When most Chicagoans think of excellent Italian dining, they think of the Italian Village, Orso’s, Rosebud, Mia Francesca, or even Tuscany. When most Chicagoans think of swanky lounge scenes, they think of the Funky Buddha Lounge, Subterranean, or Violet Hour. Only the wise, know where to go for both: Club Lucky. The club combines the feel of 1940s era lounging with a supper club featuring authentic Sicilian cooking. The combination makes Club Lucky one of the coolest and most unique venues in Bucktown and all of Chicago, and one that occasionally attracts hipsters like Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsly (! – “Ralphie” from the movie, A Christmas Story). Not bad for a venue that used to serve as a hardware store, speakeasy, polling place for the 35th Ward, and Polish banquet hall…
At the corner of Honore and Wabansia, “Club Lucky” spelled out in pink neon lights beckons with its promise of “traditional Italian food,” (the $6 valet sign is somewhat less inviting). Step through the wooden door with its circular portal, and you step into a time where Sinatra was the Chairman, and martinis outsold Budweiser. The multicolored linoleum floor, red naugahyde booths, pastel wallpaper, recessed ceiling lit with pink light, and funky metal wire artwork supplement the martini-and-cigars atmosphere. Glass blocks frame a large picture window in front, while wooden blinds block out the sun during summer nights to preserve the night. At Club Lucky you get the feeling that, at any moment, a black limousine will pull up with either a powerful politician, Mafioso, or world-class entertainer stepping out with a blonde on each arm.
The bar area is an exact replica of the original room, as it was in 1938. A few televisions frame the long, polished Formica-topped bar, but are thankfully turned off most of the time. Martinis shaken, not stirred, are mixed in stainless steel shakers and are made from one of 21 vodkas, eight gins, and olives hand-stuffed with cocktail onions, anchovies, pimentos or blue cheese. The jukebox is filled with Rat Pack tunes and jazz from swing bands, and really sets the mood. Dinner is served in the bar area, but I suggest the dining room as it is more open.
“If I had the time to hang out in an Italian restaurant, this is the kind of place I’d choose. The good feel of the place got me the first time I walked through the door.”
– Pat Bruno, restaurant critic for the Chicago Sun Times
When your table is ready, step up the few stairs and you’ll enter a large, 140-seat dining room, noisy with conversation, the clink of wine glasses, and the sound of cutlery on porcelain plates. There are several large booths on the south side of the room, and every other square inch of space is filled with tables. Prepare to be bumped when people are coming or going from their table. The waitstaff wear red coats and try hard but are seemingly ill-versed in providing very good service, and possibly a wine recommendation that just happens to be the most expensive on the menu. A counter in the dining room’s southwest corner, formerly used as a second bar in the 1930s, stands by with antipasti appetizers and desserts. Here, tomatoes and lemons are piled up in pyramids under cylindrical canister-style lights. Large framed mirrors, diamond floor tile, a variety of retro lamps, painted white brick, a pressed tin ceiling, and satellite-like lights hanging from the ceiling completes the picture. In fact, the aluminum and glass light fixtures in the dining room are replicas of pieces found in the Empire State Building when it was built.
The Southern Italian-influenced food is excellent. My recommendation: start off with the bruscetta, move on to the magnificent filet oreganato, and finish off with a cannoli. While Club Lucky’s martinis are killer, have a Moretti La Rossa amber lager or one of their many bottles of wine if you’re not into cocktails. Other notable menu items include lightly fried calamari and stuffed artichokes for an appetizer; lobster ravioli, baby back ribs and Capellini Siciliana (with eggplant), pasta e fagioli entrées (average price $12-$20); and tiramisù, spumoni and profiteroles for dessert. Complimentary warm bread starts off every meal. The budget conscious may enjoy an Italian sub or meatball sandwich at pub grub prices. In the 2006 edition of Zagat’s Chicago Restaurants survey, Club Lucky was rated overall as having very good food, nice décor and very good service, with an average meal costing you about $28. If you’re more into Northern Italian cooking but love the atmosphere of Club Lucky, you may like Club Lago a little further south in River North.
Club Lucky was one of the early Bucktown pioneers in this regentrifying neighborhood when it opened in 1990. It was then that co-owners Jim Higgins and Robert Paladino purchased a Polish corner neighborhood bar (by the same name) and the adjacent, abandoned community center and transformed it into Club Lucky over the span of a year. Chicago history buffs may be interested to know that Club Lucky joins the likes of the Green Mill, Glascott’s and Lottie’s, as having also served as a speakeasy during prohibition, with a hardware store front and gin martinis as the signature drink. Today, the vodka martini rules and the Club is a great place to take a date, friends or colleagues from out of town, or to meet with a large group of talkative friends. Recently, a Sicilian friend of mine chose Club Lucky as an appropriate place to gather all of us to announce that he was about to have a baby. It was the perfect setting. If you have a very large party, Club Lucky will be happy to rent out its private dining area that seats up to 130 people. Club Lucky even keeps to tradition by serving as a polling place during elections.
“Big portions, family-style service, reasonable prices, and good cocktails,” is how Higgins (part Sicilian) aptly describes Club Lucky’s raison d’être. I couldn’t put it any better, aside from saying that one will not be disappointed from a night at Club Lucky (not to be confused with Club 950 Lucky No.), whether it’s cocktails in the fashionable lounge or dinner and drinks in the cavernous supper club. According to the Official Chicago Bar Guide (1994), Club Lucky is described in this way, “Your DeSoto’s parked out front, my good man, and your martini is dry, the way you like it. One-time dump transformed into a stylish 40s club.” If you like Club Lucky, you’ll probably also like Bungalow Loungebar, a mellow bar reminiscent of Las Vegas hotel lounges that is under the same ownership further north, perhaps for a cocktail afterwards. For more information, the complete menu, or to purchase Club Lucky’s homemade marinara sauce (whose price is as robust as the sauce at $6.95), Club Lucky-emblazoned t-shirts, hats, and pocket protectors (?!?), check out the Club Lucky website. Manga!
“All recipes include a little love”