Lettuce Entertain You has had its sights on Rosemont's entertainment district for a while now.
On Thursday, the Chicago-based restaurant empire finally got its chance, with the launch of one piece of its largest venue to date. Joe's Live, a 2,000-person-capacity country music venue, hosted a grand opening night concert with headliner Frankie Ballard and opening act McKenzies Mill Thursday night.
Next door, the barbecue eatery Bub City hosted a private reception for family and friends. The Nashville-inspired bar and restaurant opens to the general public for dinner next Wednesday, and for lunch later this summer.
Together, the two venues are nearly 34,000 square feet -- two-thirds is Joe's Live and one-third is Bub City. Though they are connected by two big garage doors, they will essentially operate as two distinct establishments, according to Jerrod Melman, who is a managing partner along with his brother, R.J. Their sister Molly is also a partner in the business. Their dad, legendary Chicago restaurateur Rich Melman, had been talking with Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens for some time about the possibility of opening a place in Rosemont.
Then came the abrupt closure of Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill last October for failing to pay rent and taxes, amid growing financial problems for the Phoenix-based national chain. A day before a scheduled eviction hearing in October, Rosemont officials already were announcing their intention to bring in the new country bar managed as a joint venture between Lettuce Entertain You and the owners of Joe's Bar on Weed Street in Chicago. They inked a 15-year lease, with options for three five-year extensions.
Toby Keith's, another country-inspired venue, opened in 2012 as one of the anchor tenants of the village's MB Financial Park, the 200,000-square-foot entertainment district located north of Balmoral Avenue and east of the Tri-State Tollway.
Village officials turned the keys over to their new tenants in December, and since then, crews have worked to transform the place before its grand opening. "The right opportunity came along and the stars aligned," Jerrod Melman said this week on a tour of the new restaurant, bar and concert hall. Joe's Live -- proclaimed on its marquee as a "Bar & Music Hall" offering "Late Night Dancing" -- requires tickets to get in that can be purchased at a two-window box office or online.
The stage is in the same place as the old Toby Keith's, but it features new sound and lighting systems. It's actually larger than the stage at the original Joe's Bar, located in Lincoln Park. Another partner in the new venue is Ed Warm, the country music promoter who runs the original Joe's Bar and is involved in the Melmans' existing Bub City in Chicago's River North.
Melman said Warm plans to book predominantly country performers at Joe's Live, though DJs and rock acts won't be out of the question. Warm, named 2015 Promoter of the Year by the Academy of Country Music, already books acts for Rosemont's Country in the Park summer concert series. Joe's has three bars on the first floor and two bars upstairs, where there's also suites overlooking the stage available for private events. In fact, the entire Joe's venue can be rented out for parties of up to 1,000 guests.
The new Rosemont Bub City features similar decor as the Chicago location, which opened in 2012. A "flag bar" is marked by red, white and blue beer cans hung on the wall to look like an American flag. A separate whiskey bar across the room boasts 100 different types of whiskey. In-between is a small stage that looks out on the dining area. It will feature up-and-coming performers, dueling guitar contests and live band karaoke.
The menu, developed by chef and partner Doug Psaltis, offers smoked meats like brisket and ribs, fried chicken and "Giddy Up Fries" -- waffle fries covered with pulled pork, sour cream, pimentos, barbecue sauce and cheese sauce. "Anyone who walks in here will know we're serious about whiskey and barbecue," Melman said. Some 200 employees, clad in flannel shirts and blue jeans, will work at the two venues.
Lettuce Entertain You, from its beginnings in 1971 with R.J. Grunts, has grown to some 100 establishments nationwide. Rich Melman, now 73, remains the company's chairman, and even though his children are directly responsible for management of Bub City and more than a dozen other Lettuce Entertain You restaurants and bars, he has directly overseen development of his company's latest creation in Rosemont.
From the late 1980s to the late 1990s, Melman operated the original Bub City on Weed Street -- at the time, his company's biggest restaurant at 33,000 square feet. "It's his passion. He's part artist and part businessman," Jerrod Melman said. "I grew up working in restaurants. I didn't think it would be a career. But as I grew up I realized I had a great teacher in the form of my dad. He made it look fun."
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