Rockton Inn–Part One

Rockton Inn–Part One

By By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Dining Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants.” These reviews are also available on his website: and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

I am at the Irish Rose North. It’s a Saturday and I am cooking. I love to cook at my restaurant in Rockton. Then the rush dies down. Susie, my manager, and I look at each other. My friend, Elisha, is in on the action. Let’s go out back for a break; it’s a beautiful spring night. We sit on what we call the back patio at Irish Rose North and drink Chardonnay. I bring up the subject of doing some of my columns in the neighborhood, the Rockton-Roscoe neighborhood, and I want to do the Rockton Inn first. Susie says that would be a really good idea, since Frank and Sue had just come to our Chamber event at the Irish Rose North, and they were the only restaurant owners who did. I ask her If she and her husband Randy will go to the Rockton Inn with me a week from Sunday, and she says yes. Then I ask Elisha if she would like to accompany us, and she says she might be able to go but doesn’t know for sure. But I know I can have a good time with just Randy and Susie, and I say so. So now I have a mission. I have something to write, and I’ll bet we have a damn good time, and that’s most important of all. It always is.

Twenty-five years ago, I was moving to California. My ex-wife, Robin, and I were living near the North Main and Auburn intersection. One day, just before I left for California, I stopped in a new restaurant nearby that was being created in an old building on Main Street. I was tremendously impressed with the decor. That was the fabled Jungle Jim’s. That was the start of the Jim Vitale legend in Rockford. After I lived in California, Indianapolis and New York, at about the same time I started the Old Rock River Cafe in the State and Madison building, Jim sold the restaurant to a young man named Joel Kaplan from my old alma mater, Beloit College. I remember hearing the price was $350,000, and we thought that was a lot of money.

Joel ran the restaurant successfully for a number of years. Tom Sullivan worked for him as a chef. (Later Tom had a catering business down on Seventh Street, where Mung Lao was for a while. After that, he had a restaurant on State Street where somebody is trying to start a brewpub now.) Later on in his career, Joel married Sue, and she became an integral part of the business. Please don’t expect the details from me; I didn’t know either of them that well. Joel and Sue broke up, there was a divorce, and Sue, with one of the chefs from Jungle Jim’s, Frank Bartels, started out anew at the Rockton Inn.

When they first took over the Rockton Inn, their approach resembled Jingle Jim’s; then they learned the same hard lesson I was to learn later. Rockton wasn’t necessarily ready for Jungle Jim’s. The hamburgers returned to the menu; that’s not so bad, keeps us honest. Sometimes we just feel like hamburgers too, but it’s not always easy to admit. We like to be cool. It’s hard to get In tune with your real feelings. SOMETIMES YOU JUST WANT A HAMBURGER. WHAT’S WRONG WITH THAT?

For more than 20 years, I was a pretty regular runner. One day I ran to Rockton with my friend Anne Fishler. We were planning on running in the Cheese City Chase, a half marathon associated with Cheese Days in Monroe. I thought about Anne lately because Joe Hemlock stopped in. It was right after I wrote an article about Jack Pine (Anderson). In that article, I talked about the ceiling molding Jack had made for Rosalita Malone’s (the restaurant I was associated with in Loves Park). It was mahogany with inlaid pine and cocobolo. Joe brought me a piece of the molding from his garage; he had saved it all these years. I met Anne through Joe and their roommate, Al Lascasas. They lived downstairs from me on Penfield Avenue. I think Joe was dating Anne first, or maybe it was Al. Anyway, that’s not too important now.

Anne and I dropped a car off in Rockton the night before. The next day we ran up Rockton Avenue from Anne’s apartment near Rockton and Auburn. When we got to Rockton, we went to the Rockton Inn for beers. Made sense then, still does today. I often sneak out the back door of the Irish Rose North to let John, the bartender, make me a Manhattan when I am cooking there on Fridays and Saturdays. He knows how to chill the whiskey and vermouth totally and strain it into an up glass. Not too many bartenders know how to do that today. I’m going to have one of his Manhattans when we eat there.

Sunday comes, and Susie calls me to touch bases. I suddenly realize that they may not be open because of the holiday. Susie says she will call them and calls me back to say they are not there. We make plans to go Tuesday night. Susie says that’s better since we will get the whole feel of having dinner there in the evening. I agree, and it’s still in time before this article appears in The Rock River Times, and that lets me use this beautiful Sunday for a motorcycle ride.

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