a neighborhood that has drastically evolved in the meantime.
History’s a funny thing. You can never really predict when a building, a place or an idea makes the jump from old to something of historic significance. Or maybe, some people just have a knack for determining that. It would be a good explanation for why Jake’s Deli has occupied the same space, with the same menu, for decades.
The butcher shop first opened around 1903. By 1955, Jake Levin had bought the space and transformed it into the Jewish-style deli that still stands today. Then, in the late 1960s, he had the opportunity to sell the deli, and a man looking to make his mark on Milwaukee jumped in. You may have heard of him: Bud Selig.
Throughout a storied career, Selig has utterly transformed the city of Milwaukee, bringing the Brewers to the city, and leading the fight for Miller Park. He’s also transformed baseball as a whole. So, with someone so transformative taking the helm, you’d assume he’d surely find a way to leave his mark on Jake’s. That, he certainly did. Just not in the way you’d expect.
He left his mark, by not leaving one.
The location? The same.
The menu? Hasn’t changed.
The bread slicer Jake Levin used? Still operational all these years later.
“He [Bud] had been coming here,” StandEatDrink’s marketing and PR director Sean Wille tells me. “He had seen the traditional deli. He loved the style, and I think he just wanted to keep that going, keep that part of this area. You’ve certainly seen changes throughout the city of Milwaukee, including this area. Having this one cornerstone location for the neighborhood, for the community is important, and that’s part of what Jake’s is currently.”
Indeed, some of the employees I speak with at Jake’s have long been a part of its history.
As Major Harris swiftly slices brisket and pastrami, lying the meats carefully onto toasted slices of bread, he tells me he grew up peering over the other side of the counter, ordering the same sandwiches he’d later learn to make.
He lifts up a container of smoked paprika, a key ingredient for many of the sandwiches.
“When I was a kid, my dad used to always bring me up here,” Harris says. “So I never knew what they used until I started working here, and I said, ‘that’s it? That’s what makes it taste so good?'”
For Harris, it’s not just the spice of the sandwich that’s made a lasting impression. He points at the booths across the room.
“I used to get in trouble,” he confesses, laughing. “They unplugged them, but there’s doorbells over there. You know, when you wanted to tell a waitress your order, you’d hit it and the light would pop on. I used to get in trouble because I’d ring those doorbells a lot.”
The head chef at Jake’s, Jesimiel Lewis, has only worked at Jake’s for two years, but he’s now well-versed on the history.
“Honestly, I drove past Jake’s on so many occasions, but I didn’t know the history until I started working here,” Lewis says. “Once I started, I pretty much liked everything on the menu, but for me, I fell in love with the Turkey Senator.”
The Turkey Senator.
Stacked on toasted sourdough, the sandwich includes smoked turkey, avocado, herbed mayo, tomato and lettuce. It may not receive the same recognition that a corned beef sandwich does at Jake’s, but the story behind it speaks to the theme of tradition that is felt throughout the restaurant.
The Turkey Senator is named for former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, who Wille describes as a regular at the establishment, sitting in the same spot, with the same order. And Kohl is not the only one who goes to Jake’s with his stomach set on one particular order.
“We have the commissioner’s order ready to go every week,” Wille says. “He comes in and orders his sandwich with a specific six pickle slices.”
Six pickles.
Would you know if you were missing a pickle or two?
I sure wouldn’t.
“He’ll know,” Wille laughs. “He’ll know and he’ll say, ‘where’s my sixth pickle?”
You can knock someone for being a creature of habit, but for Jake’s, habit is a science. They know their clientele, and they know how to prepare corned beef accordingly each week.
“I cook seven to eight buckets a day,” Lewis says. “We usually order 40 buckets a week, and depending on how the week starts, then I know how much to cook each day. We always have corned beef for the most part.”
Each bucket, boiling along one of the kitchen walls, with flames licking the sides of the bottom, holds 33 to 40 pounds of marinating corned beef. And if you think that’s a lot, brace yourself for this next fact I learned.
Lewis says Jake’s prepared 36 buckets of corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day alone, selling 30 of them. It’s the busiest day of the year for the deli.
“It was a lot of non-stop action once the customer wanted something,” Lewis says. “That was a really good time of year.”
Consistency may be key here, but the team at Jake’s isn’t afraid of taking risks, or challenging its customers to do so. High above the spices and condiments hangs a bulletin board with just three customers’ pictures, and a vast amount of space left to be filled. It’s the Commish challenge: a $75 monster of a sandwich that has to be consumed in 45 minutes or less.
“It’s a five-pound sandwich,” Lewis says. “A whole loaf of rye bread, and it’s cut in half the long way, with a pound-and-a-half of pastrami, a pound-and-a-half corned beef, a pound of swiss cheese, a pound of sauerkraut, thousand-island, jalapeno and spicy mustard.”
That sandwich is not for the faint of heart, and was featured on the premiere episode of the rebooted Travel Channel show, Man vs. Food, a few weeks ago.
But if you’re looking for something a little different, you don’t have to leave the deli with a larger waistband. Sometimes, it’s as simple as talking to the lead cutter, who still finds time to play around, sans doorbells this time.
Harris leans over the counter as I say goodbye to Wille, holding out a new concoction wrapped in tin foil for the marketing director. Nestled inside is a reuben-styled hot dog. Something old, paving the way for something new.

 

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