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Lansing History: Kilroy’s Pub — serving Lansing under a variety of names since 1906

LANSING, Ill. (January 19, 2024) – The building at 3502 Ridge Road, Lansing, Illinois — known today as Kilroy’s Pub and Restaurant — is believed to have been built in 1890. That site has been going strong as a saloon, bar, pub, and/or restaurant for more than 100 years! It was founded with a two-room bar in front, a restaurant in the back, and a small three-room rental flat upstairs.

Otto Wolff (1906–1920) — Man about town

From around 1906 until 1919, the establishment was owned and operated by Otto Wolff, who settled in Lansing around 1893. Wolff was known for his friendly hospitality, and the townsfolk gathered at his saloon to exchange news and enjoy social events such as weddings or birthday parties.

In 1908 Wolff made improvements to the building by putting in a new front with plate glass windows. In 1909, he advertised the saloon for sale for $1,000. Apparently it didn’t sell, and Wolff remained the proprietor for more than a decade longer.

Wolff was a popular man about town and regularly made the gossip columns. When his pony ran away from him between Hammond and Lansing, it made the newspaper. When William Huge bought Wolff’s little poodle dog, it made the paper. And when Wolff bought a new single-seat automobile, that too made the paper. In fact, the paper even reported when Mrs. Wolff went shopping or out to lunch.

Wolff must have been considerably wealthy. In 1919 he advertised to sell a seven-passenger Studebaker, fully equipped, for $850. A short time later he was advertising a Ford touring car “in A1 condition, equipped with a Gray and Davis starter, speedometer, spot light, demountable rims and new tires all around with one extra tire. Will sell cheap.”

In 1920 a “Special to the Times” article let the readers know in a large-font headline, “Family Leaves for California.” The article explained, “They (the Wolff family) left here Sunday, February 1, to make their home somewhere in California. They were undecided as to where they would be located permanently. The family, being well known, enjoyed a farewell party given them on Saturday evening by their large circle of friends. All hope they enjoy a pleasant trip, but urgently request them to come back soon.” That was the last mention of the Wolff family in the local newspapers.

The earliest known photo of the building at the northeast corner of Ridge Road and William Street has “c. 1910” handwritten on the back. The occasion is unknown, but additional writing on the back identifies Mrs. Otto Wolff, owner, on the left, and Otto in the car. Some speculate that the photo was taken in 1920 at a farewell party for the Wolffs, as the local newspaper recorded they were leaving by car to make a new home somewhere in California. (Photo courtesy of Lansing Historical Society)

From 1919 until 1941, Lansing’s oldest tavern changed hands many times. Records of who or when are difficult to interpret as several names were attached to the restaurant and tavern even while it was known as the “Original Ridge Road Gardens.”

Frank and Anna Vajda (1934–1941) — Robbed but resilient

Frank Vajda and his wife Anna were operating the restaurant and bar as early as 1934 and possibly before that. On November 30, 1934, an ad in The Times referred to the restaurant as Anna’s Home Cooking and boasted “Orchestration tonight.”

Two years later crime visited the Vajdas’ business. On a Saturday night, February 1, 1936, two men walked into the barroom, ordered drinks, and stood at the bar joking with Fred Sass, the bartender. They walked toward the door, looked up and down the street and then both produced pistols. Proprietor Frank Vajda and Sass were forced to line up in front of the bar while one bandit scooped up all the currency. They estimated the bandits got away with $50 to $100. The bandits left and shortly after robbed the Oak Glen Inn down the street.

An ad in the Times on January 26, 1940, gave notice that “Frank and Anna are back again at their old place which is now called “Original Ridge Road Garden.” They had been closed for renovation.

Frank and Anna sold the business in 1941. The new owners kept the Garden name and added their own, Helen and Pete’s. Anna remained the cook for the new proprietors.

Helen and Pete Kooi (1941–1959) — A fire and a fiery debate

Helen and Pete Kooi purchased the business from Frank Vajda in 1941. A liquor license transfer was granted to Essue Kooi for the Frank Vajda tavern on October 8, 1941. They operated the business until 1959.

In September 1950 Helen and Pete’s tavern was virtually ruined when a flash fire swept through the popular establishment. The cause was defective wiring. The Koois had just completed renovation three months earlier.

But the husband-and-wife team was resilient, and it was business as usual when they reopened two weeks later. They used the rear restaurant section until repairs in the front could be completed. Patrons nicknamed the place “Smokey Pete’s.”

A village board meeting in June 1958 featured a heated debate over the closing of Lansing bars on Sundays. The topic brought 150 residents to the meeting, and the feisty Helen Kooi addressed the board with her displeasure.

A local pastor argued, “There is nothing good about liquor. It is not good ecumenically, socially, spiritually, or mentally.”

Kooi responded, “My husband and I have lived in Lansing for 20 years, and never, until tonight, have I experienced any unpleasantness. In our business, we serve beer, liquor — and food — to many persons, including the working men fresh from the refineries, factories, and steel mills where they have been working to construct materials for your churches, your schools, your roads….”

The board voted 6-0 to extend the closing hours from the 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. time slot to 2:15 a.m. to noon on Sundays. The new rule went into effect July 1, 1958.

One year later the Koois sold the business and published this legal notice in The Times dated June 30, 1959: “Having dissolved our share of partnership in the Original Ridge Road Gardens, 3502 Ridge Road, we will not be responsible for any debts contracted after July 1, 1959.” Charles Zitek took over the business on that date.

Charles Zitek (1959–1963) — A tragic murder

Charles Zitek opened Zitek’s Restaurant and Lounge on July 1, 1959. His son Bernard (Bernie) Zitek became a partner in 1960. Both father and son had been Lansing police officers — Charles was Lansing’s Police Chief from 1930-1932. Before that he was a Lansing motorcycle cop.

Bernie served in in the U.S Air Force during the Korean conflict from 1949–50. When he returned home, he worked in the Oak Glen Radio and Television Store at 18114 Torrence Avenue that was owned by his parents. He joined the Lansing Police Department in 1953, but in 1957 when his mother, who managed the TV store, took ill, he left the police department to take over management of the store. He sold the store in 1960 and became a co-partner with his father at the restaurant and lounge.

Zitek’s Tavern about 1962. (Photo provided by Pamela Zitek Heaton to the Lansing Historical Society)

It was 10 p.m. on April 25, 1962, and Bernie was tending bar. Patricia Hill was waitressing, and customers included Donald O’Brien, Charles Mayer, and Henley Powell. Two men came in and ordered a couple of beers. They began using some pretty salty language, and Bernie ordered them to leave. They left, but they came back at 10:55 p.m. with a shotgun. One of them leveled the gun on the bar and fired a blast into Zitek’s chest.

The next morning a sign in the window read, “Closed! We have lost our son and partner.”

Zitek’s accused killer, Lyman (Slick) Moore, of Burnham, was sentenced to death in the electric chair on May 16, 1964. His sentence was commuted to 60–100 years in prison in March 1974, because the U.S. Supreme Court had outlawed the death penalty.

Moore made nationwide news when Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s book, The Brethren, claimed, “Justice William Brennan decided to vote to uphold Moore’s conviction against his better judgement because to overturn the conviction would offend Justice Harry Blackman, whose vote Brennan needed on some other cases.”

Public Defender James Doherty, who believed in Moore’s innocence, said, “A 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Moore’s murder conviction would likely have gone the other way had it not been for some internal policies in the court. It’s a terrible thing. Due process has failed.”

An attempt to find out what became of Moore since the 1980s was unsuccessful.

Nick Orban’s Fox ‘n Hound (1963–1968) — Proud to be Hungarian

Nick Orban purchased the lounge from Charles Zitek in 1963, renamed it Fox ‘n Hound, and specialized in Hungarian food. Nick had been the club manager at the Lansing Knights of Columbus Council ever since the establishment of club facilities five years earlier.

Marge Orban was the cook. (Although they shared the same last name, their relationship is not known.) Marge also created the ads for The Times. Proud of her heritage, she wrote as an introduction, “Authentic Hungarian food can only be made by Hungarians. We are Hungarians. Watch for grand opening.” On Hungarian Night the specials were stuffed cabbage or chicken paprikash.

There was plenty of “Dancing in Lansing” at the Fox ‘n Hound, especially on Polka night. Marge’s ads always encouraged the adoption of a GI. “Write to him, Pray for him!”

Things came to a screeching halt in early January 1967 when Marge broke her ankle and was unable to work as the cook. The dining room was closed and was expected to reopen on February 1, but doctor’s orders were still, “No Cooking Yet!” The kitchen finally opened in March. On March 24 Marge’s ad said, “Accept my kindest personal regards for the many messages of concern during my convalescence. God bless you!”

Kilroy's
A memento of the Buckhorn Inn — a holiday ashtray. (Photo courtesy of the Lansing Historical Society)

Marvin and Cecelia Bricco’s Buckhorn Inn (1968–1981) — No news is good news

In 1968 the business was again sold and renamed. This time it became Buckhorn Inn. Marvin (Buck) and Cecelia (Ceil) Bricco, nee Moeller, purchased it and ran it for 13 years. Cecelia’s brother Elmer and his wife Janet were owners of Moeller Bowling Lanes in Lansing.

The Briccos seem to have kept a low profile as there were no newspaper ads or feature stories to be found. There also were no crime reports from their address.

Kilroy’s Pub and Restaurant (1981–present) — From five owners to one

Note: Additional details were added to this section after the article was originally published, thanks to recollections from readers, and corrections from one of the original five owners. We appreciate the information.

It was 1981 when Kilroy’s Pub and Restaurant opened with five owners — Ken Crawford, Al Staack, Bob Reynolds, Joe Ciardetti, and Roger Grapenthien. “Joe died a few years later,” recalled Al Staack, “and Roger sold his interest to Ken, Al, and Bob.” In 1999, Al and Bob sold their interest to Dale Botma and Ken Crawford. Botma was also the owner of Lansing Heating and Air Conditioning for 30 years.

Kilroy’s opened in 1981 and is still in business today. (Photo: Melanie Jongsma, 2019)

The kitchen had been leased to non-owner individuals from its beginning. Whoever operated the kitchen in 1982–3 advertised it as Kilroy’s Kitchen. In 1986 it was operated by Marty Dolgin.

The popular bar was quickly established as a gathering place for conversation and fundraising events. It was, and continues to be, a popular sports bar, catering to all thing sports. At one time it was dubbed an official Blackhawks bar. Through the years, Kilroy’s has sponsored a wide variety of sport teams. They even registered for the Guinness Book of Records, for the Longest Softball Game, and played 164 innings.

In 1998, Author Sandra Tooley fictionalized Kilroy’s into Izzie’s as a location for her crime novel, When the Dead Speak. Kilroy’s was just one of the several locations that take on fictional identities in her book. Chasen Heights was based on Chicago Heights.

Becky Peralta, known as “Ma” or “Ya Ya,” worked as a waitress at Kilroy’s for 25 years. She moved to Springfield and died there in 2016 at age 75. Robert Stachura was employed for many years as head cook. He died July 7, 2017, at age 54.

Mary Califello was listed as a long-time hostess. She died in 1977. Mary’s son, Richard J. “Dickey” Califello was an owner and operator of the Kilroy Restaurant for more than 30 years. He became one of the most popular chefs of the region, not only for his culinary skills, but also for his warm and friendly personality. Dickey died on May 27, 2019, leaving his wife Linda, two daughters, and one grandchild.

Sylvia Cocco-Steele worked as a bartender for 14 years from 1988 until 2002 before she bought in as co-owner. The last remaining partner to Crawford, Dale Botma, died in 2002, and Cocco-Steel bought his interest and co-owned the establishment with Ken Crawford, becoming the first female in an ownership position. Crawford retired in May 2007, and Cocco-Steele bought him out. When she bought the establishment she took over the restaurant. Cocco-Steele also currently owns Dixie Kitchen in Lansing.

The same ol’ watering hole

Kilroy’s Pub and Restaurant continues to a place to meet friends and neighbors, whether for a wide choice of libations, good food, or to watch a game on the more than 16 televisions.

As any watering hole regular will tell you, Kilroy’s is and has been the best continuous sporting bar since it all began in 1906 with Otto Wolff.

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Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook
Marlene Cook is a Lansing resident who loves learning and writing about local history. A member of the Illinois Women's Press Association since 1973, she has won multiple IWPA awards. Her 2020 awards in the Mate E. Palmer Communications Contest included first place for columns and second place for nonfiction book in the history category.

1 COMMENT

  1. Congratulations to Marlene Cook and the Lansing Journal for this detailed history of that particular building. While I remember it as Fox and Hounds and the Buckhorn Inn, the most memorable version of it, to me, was Helen & Pete’s, which came into existence the year same year I did, 1941, and that name was retired in 1959, the year I graduated from TF South. I remember Helen and Pete’s as more of a supper club than a bar, but the only time I ever entered that building was in 2004,when Arnold Kunde and i decided to go into the place and have some refreshment, [The place was known as Kilroy’s at that time ]. Although we had both moved away we were in townn town for the 45th year anniversary celebration of TF South’s first graduating class. In my memory, the three most familiar Lansing buildings were The Lansing Journal office at Lake and Williams Streets, the Lans Theater building, on Ridge Road, and this building at Ridge and Williams..

    Frank Fetters

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