“A piece of real Chicago!”

Photo courtesy of Ben Fenske

Though its façade has changed somewhat through the years, the 50s-style interior, superb Tuscan food, more than reasonable prices, and family ownership has remained the same. This lies in stark contrast with the neighborhood around it. River North has had its ups and downs but Club Lago has always been great and perhaps the best Taylor Street joint that never actually graced Taylor Street. After 50-plus years in business, Club Lago could very well be the definition of “old-school” when it comes to classic Chicago restaurants & bars.

Club Lago is located within a two-story, red brick building at the southeast corner of Superior and Orleans. A bright neon “Lago” signs hangs above the corner door, matching the signage in the window facing Superior. More neon beer signs hang in the upper floor windows, below “Club Lago” etched into the cement on the Orleans side, as the building was erected specifically to serve as Club Lago. They say the second floor is used for storage, but who really knows for sure?…

A thick wooden door at the corner is the only thing that separates you from satiation, except for closing time (or a sudden death). Stepping into Club Lago is like stepping back into 1952, when Gus and Ida Lazzerini from Lucca, Italy (near Florence) purchased the joint from Charles Giometti with the intent to provide “Cucina Toscana” (Tuscan food) to the printers and paper salesmen who love their three-martini lunches and worked in what was then called, “Smoky Hollow,” the name for the heavily polluted warehouse district north of the Chicago River. As artists and hip businesses later took over the old loft buildings, the area was transformed into River North and, in 1980, the Lazzerini’s son-in-law Francesco Nardini took over as Italian food became more popular and wine replaced martinis. Nardini’s sons, GianCarlo and Guido, now run Club Lago and keep the place up to speed, not only with the professional crowd at lunch and after work, but also in the evenings and on Saturdays for all the new condo dwellers that moved into the area now that most of Cabrini Green has been torn down.

  • Club Lago Through the Years

Pass through the old door and you’ll find a rather inviting space, with a pressed tin ceiling and orange terrazzo floors. Like Twin Anchors (Lincoln Park), Simon’s Tavern (Andersonville) and Weather Mark Tavern (South Loop), a vaguely nautical theme emerges—”lago” means “lake” in Italian—as you encounter images of sailboats upon white-painted walls, with the odd ship’s wheel and life preserver interspersed between black & white photos of Club Lago history, a drawing or two by legendary Chicago boozer Don Chisolm, and numerous framed reviews written over the years, all of which are backlit with triangular, metal wall sconces.

The front bar area features a wooden bar that runs half the length of the eastern wall and sports a baker’s dozen’s worth of high-backed, black vinyl barstools. Regulars and diners-to-be rub elbows here while keeping an eye on the old vacuum tube TV across from a stuffed boar’s head, in the northeast corner of the room. Wooden ceiling fans used to disperse a dense smoky atmosphere but that’s all a thing of the past since the smoking ban took effect. Behind the bar, you’ll find an ancient cash register with a large brass bell hanging above it, rung when tips are given. Club Lago doesn’t have any taps, but has about a half-dozen bottled brews, consisting mainly of mass-brewed domestics along with the inevitable Moretti and Peroni. On the other hand, Club Lago specializes in bourbon with about 10 varieties on-hand. The wine list is nothing to write home about so, like when you’re in Italy, stick with the house wine (Chianti) and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank (perhaps literally).

Club Lago is perhaps the only bar or restaurant I know of with vertical blinds over the windows facing Superior and Orleans. Along the western wall, you’ll find a handful of cozy, red-leather booths with black, Formica-topped tables along the western wall, between metal posts with hooks upon which to hang your jacket. A large white “O” with a model sailboat set in the middle that would make the original owner of John Barleycorn’s jealous, separates the bar area from the “dining room” which is actually a fairly tight seating area of 15 low-slung tables with red-checkered tablecloths and banquet hall-style chairs. In the very rear, four red doors lead to the kitchen and the tiny ancient restrooms, so pay attention!

Photo courtesy of Ben Fenske
Wherever you sit, an attentive waitstaff dressed in black vests and white aprons serve a full menu for lunch and dinner, every day but Sunday. For starters, the fried calamari, fried zucchini and baked clams are favorites as are the well-stuffed manicotti, chicken Vesuvio and just about every Italian veal dish you can think of. My personal favorite, veal parmigiana, is truly excellent and not over-fried or too filling, and you’ve got to love that the olive oil comes in a Heinz 57 glass ketchup bottle on your table. High-rollers may be drawn to the U.S. Choice sirloin, butt steak or the scampi alla griglia. Finish up with the cannoli (or spumoni, if you must). A variety of economical lunch specials are featured every day, and for dinner you can expect your tab to run $26-40. Entrée-splitters, be forewarned: you’ll be charged a $3 penalty for sharing. If you have an issue with your meal, instead of complaining afterwards with an online review, be sure to tell the manager as he comes by, who is likely to be one of the owners. All in all, Club Lago is like a Northern Italian version of the Southern Italian Club Lucky in Bucktown, the latter of which also has a retro, mid-20th century vibe. My recommendation: be sure to check out both.

So there you have it: a Chicago classic with down-home Italian food and throwback cocktails. If that weren’t enough for you, Club Lago was also featured in Mad Dog and Glory (1991) with Bill Murray and Robert DeNiro. You’ll always be welcomed like family and thanked afterwards as you roll out the door. If you’re looking for posh fine dining, you may want to head to nearby Spiaggia instead, but if you’re looking for authentic, home-style Northern Italian with a lively bar scene, then Club Lago is the place for you – and like a rustic version of another long-time favorite of mine, the Italian Village in the Loop. For more information, check out the Club Lago website. Manga!

“We’ll talk theater before a show, sports before a game, and politics before the revolution.”

Photos courtesy of Reid Carlberg