Hanging Out in Rockford: Mike jungling with Jim-part one

About 25 years ago, I was working for the Royal Crown Cola Company. It was located where the Eagle store used to be, 2700 N. Main St. I got a job offer in Sacramento, Calif., at the Royal Crown Cola Company of Sacramento. I was really eager to try my wings in California. There were at that time only two things that made me sad to leave Rockford—Charlotte’s Web, and a restaurant some guy had just built in the North End called Jungle Jim’s. I remember stopping into the new restaurant while it was still under construction. I was knocked out by the antiques and the flair.

I never went to the restaurant that much while Jim owned it. I was in either California, Indianapolis or New York at different jobs in the soft drink industry. When I came back to Rockford and opened the Old Rock River Cafe and Deli (interestingly formerly named Gentleman Jim’s), Jungle Jim’s was sold to Joel Kaplan, a fellow Beloit College graduate. Most of the time I went there, it was owned by Joel. I remember being astounded at the reported purchase price. Now it doesn’t seem like that much, but times and prices have changed.

The first time I actually met Jim Vitale was at his next restaurant, the Crystal Pistol in DeKalb. Always the perfect gentleman, he gave my ex-wife and partner Robin and me the cook’s tour. He had converted an old steak franchise building, but the results were, as usual, amazing. Then he went on to open the airport restaurant St. James Envoy, largely a success due to Jim’s method of operation and an important asset to the airport. From there, he went on the present Cliffbreakers on the Rock River.

I am working on a cooler at the Irish Rose on a Tuesday. It is the cooler from hell. It has defied all my cooler knowledge. I finally get a handle on it. Tuesday morning I get up to go to the market early. I want to be able to finish the cooler up before the evening’s business. I get back and dial in the cooler. I am sitting at my little bar at the back of the store when Jim Vitale walks in with a friend. I call out to him and say I will be back. I go upstairs to take a shower. All my clothes are at the laundry. I put on a pair of jeans and a really old shirt.

They are having soft-shell crabs for lunch. I ask if I can join them for a glass of wine and we chat. Jim remarks about how good our bread is and I tell him that my mother made it until the day she died. Now our kitchen crew makes it. Phillipe’s (Café Patou) father-in-law Jack taught my mom how to make the bread shortly after we opened in this location. My mom actually fell over dead with a load of dough on the table. I remark that he has always kept his mother in the kitchen too, but that is probably where she has wanted to be.

Jim tells his friend that I write an article every week for The Rock River Times and that his mother, Edith, reads it faithfully. She is 84. The soft-shells arrive, and Jim compliments the pasta. Troy has slipped into the kitchen on his day off to prepare their lunch. He wants everything to be perfect for such an important customer. After lunch, I take them desserts on the house, Creme Brulèe and sun-dried cherry cheesecake. I tell him it was my mother’s recipe, and he, almost self-consciously, makes the sign of the cross before trying it.

Jim flatters me by saying that he goes to the Drake in Chicago for the Creme Brulèe and that ours is just as good. He always seems to know exactly the right thing to say. That is a lot of the reason for his remarkable success. I wish I could be more like him. I am usually in the background, either going to the market, cooking or fixing something. I cannot do on a regular basis what he does. We all have our different approaches depending on our personalities. That is what provides variety when you go to a hometown business.

I tell him that I have a chance to build a new stand-alone restaurant on North Main Street in front of what is now the K-mart building, but to do it, I will have to sell my Rockton restaurant. I ask his help in getting the word out. He remarks that we are both getting old, and he doesn’t understand why I would want to do that at this point in my life. I don’t say it but I think to myself that if I had his degree of success, I would feel the same. To me, however, this would be my first chance to build a brand new stand-alone restaurant, something I have always wanted to do.

Wednesday, the air-conditioning unit goes out on the roof. Troy and I spend all morning installing a new compressor. I have the evacuation pump running on the system and decide to take a break for lunch. I haven’t been to my friend Gerlinde’s (Water Street Café) for ages, so long that she thinks I have deserted her. I take the old Yamaha motorcycle down East State Street. When I get there, Jim is sitting outside with another friend having lunch on the patio. Jim says that my motorcycle could take me up to his end of town, too. I say I could bring my friend, Elisha. More next week.

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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