When Ed Kotynski removed poison ivy around his shed, he thought he took plenty of precautions. “I wore gloves and covered my neck and arms,” he recalls. “But as I tore out the roots embedded in the walls of the shed, it created a lot of dust. At the time I didn’t know there was more poison in the roots than the leaves—and that is what I was inhaling.” Kotynski ended up with systemic poisoning that left him miserable for months while he recovered on prescription steroids.
While we tend to think of our yards and gardens as oases, it’s not all, well, a bed of roses. Other botanical villains possibly lurking include poison oak (similar to poison ivy); water hemlock (very deadly even to touch) with white or green frilly, umbrella-like blossoms; and wild parsnip (its sap causes burns when activated by sunlight) with lacy yellow blooms.
The good news, however, is that not all noxious plants are outright deadly. “A lot are toxic,” explains Jamie Viebach, horticultural educator at the Illinois University Extension in Naperville. “But (a) they won’t taste good, so most of us won’t eat much of them, and (b) the worst many will give you is an upset stomach—barring allergic reactions because people do have allergies.” Of course, children and pets need supervision, so pay close attention to what’s growing on and near your property.
Some unwelcome invaders are downright dicey, like giant hogweed, a hard-to-miss 15- to 20-foot-tall plant that causes painful chemical burns if touched, landing it on many Illinois naturalists’ “most dangerous” lists.
Some toxic plants, however, actually have been invited. “In the past 10 years, more people like to put tropicals on their patios for a pop of color, like oleander and angel’s trumpet,” says Liz Holmberg, newly retired greenhouse owner and manager of Lizzie’s Garden for the past 32 years. “All parts of oleander are toxic, so you don’t want to roast your marshmallows on it.” Other common decorative plants she cautions against are philodendrons, caster beans, yews, and foxgloves, whose stems, leaves, flowers, and resulting pods are all harmful in varying degrees.
Watch out for the Jekyll-and-Hyde plants, which can be both perfectly edible or terribly toxic. Cow parsnip (often confused with giant hogweed) is six feet tall and can cause burns, but its leaves and seeds are edible when harvested and prepared properly. Elderberries also warrant caution—while ripe berries are used as immunity-boosters, there are low levels of cyanide in the shrub’s leaves, stems, and unripe fruit. Likewise, rhubarb stalks may make for an excellent pie filling, but its leaves are poisonous to humans and animals. Pokeweed, which pops up with its long clusters of deep-purple berries, is toxic. But Native Americans, early pioneers, and Southern foodies enjoy its spring leaves, rendered safe after thorough boiling. So, it depends.
All in all, though, it’s best to always play it safe. “Look, here’s some general, common-sense advice: If you are planting for decoration–don’t eat those plants,” Holmberg says.” Don’t eat your hydrangea. Don’t eat the daisies.”
Fighting Poison Ivy
No part of poison ivy is safe to touch—all of this native-but-nasty plant contains a toxic, oily resin called urushiol. When removing the plant, always wear a mask and eye protection as well as rubber gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and work boots.
Cut all the stems to the ground and seal them in a plastic bag. Be careful not to tear or rip the vines so as not to release urushiol into the air. Next, dig out the roots and bag these for disposal as well (don’t compost any part of the plant). Never burn poison ivy because the smoke can be toxic, irritating your eyes and lungs.
Afterward, clean your tools with vinegar and turn your clothes inside out and wash them separately from other laundry. Just throw the gloves away, and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Photos: University of Illinois Extension (water hemlock and pokeweed); iStock
Rosie’s Home Cookin’ proudly dishes up comfort food
Some Marines, when they’re called into battle, will kiss a crucifix or rub a well-worn charm for extra strength. Others will clutch an old photo, blurred by sweat and tears, to remind them what—and who—they are fighting for. And sometimes, as in the case of retired Major Lynn Lowder, clinging tight to a simple, sweet memory of home can work wonders, too.
After all the battles he’s fought—some on foreign battlefields, others on the homefront, helping veterans find the confidence and connections to become entrepreneurs via the Veterans Business Project—Lowder, who served in Vietnam, still waxes nostalgic about a diner he used to frequent in Lovington, Illinois.
Oh, those farm-fresh eggs. The smell of fresh-brewed coffee. The laughter. The gossip. The feeling of community. “When you walked into that place,” Lowder says, “no one was a stranger.”
His affection for old-school diners remained so strong over the years that he decided to open one last year in Naperville (1567 N. Aurora Rd.) He named it Rosie’s Home Cookin’. Like any good soldier (or Marine), he understands the importance of good grub. Old-fashioned biscuits and gravy. Southern potatoes made with a pound of butter per serving. Open-faced meatloaf sandwiches. Skillets. Burgers. And mugs full of hot joe—with the option to spike each with a pat of butter (not the usual in most mess halls).
But Rosie’s was meant to celebrate more than good food. It’s a living museum of symbols, artifacts, and expressions of faith that carried Lowder through many difficult days. The color scheme—scarlet red, light army-green, and white—are a salute to his beloved corps. There’s a dedicated Missing Man table (above), its chair always vacant, that memorializes every soldier who went to war but didn’t come home. The walls are adorned with Norman Rockwell prints, chosen by his wife, a tribute to down-home values and Rosie the Riveter, the diner’s iconic namesake. And there’s the military discounts, which make the inexpensive fare even more affordable for those who’ve served.
“The way you dishonor a warrior who comes home,” says Lowder, a Purple Heart recipient, “is you deny them the dignity of their experiences.” What Lowder has done at Rosie’s, via food and conversation and good service, is the opposite. It’s Lowder’s way of remaining “always faithful”—Semper fidelis—to a way of serving others that’s as immortal as the corps itself.
The mascot for Hangry Joe’s Hot Chicken in Naperville—a chafed-looking chicken boasting a fireball hairdo and flames for feathers—would’ve made an excellent addition to the Angry Bird franchise. And it’s an apt symbol for the Virginia-based chain’s unabashedly spicy chicken. At the newly opened Naperville location (760 Rte. 59), operated by Gulam Fatani and his extended family, you’re invited to select your chicken configuration (sandwich, nuggets, fingers) and your desired level of spice. Each tick on the heat spectrum leans on a different pepper, from mild (jalapeño) and medium (cayenne) all way up to a waiver-required Angry Hot (ghost pepper). For those who aren’t interested in popping Prevacid after their meals, there’s a no-heat option as well as plenty of heat-quenching sides, from waffle fries and breakfast waffles to fried okra and a stellar cider slaw. “The slaw at Popeyes takes five minutes to make,” says Fatani, who offers halal products and is debuting wings this summer. “Ours takes four hours. We not only make everything fresh; we make it all from scratch.”
No disrespect to our many fine local restaurants, but for some of us, summer means loading up the car and hitting the open road. So we’re taking a look at eight restaurants—all an hour’s drive or more—that are well worth your time and attention.
Whether as destinations in and of themselves, or delicious stopping points on the way to someplace else, these restaurants belong on your short list of local-ish dining spots. Over four days of driving, I discovered restaurants in four well-traveled areas, along with alternate restaurants located close by.
60 S. Main St., Janesville, Wisconsin
Drive time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Janesville is a picturesque town just across the Illinois border, a place that thrived when GM employed thousands at an assembly plant but was shut down 15 years ago. It was a slow comeback, but in the last few years, residents report, Janesville has rebounded as a city with a surging riverfront downtown, dotted with cute retail shops, the Marvin Roth Community Pavilion that features free weekly live music, and a growing cluster of serious restaurants.
One of these is Lark, which opened in July 2017. “Insanity was the inspiration,” jokes Joan Neeno, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Richard. “My husband, a foodie, always dreamed of opening a restaurant. Back then, the town’s nickname was Chainsville—we didn’t have a lot of locally owned restaurants. We saw a need for a restaurant focused on seasonal and local food and not just burgers and beers.”
Neeno says she and her husband are “blessed” with chef Chase Williams, and it’s hard to dispute that. Williams’s menu shows uncommon range, pulling influences from India, Italy, Germany, the Middle East, and the Philippines. But it’s the local produce that shines brightest, from a bruschetta topped with local oyster mushrooms and lovage pistou to a pea-shoot salad dressed with pecorino cheese and a fried soft-boiled egg (think Scotch egg).
Main courses include a flavorful beef tenderloin with potatoes and asparagus, and a super-thick, cider-brined pork chop that’s the best pork chop I’ve had in a long, long time (this monster was so huge I got a second dinner out of it a couple of days later.)
Lark offers a daily prix fixe that’s a good value (three courses, $46). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the superb cocktail program led by Lia Pennacchi (also the restaurant’s house manager), which lists more than 20 specialty creations. The wine list is smaller, but nearly every wine is available by the glass, and most bottles are priced at less than $40.
On your way out, stop next-door at the Lark Market, which has a nice supply of wines, cheeses, dips, sauces, spreads, charcuterie, heat-and-serve dishes, and other treats.
214 W. Milwaukee St., Janesville
This Cantonese and Hunan restaurant is more than 100 years old (it opened in 1922) and proudly calls itself the second-oldest Chinese restaurant in the country (the oldest, perhaps surprisingly, is in Montana). The interior is little changed from its early days, still low-lit and romantic, though co-owner Tom Fong says the round booths (which inspired the restaurant’s name) have been reupholstered. The menu ranges from old-timey egg foo yong, chop suey, and chow mein dishes (popular with longtime customers, Fong says) to spicy kung pao shrimp, General Tso’s chicken, and Hunan beef dishes favored by the younger crowd.
You can reach the 90-seat dining room only via a long, steep staircase (the restaurant predates accessibility regulations), but locals say the climb is worth it. When I snuck a peek at the dining room, a woman was by the register, waiting for her carryout order. “You eating here?” she asked me. “You should.”
Deer Path Inn
255 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest
Drive time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Summer sees a lot of visits to this North Shore suburb, and not simply because the Chicago Bears hold its training camp here. Historically a town to which well-to-do Chicagoans fled to escape the city’s summer heat, Lake Forest is also conveniently close to Ravinia music festival (201 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park), Chicago Botanic Garden (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe), and Lake Michigan beaches.
The historic Deer Path Inn, which dates back to 1929, is a destination unto itself, attracting large parties (weddings, reunions), family travelers, and dining enthusiasts. There are three restaurants on the property: the White Hart Pub, a proper English pub whose lunch and dinner menus include bangers and mash, cottage pie, and fish and chips; the Bar, a wood-paneled room with a casual menu and a highly creative cocktail program featuring thoughtful drinks in unique presentations; and the grand English Room, which includes the main room, a sun-drenched atrium, and a courtyard patio.
The English Room offers the most upscale dining experience; the menu includes such impressive dishes as grilled Spanish octopus with vegetables and spring-onion sauce, almond-crusted Dover sole with Champagne beurre blanc, and Alaskan halibut over cauliflower risotto. Some of the pubby fare from the White Hart (burgers, Cornish pasties and the like) are also available.
The English Room is also home to the Deer Path Inn’s afternoon tea service Wednesdays to Saturdays and its famed Champagne brunch (an elaborate buffet) Sundays.
The surprise (to me, at least), is that Deer Path Inn also has a serious and sophisticated sushi program. Overseen by a dedicated sushi chef, the menu features a variety of maki rolls, nigiri and sashimi platters, by-the-piece sushi, and a selection of a half-dozen sake. The toro tartare, which can be ordered with caviar if you’re splurging, is especially good.
Sushi service starts at 4 p.m. and is available in all three restaurants; the Bar even pours a fanciful Sushi Martini, served in a coupe glass topped with chopsticks and what appears to be a tuna nigiri (it isn’t).
181 E. Laurel Ave., Lake Forest
Glen Keefer ran the very popular Keefer’s steakhouse in Chicago’s River North neighborhood before joining forces with restaurateur Ryan O’Donnell to open Sophia Steak in Wilmette. The Lake Forest location is a virtual twin sister of the original location (though better looking, some say) and offers the same menu of wet- and dry-aged steaks and chilled seafood specialties (yellowfin tartare, hamachi crudo, lobster aguachile). Check out the day’s featured special, such as lamb chops (Thursday), roasted branzino (Friday), prime rib (Saturday), and fried chicken (Sunday).
Bartlett’s Fish Camp
12 on the Lake, Michigan City, Indiana
Drive time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Close by the Michigan City marina is a casual, waterfront restaurant that’s just a few minutes from the Indiana Dunes National Park. It’s also an ideal in-between stopover for those traveling to and from southwest Michigan resort towns, and, in fall, for people returning from Notre Dame football games. (Fortunately, the restaurant has enough of a local following to sustain it in the winter months.)
The dining room is done in oak flooring, pine paneling, and tasteful nautical art. An outdoor deck offers water-view dining when weather permits.
Bartlett’s Fish Camp (most everybody just calls it Fish Camp), sounds like a place you’d visit in search of perch and other lake fish, and to an extent that’s true. But the menu, by chef-owner Nicole Bissonnette (a well-known chef in these parts, going back to the days when she ran Bistro 157 in downtown Valparaiso), embraces shellfish of most kinds, octopus from the Mediterranean, salmon, and lobster. Lots of lobster, in fact—the crustacean shows up in Fish Camp’s Cobb salad, lobster mac and cheese (delicious, by the way), and, naturally, lobster rolls. Even the bouillabaisse—another menu strength—is made with an anise-scented tomato-lobster broth. “Lake fish isn’t always plentiful, so I like to have choices,” Bissonnette explains. “And I’ve been serving octopus for 20 years, going back to Bistro 157.”
Oysters are always a good bet here. Generally, you’ll find at least two varieties of raw oysters on the menu, as well as baked oysters Rockefeller and a couple of oyster shooters—one classic, in a Bloody Mary concoction, and one that isn’t really a shooter at all, but a beautifully dressed in-shell oyster perched above what’s essentially a mini martini.
Other good picks include the crispy crab cakes, perked up by a Chinese mustard aïoli, and the grilled baby octopus, with Spanish-style papas bravas. Apart from seafood, the menu includes skirt steak with chimichurri, a very good chicken schnitzel, and a couple of entrée-size salads.
3480 Warren Woods Rd., Three Oaks, Michigan
Granor Farm is a working farm that seeks to broaden public understanding of organic food. To that end, it operates a summer Farm Camp for kids ages 5 to 10 (the campers grow and cook food). And twice a week, on Friday and Saturday evenings, the farm offers sit-down private dining in a beautiful, glass-enclosed greenhouse a few dozen yards from where the food is grown.
Chef Abra Berens (pictured), who this year was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Great Lakes award, assembles a multicourse menu based on the farm’s harvest that week. “We brainstorm the menu the weekend before,” Berens says, “and we harvest on Wednesday and Thursday.”
That tight time frame means menus aren’t announced in advance. I can tell you that there will be about seven courses, as well as a little snack to begin, and that it will be delicious. Wine pairings are provided by a local shop. Price is usually $142.22 or $164.10, reservations and nonrefundable prepayment is required, and any dietary issues must be conveyed when making reservations. An opening reception gives guests information—this is a farm that happens to serve occasional dinners, not a restaurant that happens to grow vegetables—and a brief walking tour (leave the fancy shoes at home). All told, allow three to four hours for the memorable experience.
Chef Art Smith’s Reunion
700 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Drive time: 1 hour
About a gazillion or so people make their way to Chicago’s lakefront, and specifically Navy Pier, each year. Navy Pier has plenty of dining options, but I’d steer you to this cute, comfort-food restaurant by chef Art Smith.
Smith is well known in Chicago circles, going all the way back to his days cooking for Oprah Winfrey to his more recent Chicago projects, Chicago Q and Blue Door Kitchen & Garden (Smith remains executive chef of both restaurants). His latest eatery, which opened at the west end of Navy Pier late last summer, is closely related to Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, his restaurant in Florida’s Disney Springs.
The Reunion decor is rustic: wood-plank flooring in different widths, mismatched hanging lamps, banquettes upholstered in blue-jeans fabric (pockets and all). It’s an ideal place to enjoy such Art Smith Southern-cooking signatures as fried chicken (a must), shrimp and grits, fried okra, Frogmore stew, hush puppies, and hummingbird cake. Portions are hearty, and sharing is encouraged.
With 300 seats, Reunion can handle large parties (Sunday brunch is particularly popular), and the awning-shaded outdoor seating offers nice city views.
464 N. Halsted St., Chicago
One can debate whether Tony Priolo’s Piccolo Sogno (“little dream”) is the city’s best Italian restaurant. What’s inarguable is that Piccolo Sogno’s fenced, landscaped patio is the prettiest outdoor dining venue in Chicago. Another bonus: Piccolo Sogno has its own valet-parking lot.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve dined here, and my menu choices change only with the number of people dining with me. My advice: Never skip the fried squash blossoms. Get one of the four pizzas, and the peach and arugula salad if it’s available. Check the specials list for limited-time gems or go tried-and-true with the branzino al forno, mixed-mushroom risotto, spaghetti neri with seafood, or the fish stew. If general manager Alfredo Padilla is on the floor, put the wine selection in his hands. You won’t be sorry.
Photos: Jamie and Eric Photography (Granor Farm); Lark (Lark); Phil Vettel (Cozy Inn); Deer Path Inn (Deer Path Inn); Ballyhoo Hospitality (Sophia Steak); Joe Gonzalez/Blackbean Photography (Bartlett’s Fish Camp); Jamie and Eric Photography (Granor Farm); Art Smith’s Reunion (Art Smith’s Reunion); Piccolo Sogno (Barbabietole)
Nothing says summer like a cooler of icy-cold drinks and a sizzling grill. These days, however, it’s essential that the pitmaster’s bag of tricks include a top-notch vegetarian or vegan showstopper. Using a rich steakhouse marinade, this recipe takes the versatile portobello mushroom to an umami-bomb level of chewy goodness. Add caramelized onion, roasted red pepper, a tangy quick-pickle radish (for a delightful crunch), and the rich funk of a gorgonzola, and you’ve got a winner by anyone’s measure.
MAKES 6 servings
6 large portobello mushroom caps 4 red onions, sliced 2 summer squash, sliced ½ inch on the bias 2 red bell peppers, seeded and sliced 6 ounces crumbled gorgonzola (vegan alternative: Follow Your Heart brand is fantastic.) 1 package arugula (or another green) 6 artisan rolls (ciabatta, baguettes, or other bread of choice)
¾ cup olive oil ¼ cup soy sauce ¼ cup balsamic vinegar 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (or vegan alternative) 1½ teaspoons dry mustard 1 tablespoon ketchup (or tomato purée) ¼ teaspoon ground clove 1 teaspoon sugar ½ teaspoon black garlic powder (or regular is fine) 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1½ teaspoons ground pepper
1 cup mayonnaise (or vegan option) 1 lemon, zest and juice 3 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon olive oil
6 radishes, thinly sliced ½ cup apple cider vinegar 2 tablespoons sugar 1½ teaspoon kosher salt 1 cup water
1. Gently clean mushroom caps and trim the stems.
2. Mix marinade and pour over mushrooms. Set aside.
3. Mix aïoli ingredients. Cover and chill.
4. Mix radish pickling brine and pour over radishes. Chill.
5. Drizzle the red peppers and squash in olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Place peppers on a baking sheet at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Add squash and cook for 10 more minutes. Set aside.
6. In a nonstick pan, sauté onions until caramelized. Remove onions and wipe out the pan before heating again to high heat.
7. Place drained, marinated mushrooms, gill side down, and compress with heavy pan or weight. Sear for 3 to 4 minutes or until caramelized. Turn over and repeat.
8. Brush caps with some leftover marinade. Place on medium-high preheated barbecue grill or on ridged grill pan, 1 to 2 minutes per side or until grill-marked.
9. On toasted buns, spread a layer of the aïoli and sprinkle with cheese. Top with layers of roasted squash, caramelized onion, pickled radish, mushrooms, and greens.
PRO TIP: The secret to standout bello steaks is a hot sear and little moisture. Cooking mushrooms gill-side down (initially) and under a heavy weight eliminates the soggy results that can give these sandwiches a bad rap.
We Grow Dreams provides job training for developmentally disabled adults
In 2004, three West Suburban families with children who had developmental disabilities were lamenting the lack of employment opportunities their kids would face after high school and decided to do something about it.
Wanting to provide job training, they decided the day-to-day business of running a greenhouse could offer a multitude of engaging opportunities for their kids and others like them. They envisioned trainees working alongside volunteers and paid staff members in a supportive environment to learn everything from gardening and customer service skills to clerical and retail expertise. After coming together to buy an existing business at 1055 West Washington Street in West Chicago and inheriting some of its already knowledgeable employees, the nonprofit We Grow Dreams Greenhouse & Garden Center was born.
Almost 20 years later, about 30 team members, as the trainees are called, work at the business on any given day, according to office manager Melanie Grotto. There are more than 45 specific job-training opportunities, she says. “No one does the same thing every day. They might work with the soil machine one day, weed the next, and run the cash register after that.”
The five-acre property includes 13 greenhouses where a mix of perennials, annuals, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and succulents are grown. Team members make craft items including planters, steppingstones, garden bricks, and greeting cards that are for sale. We Grow Dreams offers a potting service and consults for special events as well. There’s also a wholesale side, which provides plants to landscapers, area park districts, and other businesses.
Executive director Gregg Bettcher says employees and team members consider their working relationship to be win-win: “To a person, our team members love the fact that they come into We Grow Dreams and get to work with a group of people who are accomplishing the same tasks as they are. They exemplify team spirit in helping each other get things done.”
That team spirit goes both ways. “Our employees get a great deal of satisfaction helping our team members, sometimes together and sometimes working as individuals,” Bettcher adds. “We have a group of DuPage master gardeners that volunteer every week, and the interaction between them and our team members is terrific.”
In addition to job training, team members learn communication and social skills as they prepare to move on to other things. But there’s no time limit for completion—team members can stay as long as they like working the various jobs. “It’s fun for them to see what’s possible and what they like best, whether it’s the satisfaction of pulling weeds or perfectly stacking items,” Grotto says. Several team members have been working at the greenhouse since We Grow Dreams started, she adds, and some hold one or two other jobs in addition to the work they do there.
Looking ahead, the not-for-profit corporation hopes to expand its programs to provide more wintertime work for team members as well as opportunities that will teach basic animal care.
Building a backyard pond—for your family and the local flora and fauna
Even as outdoor fireplaces, kitchens, and viewing rooms have become staples of upscale home landscape design in recent years, the backyard pond hasn’t always been invited to the patio party. Whether due to anticipated maintenance hassles (brought on, in many cases, by past experience with an imploring child and a neglected bedroom aquarium) or perceived costs, ponds aren’t as popular as other backyard amenities.
But that tide may be starting to turn, according to Brian Helfrich, vice president of construction at St. Charles–based Aquascape, which installs anywhere from 50 to 75 residential ponds throughout the Chicago area every year. And he says it’s not hard to see why ponds are on something of an upward trend.
“A pond changes the lifestyle of the homeowner,” Helfrich explains. “They’ll be drawn outside to spend more time by the pond, enjoying the sound of running water and watching the fish, as well as the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, and toads that are drawn to the area. And kids love to play in the water and explore nature—things they can do right in their own backyard with a pond.”
What does it take to bring this little slice of nature into one’s backyard? Here are a few of Helfrich’s prime pond pointers:
Pond size is the biggest determinant of cost—the larger the pond, the more labor, rocks, and features it will require. Those looking to keep the budget down may want to consider a smaller layout, although Helfrich says most pond owners he hears from wish they had made theirs bigger—while the empty hole tends to look large after excavation, the pond seems smaller when hardscaped (rocks take up more space than you may think). Installed ponds generally start at around $12,000, while DIY pond kits can be had for as little as $1,500 or less. “Many homeowners have installed their own ponds with great success,” Helfrich notes, adding that Aquascape has a step-by-step video playlist to help DIYers. “Kits make the job easier because all the components are included, taking the guesswork out of deciding what type of pump, plumbing, and filtration are needed. The hardest part of a DIY pond is digging the hole and placing the rocks.”
Helfrich says a key feature of most residential ponds is a waterfall, which not only helps to aerate and circulate the water but also provides soothing sounds and ambience to the yard. Fish fans, meanwhile, will want to consider a feeding rock—a large, flat rock upon which to sit and dangle one’s feet in the water while feeding fish—among the pond’s variety of boulders. “The fish will become accustomed to being fed in the same spot and will swim up to greet you at the feeding rock,” he says.
Addressing one of the big concerns among the pond-curious, Helfrich says that a properly installed pond will require minimal ongoing upkeep, with occasional water treatments and skimmer basket cleanings constituting the main tasks, in addition to seasonal chores like winterizing and spring clean-outs. “You’ll have more maintenance mowing and maintaining a lawn than you will a pond,” he notes. “And the pond will actually take up yard space that you’d otherwise have to mow and weed anyway.”
Home furnishing mecca Warehouse 55 suits many styles
It’s not easy to find a single spot that stocks furniture from iconic French design firm Maison Jansen, midcentury modern library lamps, and a quirky paint-by-numbers piece of a horse in a pastoral setting. But at Warehouse 55 in Aurora, this—and so much more—is possible.
“This is a one-stop shop for everyone,” says Mark Allen, owner of the 10,000-square-foot space occupied by 75 vendors. Wares are an eclectic mix of mostly vintage finds in styles ranging from modern contemporary to French country and rustic farmhouse. Furniture and vintage paintings are top sellers, he says, but there are all kinds of unique accessories to outfit a home here. Looking for fun MCM drinkware for a retro cocktail party? Need a set of bedroom furniture? Feel like adding a few quirky needlepoint pillows to liven up your living room sofa? This is the place.
Since opening in 2019, Warehouse 55 (at 55 S. Lake St., get it?) has become a favorite must-stop for everyone from amateur treasure hunters and bargain lovers to professional designers and set decorators. Because inventory is constantly changing, shoppers have a new experience each time they visit. “We have customers who come in weekly just to see what’s new; they’ll spend half a day here,” Allen says. “And decorators love us. They can find everything they need to fill a bookcase or decorate an entire room, under one roof.”
Summer is a busy time, with an emphasis on patio furniture, planters, and garden decor, but December is when Warehouse 55 really goes all-out. “The whole space is transformed for Christmas,” Allen says. “It’s like a holiday wonderland a grandmother would create for a kid. It brings back lots of memories for people.”
Allen opened a Chicago outpost in the city’s West Town neighborhood in 2021. The aesthetic there is more “Hollywood Regency,” he says, but at both locations the wares are displayed in room-like vignettes, rather than behind display cases, to give shoppers a chance to touch everything and have a more personal experience.
Warehouse 55’s diverse feel may come across as organic, but it’s created with a deliberate effort by Allen. “I try to be very picky when it comes to vendor selection,” he says. “The space is curated so that each seller stands out and is able to show off their own style.” His strategy seems to be working. “It’s hard to get a space here,” he adds. “We don’t tend to lose vendors because everyone sells well.”
VAI’s puts a contemporary spin on traditional cuisine
VAI’s calls itself an “Italian Inspired Kitchen + Bar,” a description that I found disquieting at first. Was the idea to warn people that the food wasn’t authentic?
The answer, as it turned out: No. But also yes, a little.
“We’re not traditional; we’re not old school,” explains operating partner Anthony Vai. “We put our own twists on dishes in the way we express our food.”
To wit: The spicy chicken tortellacci—a very good dish of chicken breast, tomatoes, Broccolini, garlic, and Parmesan cream—gets its assertive spiciness from roasted jalapeños, rather than, say, Calabrian chiles. Peppered shrimp—a standout appetizer that presents shrimp, peppers, and corn on a bed of soft polenta—derives its heat from Creole seasoning; conceptually, the dish is closer to New Orleans–style shrimp and grits than anything out of Sicily, but customers are unlikely to notice, and even less likely to complain. “We just have fun with it,” says Vai about these and other variations.
Clearly, the approach is working; The Naperville restaurant hits its fifth anniversary in July. And when I dined on a dreary Tuesday evening with heavy rain in the forecast, the place was packed—which, for a place with a seating capacity of 280, is saying something.
The interior is softly lit, done in brick and dark wood trim; seating includes freestanding wood tables and high-backed booths. There’s a large bar area with a couple of TVs, and the outside areas have propane heaters, gas fireplaces, and a roof-covered patio that can be enclosed and heated as needed.
Executive chef Scott Raiman oversees a massive menu of more than 50 items. Good choices include the arancini, fried rice-and-cheese balls over a rich tomato-based sauce and topped, curiously, with onion strings (“a little something extra,” Vai says). Pizzas, 12 inches in diameter, are Neapolitan style, though the crust is slightly thicker than a Neapolitan purist would prefer. There are some creative combos available, among them spicy sopressata with honey, and a “Chicago” with Italian sausage, pepperoni, and giardiniera. I can recommend the artichoke and roasted garlic pizza with Parmesan cream, which is delicious.
Pastas include the aforementioned chicken tortellacci and a hearty rigatoni with short rib meat, tossed with blistered tomatoes, arugula, and pecorino cheese; the slow-cooked meat is rich in flavor, and some chile flakes give the dish a stealthy hint of spice.
Among entrées, the Alaskan halibut is a standout, served over black-rice risotto in a pool of pesto butter sauce with charred corn, bacon, tomatoes, and peppers. The chicken pot pie is a comfort-food classic whose flaky pastry crust crowns the ceramic bowl like a chef’s toque. The pie is filled with breast meat, mushrooms, peas, peppers, carrots, and herbs in a sherry cream sauce, finished with a fragrant hint of truffle oil. “We cook the pot pie to order,” Vai says, “and the beauty of that is that there are very few changes we can’t accommodate. No peas in your pot pie? No problem.”
Most desserts are made in-house, including the gelato and sorbetto (flavors vary), white-chocolate raspberry cheesecake, and flourless chocolate cake. An exception is the tiramisu; Vai says a local baker’s version “is so good, why mess with it,” and he’s right, especially if you like your tiramisu tall and fluffy, with a generous whipped-mascarpone quotient.
Need to carryout for a crowd? VAI’s also offers family-style meal packages for curbside pickup.
Later this month, VAI’s owners will open Entourage, a new restaurant that will sit a few hundred feet north of VAI’s. Entourage will feature steaks, seafood, and a raw bar, but please, don’t call it a steakhouse. “We’re calling it ‘American Kitchen and Cocktails,’ ” Vai says. “We don’t want people to get ‘steakhouse’ in their heads. Yeah, we’re dry-aging steaks in house, but it’s our take on the concept, not just a steak on a plate. It’ll be more fun, more thought going into each dish. Mindfully created.”
The Entourage name has some family history behind it; it’s the same name used by Michael Vai, Anthony’s father, for the restaurant he opened in Schaumburg in 2005, which had a respectable four-and-a-half-year run. Fun fact: Steve Vai, the Grammy-winning guitarist whose solo career was dotted with stints playing with Frank Zappa, Whitesnake, and numerous other acts, is Michael’s brother. To Anthony Vai, he’s “Uncle Steve.”
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