EIU Memories: Roc’s Blackfront

It’s fashionable for bars and restaurants to claim some connection to the days of Prohibition, but Roc’s Blackfront Tavern & Grill, at 410 Sixth Street in Charleston, Illinois, is the real deal. It even has the memorabilia to prove it. In my senior and graduate school years at nearby Eastern Illinois University, I frequented Roc’s to have a drink with friends in a classier atmosphere than the usual college bars.

Roc’s ad in the Daily Eastern News, August 18, 2000.

That brick building, absent its black tile facade and martini glass-shaped neon sign, was originally built for the Charleston Courier newspaper office in 1841. Willis W. McClelland opened the Red Front Saloon there in 1917. As fate would have it, the Eighteenth Amendment banning the sale of alcohol in the United States passed in 1919. What were establishments like the Red Front Saloon to do? The saloon changed its name to McClelland’s Cafe and continued to clandestinely sell alcohol a short walk from the county courthouse.

Racing enthusiast Hank O’Day bought the speakeasy in 1931 and renamed it Hank O’Day’s Tavern after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Illegal activities continued, however. O’Day ran an underground casino in the room above the bar, complete with buzzer system to alert patrons of police raids. When owner Mike Knoop renovated in 1996, he discovered hidden gambling devices and paraphernalia, including total boards for horse racing and a roulette wheel that now hangs on the wall.

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Sugar Bowl Vintage Sign

Sugar Bowl Vintage Sign
The Sugar Bowl Restaurant, at 1494 Miner Street (U.S. Route 14) in Des Plaines, Illinois, was opened by Mr. and Mrs. Files as a soda fountain and candy store in 1921. They added a glorious neon sign in 1957.

It still retained some of its old features as a candy store when I visited as a kid in the late 1980s (I remember browsing the knickknacks and candy they sold), but owner Ted Vlahopoulos renovated the interior to look more like a traditional restaurant in 1997. Thankfully, Steve Morakalis and George Prassas kept this wonderful sign when they reopened it in 2009.

Milanese Italian Restaurant

Milanese Italian Restaurant
Lovely vintage neon sign for Milanese Italian Restaurant, 115 Main Street in Poughkeepsie, Dutchess County, New York, just a few blocks from the Hudson River. Santino and Rita Milanese immigrated to the United States in 1956, and they opened their family restaurant in downtown Poughkeepsie in 1971. Their first customer was a lone truck driver who stopped to ask for directions. Today, Alessandro and Aldo Milanese, their sons, run the business and carry on the family tradition.

EIU Memories: Chubby’s Pizza

As a student at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, there was only one place to go after coming home from the bar at 2 am. You wanted something cheap and greasy, and Chubby’s had just what the doctor ordered. Though I wasn’t much for the bar scene, I ate my fair share of Chubby’s over the years. It was the largest pizza in Charleston for the best price, and just a short walk from campus.

Leon and Lisa Hall opened a Topper’s Pizza in the Midtown Plaza strip mall at 215 Lincoln Avenue in 1995. Topper’s is a restaurant chain founded by Scott Gittrich in Champaign, Illinois in 1991, but Leon and Lisa found themselves alone after the original location closed. After three years, the couple felt they weren’t benefiting from the franchise, so they decided to go their own way and rebranded as Chubby’s Pizza.

They kept the same menu but were able to lower prices because they were no longer paying franchise fees. “The Topper”, a 20-inch pizza with 12 toppings, became “The Big Chubby.” Why the name Chubby’s? Leon told the Daily Eastern News, “I’ve put on a few pounds since I’ve owned the place.”

Ad for Topper’s in the Daily Eastern News, c. 1998. Topper’s became Chubby’s that year.
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Capri Italian Restaurant

Capri Italian Restaurant
Sign for Capri Italian Restaurant, 313 E. State Street, in downtown Rockford, Illinois. This white stucco building has a long family tradition imported from southern Italy. Vito Michele Grisanzio and his brother, Domenic, bought The Capri Restaurant in 1963 and Vito has worked there ever since. He’s now joined by his wife and their three grown sons. Don’t let this beat up old sign fool you – the food is great and the dining room is lovingly maintained.