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‘This place feels like home’ – J.J. Kelley’s Restaurant & Pub celebrates 35 years

LANSING, Ill. (August 25, 2023) – Those who watched sitcoms in the 1980s will likely recall Cheers, a show about a neighborhood bar that starred Ted Danson, Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson, and George Wendt as staff and regular customers. It was about a bar that could be counted on at all times, and “where everybody knew your name.”

There’s a similar feel in J.J. Kelley’s Restaurant & Pub, located at 2455 Bernice Road in Lansing. Filled with regulars and newcomers alike, J.J. Kelley’s regularly hosts those looking for a scratch-made meal, a place to watch a game, do some gaming, listen to live music, chat with other customers, raise a glass to a fallen military member or family member, support a local cause, or just feel at home among the local community.

This year, the Cheers-like pub celebrates 35 years.

Bar roots run deep

Both owners of J. J. Kelley’s, Vince and JoEllyn Kelley, have the bar business in their blood. JoEllyn had grandparents who owned a bar on the South Side of Chicago — in the area around 99th & Vincennes — and her brother also owned a bar in that part of the city.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Vince added, referring to the bar business.

Although J.J. Kelley’s started out mainly as a bar where food was secondary, the restaurant is now more of a focus of the business. The food menu is a melding of cultures — JoEllyn’s family is Lithuanian and Italian. Vince’s heritage is Irish and Polish.

“A lot of the recipes here are my mom’s,” said JoEllyn.

Among many menu items is the Reuben, a nod to Vince’s Irish family roots in the form of hand-sliced corned beef that is grilled with sauerkraut and topped with a Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese on toasted rye bread. There are also Italian dishes, like Chicken Francese — lightly-breaded, thinly-pounded chicken cutlets that are sautéed in a fragrant lemon and wine sauce (there’s a shrimp option, too). It’s a recipe from her late pal, Dominic, who owned Taste of Italy in Calumet City. Authentic tacos are also on the menu, prepared by their long-time cook Pedro, who is Latino.

J.J. Kelley's
Fried fish is one of the popular menu items at J.J. Kelley’s. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Carl Bauer has known the Kelleys since before the bar and restaurant existed. When asked about the food, he recalls that “Edna made the very best cornbread.”

He still comes in most days. It’s his regular spot where he likes to get a bowl of soup for lunch. “The food is good. It’s a good, well-established, family-owned restaurant and bar and I’ve made a lot of friends here,” said Bauer.

An old version of the J.J. Kelley’s menu. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Before the bar

Vince and JoEllyn both started their lives in the city of Chicago, coming from large families. JoEllyn was one of six siblings on Chicago’s south side in a tight-knit Catholic family, attending Maria High School until her family relocated to Tinley Park during her junior year.

Vince’s family moved from Chicago to Park Forest when he was in 2nd grade into a small house in the nation’s first post-war planned community. His parents later added on to the home, but initially his family of eight was living in a 1,000-square-foot two bedroom, one bath home with two brothers, two sisters, and a cousin of Vince’s who his parents raised as their own. He started out at Rich Township High School and then was moved to the new Rich Central High School in Olympia Fields where he was a member of the first graduating class in 1964.

While in college at Illinois State University working toward a degree in physical education, Vince took a summer job as a bartender.

“It was my third year of college, I’d just turned 21. I went to the Midlothian Country Club and told them I knew how to bartend,” said Vince. “I really didn’t, and learned on the fly.”

His plans were to finish up college and earn the degree that would enable him to be a physical education teacher and coach. At that time, the annual teaching salary was around $6,000. He’d earned that much in about three months as a bartender and he started to reconsider his career plans.

As he pondered his decision, Vince said his dad gave him what turned out to be a good piece of advice: “No matter what happens in the world. People are always going to drink.” Vince switched gears and concentrated on learning more about the bar business while continuing to bartend. At the age of 26, he opened his first place.

JoEllyn had finished up two years at Moraine Valley Community College and was attending Arizona State as a broadcasting and journalism major when she went to work for Zulanis Distributor in South Holland. “I was the first woman in Illinois to be a beer salesperson, she said. “Women didn’t do jobs like that then.”

She knew the family who owned the distributor and spent quite a while asking for the job and making her case before the owner finally relented and decided to let her try it out. Her persistence paid off and it was a job that she loved and was successful at.

Some year later, JoEllyn was working hard as a beer salesperson and working a side job as a waitress at a restaurant and bar in Chicago Heights called Savoia’s. Vince was doing well as owner of Bub’s Pub in Chicago Heights. He’s also a frequent customer at the bar at Savoia’s.

The two met there one night, dated for about a year-and-a-half, and married in 1983.

Coming to Lansing

Vince had owned different establishments over the years and after their marriage, he found a little place in a hidden spot in Lansing called the Coachman Inn that he thought would be a good location for his next bar venture. JoEllyn wasn’t so sure.

“I was against it. I thought no one would ever find us,” she said. “It was off the beaten path.”

In August of 1988, they became owners of a Lansing bar tucked away on Bernice Avenue in a little crevice in the shadow of the I-80/94 overpass and Torrence Avenue. They decided to call it J.J. Kelley’s. The initials J & J represent JoEllyn and their daughter, JoRene.

The following year they moved to Lansing, finding a home not far from the bar that was a one-level ranch, something they knew they’d need to accommodate the needs of JoRene, who was born with cerebral palsy.

“We paid $82,000 for that house,” Vince said with a laugh, noting how much housing prices have changed since then. “And about $1,000 a year in taxes,” he added.

JoEllyn and Vince Kelley in 1988 when J.J. Kelley’s first opened. (Photo provided)
J.J. Kelley's
And the pair now after 35 years. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Making metal music

In the bar’s early days, the dining room now known as the Clover Room was a pool hall. The other side housed a center bar and local bands were brought in to play. They had quite a crowd of regular young people who would show up to listen to the mostly heavy metal bands that would play late into the night.

“Now you bring in a band and they start at 7 and are done around 10. Back then they wouldn’t start playing until around 10. We’d have crowds here until 3 a.m. and would have to make them leave so we could close,” said JoEllyn.

The heavy metal fan base had followed Vince from an earlier club where he invited in hard rock and metal music that no one else would play.

In recent years a stage was added in the bar area of J.J. Kelley’s. Live music is still part of their business model, though it’s not played as often and it’s more varied these days. Live music is on pause during the summer months, but come fall, live music returns on weekends and patrons can still find bands of the hard rock/metal genre like those that played in the early days. Other musical acts find their way on the stage as well, such as a dueling piano act, Irish bands around St. Patrick’s Day, and crooner Frank Rossi for a supper club night.

J.J. Kelley's
The J.J. Kelley’s bar area is where live music takes place, where the gaming machines are played, and where good times have been had by patrons for decades. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

One of the early bands to play at J.J. Kelley’s was a local quartet of guys who played original songs of the heavy metal genre. They went on to become the band Disturbed, which has sold more than 17 million records worldwide to date. They’re best know for their hit “Down with the Sickness” and a haunting rendition of Simon and Garfunkel hit, “The Sound of Silence,” released in 2015. In appreciation of Vince providing them a spot to play, the band gifted him a framed record.

Serving the community

Over the years, J.J. Kelley’s has become an integral part of the Lansing community — making it much more than a spot to grab a beer and select a song on a juke box. The Kelleys have helped to support local non-profits, honor veterans, and hold fundraisers for various causes or families facing illness.

Jen Gray of Lansing said she started visiting J.J. Kelley’s with a group of local moms when her kids were young. Soon she was working with JoEllyn to help fundraise for St. Ann Parish and School to organize supper club nights where a portion of proceeds would go to the school. Gray noted that the Kelleys have supported so many groups over the years from the Friends of the Library to Cub Scouts and more. She said that each spring on Lansing’s Clean-up Day she meets up at J.J. Kelley’s as a starting point with a volunteer group where they have breakfast and then go out to clean up litter in the community.

Currently, the bar hosts a Queen of Hearts raffle on Wednesday nights for the South Chicago Parents and Friends organization, where Gray is employed. The proceeds of the raffle go to the organization that serves as a non-profit social service agency providing services for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Military honors

JoEllyn Kelley stands in front of the military wall in the bar that includes photos of local residents who have served in the military. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

One cause that is near and dear to the hearts of the Kelleys is support for veterans. They went so far as to remodel the bar area a few years ago in a digital camouflage pattern and designate a wall to hang photos of regulars and local residents who have served in the military.

In the center of that wall is a young man who once hung out in the bar before he died defending his country in Iraq, LCPL Philip Martini. The Kelleys are close to the Martini family and his LCPL Martini’s friends. Both Vince and JoEllyn were born into large families and their family has expanded by hundreds over the years with customers that they truly consider family.

They’ve held fundraisers in the past for the LCPL Martini Foundation and other organizations. They hold an annual bar crawl on a weekend around Veterans Day where JoEllyn takes people by bus to several American Legion, VFW, and Amvets locations to help garner support for them. It sells out every year. She also holds a celebration each year on the anniversary of the USMC where veterans are invited for a program and a free meal.

The Kelley’s crew

Both JoEllyn and Vince are quick to emphasize that their success and longevity go hand in hand with the wonderful staff they have, which has included a number of family members. JoEllyn said just about every niece and nephew has worked for them at one point.

They’ve had valuable employees who can work magic in the kitchen, starting with a long-time chef named Edna, and now with Pedro and Chelie, and their kitchen staff. JoEllyn’s sister, Lynn, has been with them since the beginning and she’ll often be behind the bar tending to customers — many of whom are regulars whose orders she has memorized. Her sister, Mary Beth, still helps out also.

J.J. Kelley’s customers

Thirty-five years ago, there was a much different customer base. While barstools were once often filled with metal heads who liked to drink hard and play pool, now people of all ages and walks of life eat and drink at the tables and bar.

The lunch crowd is diverse and has sometimes included the following: a table of church friends, a group of auxiliary members from a local veterans hall, a smattering of hard-hat-clad workers, a lone resident spooning out soup as they watch the local news or a sporting event, a couple enjoying a light lunch and a cocktail, and a customer or two trying their luck at the gaming machines.

Friday nights are busy in the Clover Room where there’s a special menu that includes a soup and salad bar. Music plays on Saturday nights, drawing in another varied group of customers. It’s a place where patrons feel a sense of camaraderie and before long, it’s a place to go “where everybody knows their name.”

Jen Bonifazi, who has been a customer for about 30 years, is at J.J. Kelley’s each week for the Queen of Hearts drawing.

“This place just feels like home,” she said.


Word count: 2,250
Carrie Steinweg
Carrie Steinweg
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, photographer, author, and food and travel blogger who has lived in Lansing for 27 years. She most enjoys writing about food, people, history, and baseball. Her favorite Lansing Journal articles that she has written are: "Lan Oak Lanes attracts film crew," "Why Millennials are choosing Lansing," "Curtis Granderson returns home to give back," "The Cubs, the World Series, fandom, and family," and "Lansing's One Trick Pony Brewery: a craft beer oasis."


  1. They just don’t come any better than JoEllyn and Vince. I wish she would be Mayor of Lansing. She does so much for everyone. My husband loved her and when he passed away i knew his Celebration of Life would be at JJ’S. Many friends of course were familiar with he place but many friends i have did not live on Southside so it was their first time there ,and they loved it. They have went back on several occasions. I love Jo Ellyn and Vince . May they continue to serve Lansing for many more years

  2. Best of Luck to two nice people from the customer that was there since day one! My Favorite bartenders… Nancy Hanrahan and Lynn (JoEllen’s sister).

    Jim Moses

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