“Chicago’s Friendliest Blues Lounge”
Somewhat lesser known thanks to its off-the-beaten-track location in Logan Square, Rosa’s Lounge has been an important part of the Chicago blues mosaic for over 20 years. Rosa’s, rather surprisingly, was started by a mother and son duo straight off the plane from Italy in the spirit of the long-lost Theresa’s Lounge on the South Side. Their love of the blues is your gain: the whole spectrum of the genre is presented five nights a week and you’ll not have to worry about the crush of conventioneers, tourists and suburbanites, but you’ll instead mingle amongst those who love the music as much as the hosts do, and seek it out wherever it may be found. Other clubs like Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. and Blue Chicago may be more popular but, for those that know it, Rosa’s may be Chicago’s most beloved blues joint – a place often described as “real.”
Rosa’s Lounge is located on the north side of Armitage, just west of Kimball. A humble black & white sign advertises, “Live Blues 7 Nites” and “DANCING” above black-painted clapboard with two tiny rectangular windows and a large wooden cutout of a colorful blues guitarist with an extended neck. Step through a battered set of wooden doors and you’re likely to encounter the mother and son ownership duo of Mama and Tony Mangiullo, who will cheerfully welcome you as you hand over a cover charge that ranges between $5 and $15 from Tuesday through Saturday, no matter what the sign says. Pass the optional coat check and you’ll find a roomy space with hardwood floors, a white drop ceiling adorned with silver stars and blue-painted walls that feature painted handprints, framed articles published on Rosa’s, and numerous photos of musicians that have played there. Some of the photos are from Marc Pokempner that were taken at Theresa’s Lounge in the 1960s. Graffiti is found in the tiny bathrooms in the rear. Rosa’s does not have a kitchen but Mama Rosa has been known to cook for the crowd as part of special events, which best washed down with the bar’s reasonably priced bottled beer and cocktails.
Grab a seat at the bar that bar runs most of the length of the western wall at one of the black vinyl, high-backed barstools, at one of a few cocktail tables opposite the bar and next to the pool table towards the front of the bar, or at a smattering of low-slung wooden tables with banquet hall chairs beyond the bar and in the main part of the room. Rosa’s is written in red script above a backdrop next to a large photo of Mama Rosa herself as a young woman. Many Chicago blues legends have passed through Rosa’s over the years, such as Junior Wells, Son Seals, Carlos Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Sugar Blue, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Melvin Taylor, Eddie Taylor, Jr., Lurrie Belland, and even the Rolling Stones.
Rosa’s Lounge opened in September 1984 as part of a dream fulfilled by Tony Mangiullo, which started in 1978 when the 19-year-old, aspiring blues drummer met Junior Wells backstage at a jazz concert in Italy. According to Karen Hanson in her book, Today’s Chicago Blues (2007), “Junior had told him, ‘You come to Chicago and I’ll be responsible for you.” He gave Tony his home address and the address of Theresa’s Lounge, the legendary blues club on South Indiana Avenue. Tony wasn’t sure what he meant, but he knew then that he had to get to Chicago… Soon he found himself sitting in with the bands. ‘Theresa would give me some eggs and beer and some smokes,’ he says. “To me, I was living a dream.” This was apparently better than running the fruit stand he inherited from his father… Mangiullo’s mother subsequently flew to Chicago (actually to bring Tony back to run the fruit stand), was persuaded by him to stay, they bought a building and then opened Rosa’s Lounge together, with a grand opening featuring Billy Branch. The blues club also featured many of the musicians that Tony got to know on the South Side, and Rosa herself married bluesman, the late Homesick James.
“It’s dead around 7:00pm, so early-birds are default drinking buddies. That’s when my ex and I like to go..so we can kick it with Cliff and Norm. We’d shoot pool with Rosa while frustrated dads and bored band members noodled around on bass and treat all 10 people in the house to freestyle riffs & scales; workin’ man’s sound check. She kicked my ass in pool. She let me play slop. She can shoot one-handed… with a cigarette in her mouth. Plus, she’s like, 70. Huh.”– Rosie V. on Yelp (September 23, 2007)
Today, Mama Rosa can still be found behind the bar and shooting pool, and Tony works the room to make sure everything is going swimmingly and sitting in with the band, usually on Thursdays. In recognition of its efforts, Rosa’s Lounge was recently named Chicago’s Best Blues Club by the New York Times, and, “a blues mecca for true believers,” by Rolling Stone. Czech President Vaclav Havel also dropped by in the mid-90s. Not bad for a pair of Italians. Because I’m loathe to recommend driving, if you’re drinking, you can take a cab but will want the bartender to call you one when you’re about ready to leave as you won’t find any out on the street unless you get lucky and grab one that incoming patrons are getting out of. If you like Rosa’s, you may also want to visit New Checkerboard Lounge, Lee’s Unleaded Blues, B.L.U.E.S., and Kingston Mines. For more information and a schedule, check out the Rosa’s Lounge website. Magnifico.
Old-school Rosa’s façade