Idle Inn–Part I

Idle Inn–Part I

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Norte (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit, reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it “from scratch.”

One of the last things my son said to me before leaving for Cambodia was, “Dad, I think you should write about Uncle Frank when you do your column.” Uncle Frank was the former mayor of Loves Park. He built the Riverside Bridge and financed it with tolls. I didn’t think too much about it then because I had to cook at my restaurant in Rockton.

After cooking at Norte (now to be called Irish Rose Norte, as of Jan. 1), I stopped for one or two beers at Serrano’s. Lawrence Smith was there. So was Rozene. Rozene is married to Lawrence. Notice I didn’t say Lawrence and Rozene Smith. That’s not how it works. Don’t get me wrong; they are closely attached but infinitely separate. They are both their own human beings. But the amazing thing is how cool they are about it.

Actually, I think Rozene is the coolest about it because she always seems so totally together. One of those totally collected personalities who doesn’t need to assert herself, and in doing so (or would it be in not doing so?), in the end winds up controlling the field.

Lawrence, on the other hand, is outgoing and outspoken. Don’t get him on issues unless you want to know what he thinks, because he will tell you. Lawrence is a managing director of Charlotte’s Web. Bill and Karen Howard started Charlotte’s Web in what, at one time, was a Jewish synagogue on First Street. I don’t know for sure, but judging from the age and location, I would be willing to bet that it was Rockford’s first. I went from Lawrence Smith to Rockford’s first synagogue in one paragraph.

When I moved to California to work for the RC Cola Company of Sacramento, my only regrets were New American Theater and Charlotte’s Web. I felt as though we finally had something of substance in Rockford, and I was deserting. Another night at Serrano’s, Karen Howard took credit for Robin’s and my getting in the restaurant and bar business. She said we were one of the good things to come out of the Web. I was deeply touched.

So I was sitting at Serrano’s talking to Lawrence and Rozene. First, we were talking about ribs, and then we were talking about my column. This inspired me, so I said that we should go somewhere, and I would write about it. The next thing I know, we are making plans to go to the Idle Inn for ribs a week from that Saturday.

Lawrence asked me if I had ever been to the Idle Inn, and I told him not for 30 years. Not since Jimmy Hughes, Jimmy Loring and I ran the concessions at the Palace Theater on South Main Street for Uncle Frank’s wrestling promotions. Uncle Frank owned Freeport Raceway. Jimmy Loring was his son-in-law. I was like his son. I brought Jimmy Hughes to the party. I met him when I was running an RC Cola route on Broadway. He had a small home-owned grocery. Together, we formed Valid Enterprises to run the concessions at Freeport Raceway. When Uncle Frank was going to promote wrestling, he had asked us to do the concessions.

Uncle Frank ran Larson Brothers Sand and Gravel with his brothers Ed, Art and Hilmer. I worked there dumping gravel bins in the summer when I was going to Beloit College. After college, I worked at National Can on Material Avenue. Then I took a job delivering soft drinks for the Rockford Nehi-RC Cola Company on North Main Street. My route was on Broadway. That is where I met Jimmy Hughes.

One night, Jimmy, Jimmy and I were out hitting the town. There weren’t many places on the south side Jimmy Loring hadn’t been to. He was the nephew of Ralph Cervantes, the celebrated fighter. Ralph trained Jimmy. He thought Jimmy should go professional. Jimmy was good. Jimmy Hughes and I would go anywhere with Jimmy Loring. He trained

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From page 10

at Booker Washington Center.

We were all over the south end of Main Street, drinking beer and playing pool. Finally, we wound up at the Idle Inn. There are three white guys in the place. Jimmy was beating some guy from out of town at pool. (Have you ever noticed that guys like Jimmy are always really good at pool?) The black kid picked a fight with Jimmy. All of a sudden, to the total amazement of the out-of-towner, everyone in the place was rooting for Jimmy to kick his butt. Many of the young black men in the bar also worked out at Booker. Jimmy had sparred with them and earned their respect. Jimmy said, “That guy didn’t know who he was picking on.”

I said that Uncle Frank was like my dad. Many people thought he was my dad. He was my mother’s lover for most of my life until he passed away. It was one of those things everyone knew, but no one talked about. Things were different in those days. After Frank had died, my mother told me that he wasn’t my father. I guess she should have known. My real father was an infantryman from Chicago named Earnest Tompkins. I never met him.

Uncle Frank was, in many ways, ahead of his time. He was a preservationist before it was popular. Perhaps that is where I developed my love for old things. When a commission was formed to tear down the original Winnebago County Courthouse, Frank went to court to try to stop them. In order to get around his lawsuit, they condemned the dome. They figured that if they tore the dome off, and it was ugly, the public would not be as supportive of keeping the old building. It did look ugly without the dome.

Frank went quietly behind the scenes to buy the dome from the demolition company. He wanted to put it atop the Lakeview Supper Club so that it would be there in 100 years as a testament to governmental corruption. Unfortunately, the powers that were caught wind of his plan and prevented him from taking possession (I believe on the basis that it had been condemned and therefore could not be reused architecturally) A lot of stuff was done that way in Rockford. Some would say it still is.

What’s all this got to do with ribs? Everything, as you will find out in next week’s installment.

To be continued…

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