Hanging Out in Rockford: Making sausages and other things

By Mike Leifheit


For a long time, I have been thinking about making sausages. What set me off originally was discovering that my pork loin producer in Chicago was selling 80 percent lean trim for around a half a dollar per pound. I am always looking for a way to provide value, and here I thought was a capital one. Katy Larson and I have been working on a restaurant idea for several years, and I thought this would be one way we could set ourselves apart from other restaurants—homemade sausages.

Amity Packing is, in my opinion, the finest purveyor of wholesale pork loin products in the Chicago area. They exist mainly to make the beautiful baby back ribs served in a lot of the finest Chicago restaurants (among other things). This means they select young male pigs (always light pink in color, never red), with just the right amount of marbling, for their pork products. Chuck Prorok’s dad was a butcher there. Chuck said his dad always said the same thing, “the finest.”

I put out a call to an equipment seller in Galena, Ill., a guy I’ve been doing business with for 25 or more years—Bill Davis—to find me a big commercial grinder. He calls me to say he has found one. I am very excited, and Monday, I drive to Galena where he is delivering some equipment to a pizza restaurant. I meet him at Joe’s Pizza, 21 W. Stephenson St., the owner of which (Frank Valenti) immediately announces he knows me. We met 20 years ago when I was building the Irish Rose.

Twenty years ago: I am working on the tin ceiling in the back dining room. Over the years, various leaks and construction have pretty much destroyed the once-beautiful ceiling, but there is a goodly amount of the same tin in the kitchen, and I steal that for replacement parts. When there isn’t enough to finish the job, I buy some that is very similar from Dennis Clement down at the Surf Lounge (now Bar 3. If you look closely today, you can see the difference in some of the tiles.)

I am standing on a ladder pounding tin into place when I notice two people staring at me. One of them is Jack Lucesse, Philippe Forcioli’s father-in-law, and the other is the present-day pizza guy, Frank. Jack teaches my mom to bake the bread we still bake to this day. So here I am in Freeport, 20 years later, and Frank recognizes me. His memory is better than mine, but he is younger. We eat huge beef sandwiches, and he brings us slices of pizza. I can only eat half of my beef sandwich, but the pizza is so delicious I keep going back for bite after bite until it is gone.

Frank shows off his big, beautiful kitchen. I’m really jealous. The kitchen at the Irish Rose is a galley kitchen, but we put out an amazing amount of food for such a little space. Frank won’t let us pay for our lunch, so Bill leaves a tip, and we go out in front of the restaurant to load my grinder. Bill, who is 66, picks it up by himself and loads it in my van. He is in amazing shape for his age, but he works hard every day. I drive back to Rockford with the grinder. I am so excited. Later that evening, Jonathon is waiting tables, and he spots the grinder sitting under the waitress check-in table. He gets as excited about the project as I am.

The next day, on the way to the market, I can think of nothing but sausages. My mind runs amuck with ideas for different kinds. Finally, I settle on an idea for dark-meat chicken, partly because I can buy that in small amounts. I get 10 pounds of fresh, boneless, skinless dark meat from Economy Packing and pick up some extra basil (fresh and organic, of course) from Cornille Produce and some jalapeno peppers from Quality Foods.

On the way back from the city, I call Jonathon on his cell phone and leave a message when he doesn’t answer. “Want to make some sausages? Call me.”

More next week.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the September 2-8, 2009 issue

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