Originally a Polish saloon owner from Joliet, Illinois, Saltis moved to Chicago with the announcement of the Volstead Act in 1920. With the assistance of John "Dingbat" O'Berta, a candidate for the Illinois state senate, began supplying illegal alcohol to Chicago's speakeasies and by 1925 Saltis effectively controlled the Southwest Side. Saltis, by now extremely wealthy from bootlegging, purchased a residence in Eagle River, Wisconsin which, employing over half of the towns sixty citizens, later had the town named Saltisville in the towns general election.
During this time, Saltis remained on good terms with his South Side neighbor Al Capone, whose Chicago Outfit began dominating Chicago's bootlegging soon after his arrival in the early 1920s. Indeed, by the mid-1920s, only the Saltis-McErlane organization remained independent from the eight satellite gangs under Capone's control. However, soon becoming entrenched in territory disputes with many of Capone's satellite gangs, Saltis began talks for a secret alliance with Capone rival Earl "Hymie" Weiss's North Side Gang. Throughout the next year, Saltis began preparing for war as smaller rivals such as the Southside O'Donnell's (for which an attempt would be made on his life in late-1925) and sometimes allied Sheldon Gang began to threaten Saltis's hold on the Southwest Side as soon gunmen such as Frank "Lefty" Koncil, Charlie "Big Hayes" Hubacek, and Frank McErlane joined Saltis's ranks.
On August 6, 1926, Sheldon Gang member John "Mitters" Foley was killed by Frank Koncil while in Saltis's territory. While Koncil, along with O'Berta and Saltis, were arrested and charged with murder O'Berta's considerable political influence (as well as assistance from Weiss) was able to get the case dropped on November 9.
The following year O'Berta, with Saltis, managed to arrange a conference at the Hotel Sherman on October 20, which included Al Capone, George "Bugs" Moran, Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci, Jake "Greasy Thumb" Guzik, Ralph Sheldon, William Skidmore, Maxie Eisen, Jack Zuta, and Christian P. "Barney" Bertsche, and managed to agree on a general ceasefire of the various gang wars, specifically between the Chicago Outfit and the North Side Gang, as well as the gang war between Saltis-McErlane and the Sheldon Gang. The ceasefire lasted a little over two months before war broke out again when members of Saltis-McErlane gang killed Sheldon Gang member Hillary Clements on December 30. As the gang war continued between Saltis and the Sheldon Gang over the Southwest Side, Al Capone had began to move in on Saltis's territory, as the war was beginning to turn in favor of the Sheldon Gang. When Koncil and Hubacek were lured into an ambush and killed on March 11, 1927 Saltis appealed to Capone to negotiate peace between the Sheldon Gang in exchange for a cut of Saltis's profits. By the end of the gang war however Saltis's gang began to disintergrate as Frank McErlane left Saltis in late 1929 over disagreements over McErlane's share. When O'Berta and his chauffeur Sam Malaga disappeared on March 25, 1930, allegedly taken for a "one way ride", O'Berta was later found dead of a gunshot wound to the head. With his associates gone and his organization all but destroyed Saltis quickly retired to his home in Barker Lake, Wisconsin.
Joe Saltis later died at age 53 from complications of a stomach ulcer in Chicago's Cook County Hospital in 1947.
Despite his retirement, when Frank J. Loesch, chairman of the Chicago Crime Commission compiled his "Public Enemies" list of the top 28 people he saw as corrupting Chicago in April 1930, Saltis was ranked in ninth place (Capone headed the list). The list was widely published gaining Saltis a measure of nationwide notoriety.