Johnnie’s Lounge

Editor’s Note II: According to Jason Mathews (former regular at Johnnie’s Lounge and friend of Mike Stephen and his OTL-Outside the Loop radio show on WLUW), “Ivan ‘Johnnie’ Vrbetic passed away on October 23, 2009 at the age of 87.” If and when a memorial service is held by the family, email me and I will keep you updated.

From Johnnie’s Niece Tanya: “With a sad heart, I wanted to let you know that John passed away at 6pm CST tonight (10/23/09). Please pass along this information. My Uncle John was 87 years old and lived the life he wanted.”

Editor’s Note: In case you noticed that Johnnie’s Lounge on Lincoln has been closed, alert CBP readers Jason Mathews and Steve Maks informed me that owner and bartender Johnnie fell and broke his neck while tending bar, and has been on a ventilator and laid up in Illinois Masonic Hospital for over a month. Let’s hope his nurses are easy on the eyes…

Step back in time with me. The year is 1969. In the realm of hops and barley, Wisconsin brewers of Hamm’s, Schlitz, and Old Style are on top. Johnnie’s Lounge (a.k.a., the “Hamm’s bar” and “Johnnie’s Tavern”) opens with Johnnie himself at the helm. A bright new Hamm’s sign is hung outside the door of an oddly-shaped, single room, wood paneled building in a dodgy neighborhood up north on Lincoln Avenue.

Fast forward to today. After Miller Lite transformed the beer drinking world in 1973 into not only a pale lager drinking society, but a diet pale lager drinking society, Miller and Bud now reign supreme. Leading Wisconsin breweries of yesteryear have either shut their doors or have been relegated to kitschy bars, being sold at ridiculously low prices. North Lincoln is thriving and the whole neighborhood is regentrifying. Yet Johnnie’s remains unchanged. Everything within Johnnie’s is the same, including the beer coasters, orange linoleum, yellowed drop ceiling, a jukebox that doesn’t have a single song made after 1986 (observe the Milli Vanilli singles), and Johnnie himself is still tending bar decked out in shirt and tie. On the other hand, the passage of time can be measured by the Hamm’s sign, which is so sun-bleached you can only make out the word “Hamm’s” due to the raised lettering. The structure itself has grown rickety and Johnnie is much older. Although regentrifying is the current push, Johnnie has resisted selling his place despite offers in excess of $1 million. Even though real estate on the block has increased in value tremendously, Johnnie loves his place and what he does too much for him to sell his place for even twice the amount offered. Kudos to Johnnie for that.

Opening shot features Johnny’s façade in Reebok’s “Da Bears” 2008 commercial with Adam Vinatieri

Johnnie’s is one of those old-school neighborhood taverns, of which so few remain. When you walk up to the bar, Johnnie himself has to buzz you in at the door (if he is awake). One time, I walked up to Johnnie’s and he was perched silently in the window, waiting for patrons. It was a bit creepy, with his face partially illuminated from the neon DAB and Miller Lite sign. Initially, I was a bit nervous regarding potential clientele, but as it turned out, Johnnie’s was filled with younger neighborhood types like me that have taken a shine to Johnnie. When you walk in, you will see a very long bar to your left with upholstered edges, plenty of faux wood paneling, and lots of tables with cafeteria-style chairs. In the back, Johnnie’s has a pool table with light askew and a curiously elevated seating area that serves as a DJ area when the place is occasionally used for private parties. When the DJ isn’t there, a non-cable TV broadcasts shows like “Women of Scandal,” which we saw once late-night. The show satisfied my curiosity of what happened to Amy Fisher, Donna Rice, Tanya Harding, Jessica Hahn, and Jessica Flowers following their scandals. Across from the pool table is a stairwell encased in wood and stained glass that is accessible by Johnny only. An old K-Mart special chandelier illuminates the back with one very bright fluorescent bulb. There are two one-seater bathrooms, of which guys will appreciate the urinal and rather ornate mirror in the men’s room.

The bar is impressively stocked with what appears to be an accumulation of three decades’ worth of hard liquor. Behind the bar, one can see the blue, green, pink, and red beveled lights and Johnnie’s Lounge calendars that are available upon asking – my friend and I walked away with calendars picturing Cantigny Park in Wheaton and snowbound Idaho. While the Wisconsin beer enthusiast will get excited upon seeing the neon beer signs in the windows, the Old Style sign propped up on one of the radiators, the Hamm’s clock-cube hung precariously above the bar, the G. Heilemann’s Special Export coasters, and all the other beer paraphernalia from the 70’s, there is no draft beer to be had in the entire establishment. Not only that, but the only beer available is bottled Czech beer. I suggest you try the Radegast, served with tiny beer glasses. This same beer caused a friend of mine to wax poetic. Johnny stopped purchasing other beers long ago.

I recommend Johnnie’s if you ever find yourself along north Lincoln, near the Paulina Brown Line El stop, in a frame of mind open to experiencing a living piece of Americana past. Cheers, Johnnie.

“I have a lot of good memories from this place. I used to live next door, upstairs from the place. I also used to live in one of those trailers selling pumpkins – I had a couple of ‘white trash’ dinner parties in the trailer. Good times, yes indeed. I used to manage an international youth hostel in the city, and would take only those special foreign travelers who I knew would appreciate the place there. One of my friends fixed the jukebox while we were there drinking, then we proceeded to have some sort of limbo dance to one of the old songs. One of my Danish friends did a great breakdance to an old country song. I have so many great pix of Johnnie, as I used to spend every new years eve at Johnnie’s. I never want the place to go away. Thanks for the write-up of the place.”

– Sharon (March 11, 2005)
  • “Oma” & Johnnie
  • Johnnie back in the day

Tanya K. and “Uncle Johnnie” on August 25, 2007
~ Photos courtesy of Tanya K. and not to be reproduced without permission ~

“I visited my Uncle John last night, while on a business trip to downtown Chicago. I grew up at 3535 N. Paulina from the sixties through the eighties. My uncle purchased his bar in August 1969. Oh, and he is from Croatia, not Yugoslavia. My Oma (German for Grandmother) and Uncle John were ‘companions’ for over 40 years. Here is what I remember about ‘Johnnie’s Lounge’: It was the CLEANEST bar in our neighborhood. We kids helped Oma clean every Wednesday and Saturday, mopping linoleum, straightening out the black leatherette bar stools, placing a clean ashtray with a book of matches every 12 inches. The poinsettia in the window on the Lincoln Ave lent color (it was four feet high!), and what are now ‘vintage’ signs, were delivered new by the beer distributors. We loved the new Hamm’s sign…the canoe going down the lazy sky blue river. Ah, to be there would be heaven! The jukebox in Uncle John’s bar is second generation and not operable. The first one was freaking awesome, and when I was seven, I can recall my five year old brother rocking to his first 45… My Baby Does the Hanky Panky. New Year’s eve was the best! Oma would cook up a big ham at home (on Paulina), make vinegar and oil potato salad and would lay out a huge meal with olives, pickles and hand out New Year’s noise makers. Those were awesome times. When I see my Uncle John, I see a young, vibrant, proud man, one who made his way against odds and lived the American Dream. Oh, do you want to know the reason for the ‘buzzing to get in’? I had to take the call at midnight in the late eighties that my uncle had been robbed and beaten with a baseball bat by two men. He wouldn’t go in the ambulance the police had called and would only go to Illinois Masonic if I drove him. Needless to say the cop that stopped me for blowing a stop sign a few miles away saw Uncle John’s beaten head and told me to hurry up. I want to thank all of you for visiting Johnnie’s Tavern and keeping an elderly GENTLEMAN’S dream alive.”

– Tanya K. (April 23, 2009)