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Restaurants

Gallery 8

Original Pancake House

Joseph Engbarth and Ray H. Neisewander would open the Original Pancake House at 1031 East State Street at the corner with Charles Street in May 1961. The restaurant featured informal 19th century décor on the interior and offered a wide variety of pancake meals that included dry cured hickory smoked bacon and ham and of course eggs. It also specialized in distinctive preserves, jellies and syrups to go along with the sixteen varieties of hand mixed pancakes. The establishment was open from seven a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week.

Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken featured  fried chicken seasoned with eleven herbs and spices, mashed potatoes and the unique tasting gravy that topped them, the delicious yeast rolls and creamy cole slaw that also accompanied the meal. In July 1962 the Original Pancake House located at 1031 East State Street, introduced Kentucky Fried Chicken to the Rockford area. At first It was a carry out operation with the door for the carry out located on the 7th Street side of the restaurant, and a few months later chicken dinners were also served in the restaurant proper. In late 1968 the restaurant would close and open under new management as a Perkin's Pancake house.

Colonal Sanders Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken

Robert Thorsteinson purchased the Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise for Rockford and would open a stand-alone, take-home store at 2328 Charles Street in September 1965. Several other Rockford locations were opened in the 1960's and 1970's including 3429 North Main Street, 1515 West State Street and 3035 Eleventh Street. Eventually most of the locations were expanded to include inside sit down dining.

The Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken chain was sold to Pepsi Cola's Yum Brands in 1986 and the name shortened to KFC. There are many KFC restaurants in the Rockford area these days, many co-branded with Long John Silver Seafood Restaurants.

Tompkins Ice Cream Shops

In the days when you purchased your pint or quart of ice cream from the drug stores or soda fountain, ice cream shops were a popular place to gather on a hot summer day with family and friends. The Tompkins Ice Cream Company opened their first store in Flint, Michigan in 1925. The owners Earl and Effie Tompkins with their son Douglas soon opened six stores in Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin. The Tompkins moved to Rockford and opened the main plant store at 1313 Broadway. They made and served approximately 35 different flavors of ice cream, one of the most popular flavors for young and old was "Blue Mon". A double dip of ice cream cost 5¢ and a nut sundae cost 10¢ and a malted milk cost 12¢. They would eventually operate six stores in the Rockford area 2632 11th Street, 5643 N. Second Street, 1602 West State, 1006 Charles Street and the one shown here located at 1220 South Main Street in 1955. The stores would close in 1957.

Brad-Lynn Restaurant

Do you remember the Brad-Lynn Restaurant that was located at 1422-20th Street? Opened in 1949 by John "Alf" Carlson the restaurant featured a main dining room and four private dining rooms. In the early 1960’s they opened a second location – Brad Lynn Coach House Restaurant at Colonial Village. The 20th Street restaurant closed in 1965. The building was later occupied by the Lamplighter Restaurant and then Stockholm Inn before their move to Rockford Plaza.

Branding Iron

The Branding Iron Restaurant was located at 1011 South Alpine Road and opened on June 23, 1969. Owned by Jack Neisewander who also operated the Pink Pony Restaurant and Lounge for several years. The Branding Iron was known for its rustic style, yards of beer and peanut shells on the floor. The restaurant would close in 1988. Later restaurants in this location included the Dodge Brothers Roadhouse and LT's Bar and Grill.

Some Rockford College students walking in front of the Branding Iron in the 1970's

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Mister Twister, aka Richard Gough is a world-renowned magician who made many appearances in Rockford including this one at the Branding Iron in 1969 where everyone got an animal balloon. Photo courtesy of our friend Richard Gough

Nino's Steak Round-up

Nino F. Costarella was president of Nino's, Incorporated based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin which operated  a chain of midwestern steak houses known as Nino’s Steak Round-up. Rockford’s first Nino’s Steak Round-up would open occupying the extensively remodeled Golf-O-Mat building at 3938 11th Street 1970.  the Rockford unit was one of the few owned by the company to combine a restaurant and a wholesale commissary. The meat-cutting facility was capable of supplying 8 to 10 other Nino's units in Illinois. The Rockford restaurant was limited intentionally to about 6,500 square feet of the building and could seat 270 customers, with the rest of the 13,500-square-foot building, used for the commissary. All meat served was U. S. Choice or better, in addition to steaks, the menu included sea foods, chops and other restaurant items. Open hearth charcoal broiling was featured and steaks were served on carts with heated braziers to keep them hot. Nino's emphasized quality food at low prices making it a popular spot for meetings and family gatherings. A smaller second area location would open in 1971 at 5803 North Second Street in Loves Park in 1971. The Loves Park location would cease doing business in 1982 while the Rockford location continued in business until 1986.

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Maria's Italian Cafe

Tissiano Dal Cason was born in Italy in 1876 and would come to America in 1899 and settled in the Chicago area.  Coming to Rockford in 1911, Tissiano Dal Cason operated a neighborhood grocery store and meat market on Cunningham Street in Rockford, mainly catering to Italians, it was considered to be one of the finest neighborhood stores in the city. He would meet a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Carrotto who arrived in Rockford in 1916 coming from Cupano, Italy. A year later the couple would marry in Kankakee, Illinois. The family name was later changed to Cason. Maria joined her husband in his grocery store located on Cunningham Street. They would have four children during the marriage, Jake, Anthony, Irene and Ines Cason. While they tended the store, the couple met many people and it was not long before the generous Tissiano started inviting friends over for dinner in the big dining room above the store. One way to feed a crowd was spaghetti and Maria’s specialty was her homemade spaghetti sauce.

In the 1920’s the United States experienced a stock market boom and the little store was doing well. In 1924, the Cason’s would build a new building for their grocery store at 837 Cunningham Street.  Shown above is the Tiss Cason Building circa 2017.

In 1929 the stock market crashed resulting in high unemployment and decreased business activity. This was the beginning of the Great Depression and many people around the country were hit by the Depression in one way or another, so were the Cason’s as their small investment fell victim as well. The grocery store failed, so they decided to fix up a small room behind the store where Maria started serving her spaghetti to paying customers. They would give it the name, Tiss’ Venetian Café. Sadly, shortly afterwards Tiss would pass away on December 21, 1931 leaving Maria with the responsibility of continuing the café on her own.

The Depression drew to a close in 1939, and in 1940 Maria and her family decided to purchase an empty corner lot across from their store at the corner of Cunningham and Corbin streets. Here they would have a one-story brick building built to house a larger restaurant. It would open in April 1941 under a new name, Maria’s Italian Café.

The business saw a steady growth, so much in fact that in 1947 Maria saw the need to expand her business and added a new dining room onto the east side of the building to accommodate the growing number of patrons. Many people of importance had received word of the quality of food at this little Italian café, and many celebrities and dignitaries while in town would stop in for a meal.

Maria Cason being visited by celebrity Gene Krupa in the kitchen at Maria's Italian Cafe in the 1940's. Gene Krupa was an American jazz and big band drummer, band leader, actor, and composer. He was just one of many celebrities to visit here.

Maria’s sons would join in on operating the restaurant over the years, Under the guidance of Maria, Jake and Tony, Maria's Italian Cafe continued to grow and expand its customer base and became one of Rockford's favorite dining spots. Sadly, Maria passed away on May 21, 1959 after surgery at the age of 71. Jake and Tony became the second generation of the Cason family to operate the successful, family-owned restaurant.

Jake visited one of the neighborhood establishments soon after he took over the restaurant and watched his friend make pizza to serve at the bar. He came up with the idea of making pizzas at the cafe to be picked up at the café, this became the first and only carry-out pizza service in Rockford at the time. The pizza made its way onto the menu of the little cafe and in 1960, they built a pizza factory in the back of the café where they made frozen pizzas, they were widely available at local area supermarkets for years.

Eventually the neighborhood surrounding Maria’s changed as many of the Italian residents in the once predominately Italian neighborhood moved away to newer areas on the east side of Rockford, and Mexican families moved in. Many of the nearby factories closed, and Jake and Tony thought about relocating the restaurant to one of the newer areas of town as well but resisted the pressure to move because they believed they had built up enough clientele now who truly enjoyed the ambiance of this traditional little cafe.

Maria's saw change again with the passing of Jake Cason in 1993. His legacy was handed down to his wife, Carmella, and their sons John and Joe who became the third generation of the Cason family to operate the restaurant. Tony would pass away in March 1997. The restaurant continued to be a popular dining spot, on the entrance door of the little cafe a sign read, "Casa di Amici" which meant "house of friends" while the menu at Maria's expressed Jake Cason' s philosophy that read, "After all is said and done, really, can there be anything more beautiful, more memorable than good food, good wine, good conversation with family and friends? This is the good life. Salute. All good things must come to a end, as did Maria’s when it closed for the final time on December 31, 2013 ending a long tradition of dining  at the tiny cafe in Rockford.

Joe Cason did go on to open a new restaurant called Casa di Amici at 200 E. Riverside in Loves Park in 2016.

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