Hanging Out In Rockford: Reflections on Mike Leifheit

Editor’s note: Mike Leifheit underwent triple-bypass heart surgery on Thursday, Aug. 19, and will be absent until he is well and ready to resume his column.

I met Mike Leifheit when I was barely 18 years old. I was working as a dancer in a downtown dive. Mike would come in to visit the owner and to occasionally argue politics with the dancers. We became friends easily amidst bad music, sequins and good conversation. He invited me to his restaurant, and when I replied that I couldn’t afford it, he grabbed a cocktail napkin and scrawled “Good for 2 free dinners” and his signature.

In the years I’ve known him, Mike has always been generous with food and drink. I’ll bet he’s fed thousands of people out of his own pocket over the last 20 years or so. A few years later, I needed a job, and Mike hired me. Through my years at The Rose, I have been hugged, fed, listened to, yelled at, and joked with by Mike. I have learned about food, wine, politics, and human nature from him. I have drunk countless pints of Bass, eaten the best food in the city, and given too many back rubs to count. Life at The Rose has rolled on, usually amusing, frequently hectic, and occasionally profound. We bicker and joke like siblings. We are a big, beautiful group of dysfunctional people that somehow fit together perfectly as a family. Mama Robin and Big Daddy.

Robin phones me Thursday afternoon, out of breath and crying. Mike is in the hospital, and they think he has had a heart attack. Coincidentally, we are doing a large banquet at the Mendelssohn Club for the Heart of Rockford Awards that same day, and are all scheduled to meet at The Rose at 3:30. We know nothing of Mike’s condition, but we know that the show must go on. We meet as planned and are discussing Mike and the banquet when the phone rings shrilly. I answer it with trepidation. It is a nurse from SwedishAmerican Hospital, who tells me that Mike’s situation is grave. She also informs me that Mike is being “stoic and stubborn.” Big surprise. Although I feel sorry for the ER staff, it gladdens my heart to hear that he is still full of piss and vinegar, despite the seriousness of his situation. Mike is a fighter, and he is down, but not out.

We all ride together in Christa’s car except for Troy, who follows us in the van with the food. The kitchen in the Mendelssohn Club is about the size of a postage stamp, with a single sink and non-commercial appliances. We set up as best we can, and we do a bang-up job on the banquet. We work together to make sure that everything is beautiful, the food is fantastic, and the guests are elated. We do it for The Irish Rose and for Mike himself. He would be proud.

Later, I am thinking about Mike and how hard it is to sum up a person. There is no word in the English language or turn of phrase that can encompass all of who and what we are. Mike is a brilliant, talented, passionate, optimistic, hot-tempered, generous, stubborn, impatient, hilarious, sometimes crabby man who laughs easily and has a penchant for fine wine, finer food and the finest women. Hell, he is Irish. He is one of the most interesting people I have ever met and has always been a good friend to me. Heal quickly, Mike. We all miss you and love you, and The Rose is just a little too quiet without you. Your chair is waiting, and Kelly and I are ready to give back rubs as needed.

On my way to work, the flag on top of the Faust catches my eye. It is pointing east, toward SwedishAmerican Hospital. We all send a salute and best wishes to Mike with every ripple of that flag.

Jen Beksel is a waitress at the Irish Rose.

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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