All posts by Mark Loehrke

Civic Treasure

In a city lauded both locally and nationally—for everything from its vibrant downtown to its top-notch schools and
well-appointed park facilities—Naperville’s greatest resource of all may just be its consistently excellent public library system

By Mark Loehrke
Photography by Michael Zajakowski
Illustrations by Dale Crosby Close

Beyond the Books

Haven’t been to the library in a while? It’s still a great place to find the latest New York Times bestseller or a hot beach read for the summer. But at the Naperville Public Library the possibilities go well beyond the titles you might find on the microfiche or in the card catalog. (Just how long has it been since you last visited?) Residents not only can get their books, but enjoy these unexpected offerings as well:

Tax services
If the very thought of April 15 induces a mild panic attack, low-income residents (with household income less than $60K) can make appointments for free tax prep assistance.

Hot spot rental
When the home internet goes down or you’re headed to a Wi-Fi-challenged destination, the library can keep you online.

Homebound program
Though still paused due to the pandemic at presstime, the library hopes to soon restore its book delivery operation, which serves around 100 homebound and assisted-living patrons throughout Naperville.

Bike locks
Few things are more Americana than a trip to the local library by bicycle. And as long as they’re in the business of loaning things out, why not locks for kids who may have forgotten theirs at home?

3D printers
Library patrons can take advantage of this technology at all three locations, submitting online job files—for anything from a product prototype to a fidget spinner—for which the library charges by the gram and prints within a week or two.

Foreign language books
Started roughly eight years ago, the system’s ever-growing collection now carries titles spanning nine languages—all based on community suggestions and requests.

The library’s startup center helps budding entrepreneurs grow their businesses through a variety of programs, one-on-one help sessions, and access to resources.

Technology services
The library has come a long way since James Nichols opened his namesake building in 1898. In addition to 3D printers, patrons can take advantage of high-tech resources like a green-screen room, a sound recording studio, VHS-to-DVD converters, super fast scanners, and more.

Cheap Thrills
Rather than reach for your wallet, maybe reach for your library card instead and get access to all of these great services for free. You’re welcome.

Recording studio The Brady kids could have saved themselves a lot of trouble and talent show appearances if they had only known about this facility at the 95th Street branch.
Newspapers Print is NOT dead, as daily readers of the Washington Post and Naperville Sun well know.
Research Database subscriptions can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but not for Naperville library users.
Magazines Don’t want your subscription to People to land you on telemarketer lists? Read it through the library instead.
Movies Avoid extra streaming fees on movie night and borrow Hollywood’s latest and greatest, right from your local branch.
Classes Looking to learn a new skill or computer program? The library’s activity guide is packed with free technology sessions throughout the year.

Popularity Contest

What have Naperville residents been reading, playing, watching, and listening to in 2021?
Here are the library’s most popular checkouts so far this year, per system administrator Mary Golden.

Children’s Book
Cat Kid Comic Club by Dav Pilkey

Adult Fiction
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Adult Nonfiction
A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Medicine at Midnight by Foo Fighters


Video Game
Super Mario Maker 2 for Nintendo Switch

The notion that the library is a heavily enforced zone of complete and utter silence is a stubbornly persistent one. But while the Naperville libraries still have quiet areas for customers looking for that type of environment, there are also lively children’s departments where kids can play and plenty of space for people to meet or attend a program—without being shushed.

Trophy Case
Throughout the 1990s-era heyday of the Hennen’s American Public Library Ratings (HAPLR) index, the Naperville Library System regularly held the top spot nationally for its population range. And even as Library Journal’s America’s Star Libraries system has supplanted the HAPLR index in the 21st century, Naperville hasn’t missed a beat—earning the highest five-star ranking year after year in the $10- to $29.9-million budget category (with a budget of just under $16 million). “The awards we’ve won are all about library usage per capita, so that means we have a community that really utilizes its library in a way not all communities do,” says executive director David Della Terza. “That’s why I’m so happy to see us consistently getting the five-star honor, because it means the community is embracing the services we’re offering.”

LIEbrary MYTH 2 ■ Google > Library
How relevant is a library when almost everyone has a computer in their pocket? Follow-up question: How reliable is the information in your Facebook feed? Libraries provide quality information, expert researchers, and trained staff members who can help with anything from genealogy research to learning Microsoft Excel. And as the pandemic abates, the person-to-person contact of a library may prove even more welcome than ever before.

By the Numbers

Paying the bills
of property taxes go to
the public library system

Card carriers
About 41% of Naperville’s 149,167 residents were active
cardholders in 2020

Not your average year
Total library visits in 2020
(Average is 1.5 million)

Pandemic effect
Total checkouts in 2020
(Average is 4 million)

Multi ethnic group of pre-school children in a classroom.

An Integral Part of the Community

From partnering with local agencies to sponsoring blood drives, facilitating early voting and hosting programs for special-needs populations, the Naperville Public Library consistently holds itself out as much more than just a place to get books. The community partnership program includes nearly 150 local business and organizational allies that provide donations, program partnerships, promotions, and more, and afford the library fresh exposure to a host of residents who might not otherwise be aware of its services.

“Working with other organizations in Naperville helps to strengthen our relevance in the community and gives us the opportunity to help our partners and our community grow and thrive,” says deputy director Ellen Conlin.
She cites the library’s partnership with the Naperville Park District as one of its strongest, encompassing dozens of programs throughout the year at all three branches, as well as an annual farmers’ market in the 95th Street parking lot and Wi-Fi for the 95th Street Community Plaza. The library also maintains tight working relationships with both Naperville school districts and the local YMCA clubs, enrolling summer school students and summer camp participants in its Summer Reading Program.

Three Locations, Three Personalities
While most people tend to patronize the library branch closest to where they live, some gravitate toward a certain location because of its distinct atmosphere or personality. “I’ve actually worked out of all three locations over the course of my time at the library, and I really like that each one has its own feeling,” executive director David Della Terza says.

■ Nichols Library
Located right in the heart of downtown Naperville, Nichols is the anchor of the system and a bustling hub of activity, as people visiting nearby shops, restaurants, and the Riverwalk stop in to make it part of their day.

■ Naper Boulevard Library
Nestled in a residential area, the cozy Naper Boulevard branch has the most distinctly neighborhood feel of the three locations, where friendly, longstanding relationships between staff members and regular patrons are commonplace.

■ 95th Street Library
An open and spacious design—not to mention a focus on technology—helps give the 95th Street branch a very modern feel, and its proximity to Neuqua Valley High School ensures plenty of student and study-group traffic.

Life Cycle of a Bestseller

All it takes for a buzzy upcoming title to go supernova is a rave in a national publication, a movie adaptation announcement, or a breathless word from the mouth of Reese Witherspoon. The latter, for example, is likely what propelled The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave into the recent stratosphere for the library. Collection development librarian Kiersten Doucette says print holds shot up to more than 150 over a few days in May and eBook holds exceeded 100. Here’s how a red-hot book like this works its way through the system and into the hands of those excited readers.

Meet the Staff

David Della Terza
Executive Director
Having grown up in New Jersey, Della Terza moved to Naperville and attended Neuqua Valley High School (as part of its very first graduating class), then headed to Los Angeles to work in video editing. Upon returning to Naperville, he worked in IT at the library for 14 years before heading back to school to get his degree in library science and making the move into administration—where he celebrated his second anniversary as executive director in June. “I love this place,” Della Terza says. “It fits me and my goal of serving people.”

Sue Karas
Naper Boulevard Library Manager
A 23-year Naperville resident and mother of three, Karas began her career in corporate America as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and computer consultant. She joined the library as a part-time computer lab assistant 16 years ago, eventually moving on to computer lab associate, web associate, and digital services supervisor before earning her master’s degree and becoming branch manager. “I am so proud to be a part of an organization whose sole purpose is to serve our amazing community and help make an impact on people’s lives,” Karas says.

Jose Maldonado
95th Street Library Manager
He took over as manager of the south side branch in January after having amassed more than 15 years of experience in various roles—from branch clerk to bookmobile supervisor to circulation manager—at northern Chicagoland libraries from Arlington Heights to Palatine to Evanston. “I enjoy the culture and the people who work for the Naperville Public Library,” Maldonado says. “It is always my top priority when exploring a new work opportunity, and I liked what I saw and heard during my interview process here.”

Yan Xu
Nichols Library Manager
She originally came to the University of Illinois from China to pursue a master’s degree in journalism, but after finding both a knack and a passion for library work during her time there, Xu eventually decided to shift her focus. Twenty years later, including 12 in the Naperville system, she still loves the work. And even though she now manages Nichols, she has worked in all three locations over the years and hesitates to single out a favorite. “I can sincerely say every library is my favorite because of the dedicated staff and our supportive community,” Xu says.

LIEbrary MYTH 3 ■ Everything’s FINE (as in late fees)
Nobody likes to be nickel-and-dimed for being a day late on a book return, which is why the
Naperville libraries—after doing extensive research that found libraries without overdue fines see
the same return rates as libraries with fines—eliminated its overdue fines on all materials over the past year. Just be a good person and return your stuff on time.

Photos courtesy ymca of metro chicago, naperville park district

Protect and Serve

Diminutive drivers and pint-sized pedestrians return to the friendly confines of Safety Town

A sand castle at Centennial Beach. A footrace up (then a chaotic roll down) Rotary Hill. A stroll along the Riverwalk. For many kids who have grown up in Naperville, these are a few of the traditional markers of summertime in their hometown. And for tens of thousands of those youngsters, the season wouldn’t have been complete without one more tradition: a visit to Safety Town, the circa-1996 miniature metropolis at the corner of River and Aurora Roads that has taught generations of little ones how to safely navigate their suburban surroundings, largely through its popular one-week summer programs.

The Safety Town concept actually predates that familiar facility by almost two decades, stretching back to 1978 when the nationwide program was introduced by the Naperville Junior Woman’s Club and George Pradel (aka Officer Friendly) and held at a variety of temporary locations throughout the city. Since the late ’90s, participants have had the benefit of interacting with the scaled-down buildings, streets, railroad crossings, and traffic signals of the program’s now-permanent home that so many know and love.

Stacey Funk, however, was not one of those children. Odd, because Funk has held virtually every position available at Safety Town over the past decade—from high school team captain to college instructor to her current role as program director—but never attended the program as a child. Even so, she has shepherded thousands of kids through Safety Town and understands deeply just how important the program has been to so many Naperville families.

“It’s always nice to see so many people coming together to try to do something for kids and to help make Naperville a safer place,” says Funk, who is also an early education teacher in Community Unit School District 203.

After a 2020 season that was shut down by the pandemic, Funk and her staff have been eagerly welcoming back incoming kindergartners and first graders for the weeklong summer programs in June and July—as well as, for the first time, incoming second graders, who missed out last year.
As in recent years, each day of the program is once again dedicated to a particular theme (e.g., fire safety or personal safety) to give the week structure and cover the full gamut of safety-related topics.

Funk also has been busy promoting a couple of Safety Town’s latest offerings, which are designed to widen the age range and bring in some additional lessons: Safe Sitter, which teaches middle schoolers how to be good babysitters, and Safe@Home, for upper elementary and early middle school kids getting ready to stay home alone for the first time. While these newer programs are just starting to gain traction, Funk believes they’ll quickly grow through word of mouth to eventually join the main program as part of the fabric of childhood in Naperville.

“There’s such a community at Safety Town,” she says. “That’s what’s always drawn me back.”

Photo courtesy Safety Town

Stayin’ Alive

Tony Mattina and his Bee Gees tribute band spend a “Night on Broadway” this month in Aurora

July 30 at 8 p.m.
RiverEdge Park
360 N. Broadway, Aurora
Tickets $12–$21 |

An enduring legacy The popularity of the Bee Gees’ music is based on the unmistakable melodies and arrangements that people of all ages have loved and identified with over multiple decades. It’s so great to be able to travel around with this group of friends and musicians, meeting lots of people who still love to go out and enjoy this music.

Recreating the magic We believe that the audience wants to hear the songs we perform live to be as close as possible to the original recordings. The energy we can create by performing these great songs live onstage is the key to getting the audience inspired.

Mind the falsetto My favorite song to play is “To Love Somebody”—it was my father’s favorite Bee Gees song, and it’s one where the audience always sings along. The biggest challenge is the difficulty involved in hitting some of the higher notes, especially when we’re on a lengthy tour, sometimes with multiple shows in one day.

Photo courtesy Paramount

Pleasure Craft

Perhaps one of the unexpected boons of two decades of the craft beer explosion has been the corresponding arrival of so many brew-adjacent pubs and restaurants. Whether having outgrown the humble origins of their bare-bones, beer-only taprooms, or having ramped up their culinary aspirations as quickly as they have their brewing capacities, many craft beer brands have taken their knack for sourcing quality ingredients and building complex flavor profiles from the brew kettles to the kitchen—much to the benefit of the local dining scene.

One of the newer entrants to this still-burgeoning arena is Lock & Mule (1025 S. State St., Lockport, 815.526.0825,, the latest offshoot of the Ottawa, Illinois-based Tangled Roots Brewing Company that opened in January. Situated in a refurbished iteration of the historic Makin Building near the south end of downtown Lockport’s charming State Street, Lock & Mule stands as the third entry in Tangled Roots’ ambitious dining portfolio, joining outlets in Ottawa (the Lone Buffalo) and Glenview (Hangar Two).

“The Lock & Mule continues Tangled Roots’ commitment to fresh and innovative craft beer offerings, impressive culinary diversity and connections to the local community,” says general manager Dennis Bresingham. “While all of our locations offer fresh and innovative farm-to-table culinary options, each has a somewhat different style of service and a distinct aesthetic connection to its community. At Lock & Mule, it’s our wood-fire grill that inspires the recipes and menu choices.”

Cooking on the Canal
That wood-fire grill is the centerpiece of the partially open kitchen that runs along the back of the main dining area, an airy, exposed-beam space that feels both historic and modern all at once. Decorative flourishes include large murals and a variety of ropes, cables, and locks in a nod to Lockport’s canal shipping past. While the back patio and a handful of tables on the front sidewalk constitute the true alfresco options at Lock & Mule, the restaurant has also preserved two of the Makin’s large garage doors to serve as the façade, allowing the entire front of the building to let the outdoors in as warm summer nights warrant.

The long copper-top bar running down the right side of the dining room was a lively option on the night of our visit, with patrons sampling from the craft cocktail slate and enjoying everything from golden IPAs to husky porters from more than a dozen tap handles spanning the Tangled Roots brewing spectrum. On the other side of the glass, meanwhile, those beers were slowly coming to life in the gleaming tanks of the production brewery.

Beyond the Beer
Like the best of its brewpub brethren, Lock & Mule gives its food the attention it deserves, with a menu from chef Manuel Briseno and his team that ventures far beyond standard bar grub to include a full selection of steak and fresh seafood options. Even so, we decided to start our evening with a couple of more traditional beer hall favorites—a warm and chewy Bavarian pretzel served with spicy German mustard and beer cheese for dipping and a trio of just-tangy-enough Buffalo chicken sliders from the handhelds section.
For the main course, we chose a perfectly cooked petite fillet—topped with a bleu cheese crust and a pile of crispy onion straws—from an entrée list that included other steaks, baby back ribs, beer can chicken, and a half-dozen fish selections. Noticing that Lock & Mule had jumped on the Detroit-style bandwagon for its three pizza options, we also shared one of these crusty-edged rectangular wonders—our margherita version boasting pesto, tomato, roasted garlic, mozzarella, and Pecorino Romano atop its thick, chewy crust.
But the real revelation came at the end of the evening as we sampled dessert. The Death by Chocolate Cake—while truly massive, insanely rich and, thankfully, non-lethal—was certainly tasty, but the clear showstopper was the éclair cake, a monthly rotating option that, on this night, employed peanut butter and chocolate in its creamy composition. Not only did it provide the perfect punctuation for the meal, it proved yet again that you don’t necessarily have to be a beer lover to love the fringe benefits of the craft beer movement.

Photos courtesy Tangled Roots Brewing Co.

Larry Aschebrook

A sporting match After playing football for over 20 years of my life, I needed a contact sport that I could continue to play at a high level. To me polo is like football on horseback. I started playing in 2012, and after a few lessons I was hooked. I grew up on a horse farm,
so riding was the easy part.

Building on tradition Chicago has a long history of the sport of polo. Our goal is to build off the past and create a brighter future of past traditions while adding new ones to get more people involved—so Chicago will once again be Polo Town USA.

A bright future at Arranmore After establishing Chicago’s only full-service club in 2019 with the creation of Las Brisas Farm and Polo Club in Elgin, our membership has outgrown our current facility. Having Las Brisas offer programing at Arranmore Farm + Polo Club seemed like a perfect fit to grow polo in the Chicagoland area.

Photo courtesy Arranmore Farm + Polo Club

Hang time at Hizemans

As with many things in the hypercompetitive world of sports, the calculus at work in the sports bar arena often tends toward the equation of “bigger = better,” with many establishments leaning into this mindset by trumpeting their hangar-like square footage, encyclopedic menus, and can-you-top-this food and drink specials that sometimes read more like dares than enticements.

But the crew behind the popular Empire Burger Bar is looking to upend that stereotypical blueprint with its new sports bar in downtown Naperville. With a name that plays on that of the Heisman Trophy of college football fame, Hizemans (218 S. Washington St., 630.362.6872, gives a stiff-arm to any preconceived notion of what a place like this can, or should, be. The requisite high-definition buffet of televised competition is offered up, of course, but all within the cozier and higher-end confines of a different kind of sports bar.

“We can see almost anyone coming in to enjoy themselves at Hizemans,” says owner Will Cullen. “Whether it’s a group of girlfriends sharing some punch bowls, a family coming in for dinner, or a bunch of guys coming to watch the game, our goal was to take the sports viewing experience to a new level in a more polished but still casual setting.”

Big Bird chicken sandwich

Small Ball
Wedged into a tight spot on Washington, Hizemans’ long, narrow footprint lends itself to a more intimate and urban feel than the typical sprawling warehouse setup of so many of its sports bar brethren (this writer was immediately reminded of a more upscale version of McGee’s Tavern & Grille near the DePaul University campus in Lincoln Park [insert your own blurry collegiate memory here]). While the tufted leather booths, antique brass lighting, and custom maple bar top could lead one to believe Hizemans just might be outkicking its coverage a bit, the 20-foot wall of televisions showing everything from baseball to bowling to badminton brings everything back into focus. Despite the luxe accoutrements, at its heart this is still just a great place to watch the game.

In keeping with the higher-end and more condensed scene, the menu here, too, is a compact but elevated take on the traditional sports bar lineup. While the beverage slate is fairly expansive—with more than two dozen draft and canned beer selections sharing space with a host of agaves, whiskeys, and craft cocktails like the H.O.F. (Hall of Fame), a newfangled old-fashioned made with Redwood bourbon and bacon-infused maple syrup—the food selection is a more streamlined affair, covering the tried-and-true sports bar bases while managing to work in a few signature moves.

Ecto cooler

Next Level
Buffalo chicken wings are, of course, one of those sports bar staples. And while Hizemans naturally serves up the wings themselves (albeit in their whole free-range form here, a far cry from the 10-cent breaded bones at many places), we decided to get our Buffalo fix from the Buff Chix waffle fries—a tangy, messy, delicious poutine platter. Given the corporate lineage, it was not at all surprising to find a trio of solid burger creations on the menu, including the cheese-from-all-angles Patty Lucy. But we opted instead for a couple of sandwiches: one right down the middle, the other much more of a curveball.

Even as we live through what historians will surely deem peak chicken sandwich times, the Hizemans Big Bird stands out—not for any particular novelty, mind you, but rather as a straightforward, well-executed entry that nevertheless manages to rise above its simplicity. The Elote Dog, meanwhile, has no obvious comparative peer. A bit of an aesthetic train wreck (though no more so than a classic Chicago-style dog), this Wagyu beef dog truly delivers in the flavor department, tucked beneath a blanket of nontraditional toppings like bacon, charred corn, elote slaw, queso fresco, jalapeño crema, and cilantro. Unconventional to be sure, but as hot dogs go, this is an all-star turn.

Looking to send our sweet tooth out smiling—and armed with memories of the greasy-good doughnuts at Empire—we finished up with an order of the funnel fries: deep fried dough with cinnamon sugar, powdered sugar, and chocolate sauce, the lone dessert on the menu. Not surprisingly, they turned out to be very much like the standard carnival treat, but somehow just a few steps up. And therefore an apt representation of the overall Hizemans philosophy.

Photo courtesy Hizemans

Diana Martinez

The MAC’s director gets ready to unveil a highly anticipated, pandemic-delayed exhibition

Portrait of the artist Frida Kahlo was such a dynamic personality—not just as an artist, but as a feminist, a romantic, a fashion icon, an activist, a gardener. But I think the overarching thing that people seem to gravitate to is her ability to overcome adversity—that’s what makes her such an inspiration to so many people. To become a notable artist as a female in the 1930s and ’40s was quite a remarkable feat, and she made an impression all over the world.

Building Frida’s world The show includes 26 original works and more than a hundred photos, as well as a historical timeline that gives visitors the context of her life. But I’m probably most excited about the children’s area and the garden, which will really help people experience the culture of Mexico during Frida’s lifetime. Experts from Ball Horticulture have identified plants in her paintings and are growing them for an outdoor potted garden on our patio, and the children’s area features illustrations, coloring projects, and a video for kids that helps explain Frida’s life.

An artistic coup This is the largest Frida Kahlo exhibition in the Chicago area in more than 40 years—our curator [Cleve Carney Museum of Art director Justin Witte] calls it the “Super Bowl of the art world.” A collection like this would normally go to major metropolitan museum in Milan or Moscow or London, so to have it come to Glen Ellyn is really groundbreaking. We believe that Frida would love this—she had a passion for education, so she would love to see a show like this in a community college setting that’s so accessible to students and the public.

Frida Kahlo: Timeless
June 5-September 6
Cleve Carney Museum of Art
425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
Tickets $23-$40 |

Photo courtesy McAninch Arts Center

Dr. Mark Gomez

An unexpected calling
Being a podcaster was never part of my career plan—I just wanted to take care of patients the best way that I could. And it wasn’t until I decided to take this leap of faith that I realized just how meaningful and valuable this could be to the community that I serve. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to inspire people to be the healthiest version of themselves that they can be. That’s what this podcast is all about.

A broad palette
We’re not afraid to cover anything and everything—from mental, sexual, and cardiovascular health to fitness, nutrition, and herbal medicine. Anything that pertains to health and well-being, and gives people the tools and resources they need to be successful with their health, we’re going to talk about it. The great thing is that every topic has the potential to be the thing that starts a listener on a journey to change and better self-care.

Extending the conversation
The biggest thing that patients always say to their physician is that they wish they had more time during their appointments to talk about different health issues. People want more information and they want to be invested in their health, but their primary care physician might be seeing 25 people a day. So there’s never enough time to have those discussions. Hopefully, we’re helping to fill that gap, and maybe something they hear on the podcast while they’re driving to work or folding the laundry might be the thing that stimulates them to do something different with respect to their health trajectory.

All episodes of Health 360 With Dr. G are available at

Photo courtesy Edward-Elmhurst Health

Timely Tradition

Linguini vongole

From the homemade bread craze to the ongoing pizza explosion, the nostalgic draw of comfort food has proven to be one of the hallmarks of the pandemic. So while there may be a time when it makes sense to perhaps try and reinvent a cuisine, the folks at Positano (17W460 22nd Street, 630.501.1177, seem fairly adamant in their belief that 2021 is not that time for Italian food—because few things in this world better fit the comfort food sensibility than a straightforward plate of pasta.

Originally aiming for an early 2020 debut in Oakbrook Terrace, Positano ended up taking a COVID-inspired pause before eventually opening its doors in mid-December. But shifting plans seems to be something of a recurring theme at the family-run business, with co-owner Bill Burris noting that he was initially on board only to review and advise his brother-in-law on the restaurant’s lease arrangement. But instead he wound up as a 50-50 partner—and now he wouldn’t change a thing.

“This is just such a friendly, approachable place,” Burris says. “From the big bar up front to the sincere tableside service to the great food coming out of the kitchen, I’m really proud to have my name associated with what we’re doing here.”

Ruffino wine selection with linguini fruitta di mare

Settling In
Burris says that the goal was for Positano to be place where people would want to settle in and relax for a couple of hours—not just to enjoy a meal, but to let an evening unfold. Sure enough, there’s a distinct sense of warmth and laid-back charm upon entering the handsome space that feels light years away from the bustle of west suburban traffic out on 22nd Street. The hardwood floors and exposed beams give the deceptively large room a loft-like feel, while the black-and-white scenes lining the walls hark back the restaurant’s namesake village on Italy’s famed Amalfi Coast.

Amid ongoing capacity restrictions on the night of our visit in mid-February, the bar that lines the right side of the space had only a handful of patrons. But it was clearly designed to be a focal point, and one could easily envision a time in the not-so-distant future when every seat might be filled by not only diners waiting for tables, but plenty of folks just looking to while away an evening with a glass of Italian red or a signature cocktail like the Godfather old-fashioned.

Polpette con polenta

Hale and Hearty
As expansive as the wine list is, the dinner menu at Positano is equally impressive—not for its innovative excursions or culinary flights of fancy so much as the sheer breadth of its offerings. With more than a dozen pasta preparations, a handful of pizza options, and a plethora of chicken, veal, fish, and steak or chop dishes, one could easily spend those couple of hours that Burris spoke of simply trying to narrow down his or her choices.
We kicked things off with a traditional choice from the appetizer slate: three meatballs slathered in a tomato-basil sauce with a base of creamy polenta. The decisions got increasingly more difficult from there, but we came to an amicable split-share pairing of penne con pollo, featuring grilled chicken and spinach in a garlic cream sauce, plus risotto with grilled shrimp, scallops, and porcini mushrooms in a rich saffron broth. Rounding out the table were several side dishes: roasted potato wedges, a link of Italian sausage in red sauce, and a plate of fire-roasted spinach—with the latter leafy green emerging as the clear gold medal winner among this trio, and a perfect add-in for the allotment already present in the pasta dish.

The downside of such a broad and inviting menu, of course, is the many possibilities that don’t get sampled. But we comforted ourselves with a couple of solid options from the dessert menu—a pair of cannoli done exceedingly well (though, oddly, without the traditional pistachio garnishment) and the bombolini, two brioche doughnuts served alongside whipped mascarpone cheese and hot fudge (as all doughnuts should be henceforth).

Like the rest of the meal, both desserts were traditional in execution and neither seemed particularly geared toward reinventing the wheel, and that was just as it should be. After all, sometimes the old wheel provides exactly the kind of comfortable ride the moment calls for.

Photos by Jaime Campanelli

From the Hearth

A spread including grilled baby gem salad, scallops, and lavraki

As culinary curve balls in early 2021 go, a new hearth-fired Greek concept from the venerable Francesca’s Restaurant Group isn’t really as much of a leap as it might first appear.

While one might have expected something more in the company’s predominantly Italian wheelhouse, like current Naperville outposts La Sorella di Francesca or Francesca’s Passaggio, a Grecian departure from that formula represents, geographically speaking, just a quick jaunt across the Mediterranean Sea. It’s certainly less of a global leap than its nearby
taco-and-tequila joint Fat Rosie’s, another Francesca’s offshoot. And,
as it turns out, the trip to Greece makes perfect sense given the marriages of the folks behind Vasili’s (135 Water St., Naperville, 630.328.0431,, which takes its name from Francesca’s chef/owner Scott Harris’s father-in-law, Papou Vasili (“papou” is Greek for “grandfather”), and its culinary approach from executive chef/partner Jaysen Euler, who married into a Greek family.

Vasili’s chips

Hearth and Soul
Despite that sepia-toned inspiration, however, Euler didn’t feel hidebound to tradition in conjuring his vision of Greece along the DuPage. While there is indeed plenty of familiar fare to be found on the menu, those classic recipes often serve simply as springboards to something new.

“I like to think of it as refined rusticity,” he says. “We’re taking some of these Old-World Mediterranean recipes and presenting them in a way that is elevated but approachable. We want customers to feel like they’re walking into a comfortable little seaside restaurant in Greece.”

That feeling is imbued by a massive wood-fired hearth that anchors the space, with nearly every seat in the sleekly designed dining room sharing at least a partial view of the flames. And as winter cedes to spring in the coming weeks and months, guests will have the option of forgoing that view for the warm breezes and lively crowds on the outdoor patio. But wherever they choose to enjoy their meal, chances are that whatever they choose for that meal will serve as a reminder of the hearth, with much of the menu being touched by its oak-inspired heat.

Chocolate olive oil cake

Mediterranean Mindset
The balance between tradition and innovation at Vasili’s is on display from the outset on the appetizer slate, where old-school favorites like saganaki (flaming cheese—have your best “opa!” at the ready) and Euler’s recommended loukaniko (Greek sausage) share space with roasted bone marrow and wood-fired oysters. Openers also include a selection of shareable spreads—including melitzanosalata (roasted eggplant and garlic) and taramosalata (whipped fish roe with thyme and smoked paprika)—to enjoy with crusty grilled sourdough. We opted for a flaky, spinach-packed version of classic spanakopita and a basket of the can’t-stop-eating-them Vasili’s chips, lightly fried slices of eggplant and zucchini with a side of tried-and-true tzatziki.

Chef Jaysen Euler and GM Kevin Roskoskey

Of course, tzatziki is probably best known in America as the condiment of choice for that pita-clad staple of the strip mall hot dog joint, the humble gyro. And while that very ubiquity might cause other diners to belt out a modified Tina Turner riff (“We Don’t Need Another Gyro”) and move on to options with a little more ambition, I was interested in what a place like Vasili’s could do with one of the standards of the genre. This version plays it straight down the middle, with slices of fresh tomato, cucumber, and onion complementing the tender lamb-and-beef combo—well played all around.
Both the skewers (beef, lamb, chicken, or pork) and the seafood slate (from bass to scallops to octopus) offer plenty of ways to sample from the hearth (as did the expansive mixed grill), but we opted for another inspired nod to tradition, Yiayia Penny’s pastitsio—a rich mélange of baked pasta, meat sauce, and kefalograviera cheese that could warm up the coldest of winter nights. We put a period on the meal (or in this case, an exclamation point) with the banana cream Napoleon, an elegant take on banana pudding with a kicker of salted caramel to finish things off.

And we were nary a bit disappointed that Francesca’s didn’t come through with another lasagna or eggplant Parmesan with their latest foray into Naperville. The trip to another port in the Mediterranean proved to be yet another voyage worth taking with this crew—and a most welcome curve ball to help kick off 2021.