Rosemont no longer just conventions and concerts

Suburb fancies itself a theme park for grown-ups

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MB Financial Park in Rosemont. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune / August 9, 2012)

There was a time, not long ago, when the idea of spending a night out in Rosemont would have been interpreted as penance.

You'd missed a flight, or you hadn't been able to get in at one of the branded steakhouses downtown, so you settled for its northwestern cousin. Or maybe you were at a convention, pushing your particular company's widgets. Your colleagues went into the city. You, low man on the corporate pole, stayed on for cleanup duty, thankful that you'd just installed a new Solitaire game on your fading, company-issue Dell.

You settled in at the hotel bar, counting the hours till you could get back on a plane to the place you came from, a spot magnitudes more soulful than the surrounding collection of hotel rooms and parking lots whose primary recommendation was proximity to the airport. This was true even if that origin place was, say, Omaha, Neb. Just when you were about to play out the entire virtual deck, the red rubber cap fell off your mouse pointer.

Is this too bleak a picture? Let's put several decades of travelers under a truth serum and find out.

And then, just for kicks, let's drop them into the Rosemont of today, where there's a transformation under way as undeniable as it is unlikely. A Stephens is still mayor, son Bradley having taken the reins from father Donald. And by "reins," of course, we mean both control and controversy, which still dogs the doings at Village Hall. A recent Tribune/Medill Watchdog investigation showed Rosemont as a hotbed of cronyism, where no-bid contracts for members of the Stephens family and their friends are the norm.

But suddenly, if you're not the sort to worry too much about who benefits from your fun, you can spend an evening in Rosemont doing unapologetic, adult-entertainment things. Things people with options actually go out of their way to do.

It's not just the roughly 18,500-seat Allstate Arena (6920 N. Mannheim Road) anymore, home to minor league hockey and major league teen bands. It's not just the 4,400-seat Akoo (nee Rosemont) Theatre (5400 N. River Road), either, where upcoming concerts feature tributes to Journey, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Abba, Elvis and Queen. Plus, of course, Lord of the Dance (not a tribute).

Now — to entertain Rosemont's 4,200 residents and, perhaps, a few others — there's the Muvico Theaters (9701 Bryn Mawr Ave.), 18 film screening rooms nice enough to make you genuinely consider not waiting for the DVD. Up River Road, adjacent to Rosemont in Des Plaines, there's the Rivers Casino (3000 S. River Road), testament to people's love of games of chance and government's lack of imagination in devising new revenue streams. It is, like most middle American casinos, a place where inheritances dwindle, one rapidly fed quarter at a time.

But the real driver of the Rosemont revival, if we may say something is revived that was never particularly vital in the first place, is the MB Financial Park at Rosemont (5501 Park Place), a woefully corporate name for what is actually a sort of theme park for adults. Kiddieland spent decades down River Road in Melrose Park, near where it turned into First Avenue. This is Grown-Up Land.

Centered on a literally hockey-rink-size green space, there's already a fancy bowling alley, Kings Lanes, Lounge & Sports; an Irish pub with woodwork actually done in Northern Ireland; and a hopping Mexican place named, like so many are, after a couple of seemingly random Southwestern words: Adobe Gila's. (Do not ask to meet the Gila to whom the possessive would indicate the place belongs.)

Also open in the park are a new edition of Zanies, the venerable area comedy chain, and a place called Park Tavern that has too many TV screens to not bring to mind a sports bar but nonetheless serves interesting food.

"Are you from around here?" the hostess greeted my wife and me as we approached Park Tavern after seeing a film at Muvico.

Maybe she meant it innocently, a stumbling way to try to discern visitors' ZIP codes. But the phrasing was reminiscent of a Southern sheriff, old-school, suggesting that your kind does not belong.

We nonetheless grabbed a table by the big windows open to the artificial-turf green and settled in to watch some Olympics and eat some genuinely pleasing "street tacos." It may not have been Rick Bayless, but it wasn't Taco Bell either.

"Not Bayless but not Taco Bell," come to think of it, is a fair description for the entire enterprise.

"It's an entertainment district," says Mayor Stephens, proudly touring a visitor through the park on a stultifying summer day. "It appeals to the masses."

There are bands in the central green on many summer weekends. In winter, it becomes an ice rink, one that drew 26,000 last year, Stephens says.

The park is built over the foundation originally put in for the casino that was supposed to go here, until the Illinois Gaming Board revoked the license of the bankrupt Emerald Casino in December 2005 amid concerns about mob influence and insider dealing. The casino license instead went to the Des Plaines project.

MB Financial Park is Rosemont's Plan B, and Stephens professes to prefer it: "The day after the casino decision, it was like, OK let's regroup. Let's figure out what we can do here. ... When that day was over, it was over, and it was time to do something else. And we did. And I'm real proud of what we've done."

No sour grapes, he says, noting that the park, owned and built by Rosemont through a no-bid contract, advertises at the casino. But, Stephens adds: "You know what? Ten percent of the people go away happy from a casino. Ninety percent of people go away happy from here."

MB Financial Park is like a mall of entertainment. All the businesses are chains or related to chains or chains-in-waiting. It's Disneyfied, to be sure, but the establishments have good tap beer, kitchens with at least a little ambition and decks and patios that open to the park. You'd have to be a sourpuss to not find a way to enjoy yourself.

At Adobe Gila's, "home of the 64-ounce margarita," plastic bead necklaces on the table suggest, incongruously, Mardi Gras. On the July night that Zanies opened, the place, with sister outposts in Ohio and Florida, was positively buzzing.

Ryan Williams, 32, a retail manager from Park Ridge, steps onto the patio to check out the park and get a break from the clamor inside.

"I'm kind of wrapping my head around" the place, he says.

Still, he says he can easily imagine spending a whole evening here, especially with the draw of the bowling alley and Muvico.

"I couldn't imagine going to another movie theater," Williams says, citing the comfort and food and drink options there. (The theaters draw "nearly 1 million people" annually, Stephens says.)

The area is an easy walk from the Rosemont stop on the Blue Line or the hotels and convention center that fill in much of the land along River Road, south of Interstate Highway 90.

But MB Financial can't live on hotel patrons and conventioneers alone. It needs area residents like Williams to come and park and play if it's going to succeed. And it's not as if the suburbs are a chain-restaurant desert.

"If you live in Park Ridge, you've got a lot going on there," Williams says.

The park sits between Balmoral Avenue to the south, where Akoo Theatre is, and Bryn Mawr on the north, where the Muvico building is, and which is connected by a walkway between the bowling alley and Five Roses Irish pub.

On the east side is an 3,000-vehicle parking garage owned by the village. (Parking is free with validation, at least for now.) On its west side is the hum of traffic from Interstate Highway 294, a view and noise that's being partially blocked out by the 20,000-square-foot Hofbrauhaus, a beer hall, restaurant and beer garden patterned after the 400-year-old original in Munich that when completed will nearly enclose the green space.

Scheduled to open sooner than that are a new edition of the chain My Big Fat Greek Restaurant and, perhaps most impactfully, a Toby Keith's I (Heart) This Bar & Grill, named after a hit single by the country superstar.

That place, scheduled for a "soft opening" this month, will program live music for up to 2,000 people at a time. There's a gigantic guitar-shaped bar, and an oversize segment of a red Solo cup, the name of another Keith hit, will adorn a wall.

The menu includes a fried bologna sandwich, and not french fries but "Toby's Freedom Fries," a nod to Keith's Fox News politics.

Other potential draws that Mayor Stephens points to: an outlet mall south of Balmoral that should be open next summer and a planned Big Ten headquarters building.

"The whole mix here is really terrific," says Frank Stryjewski, CFO of Kings Lanes, which started in Boston and also runs the Five Roses pub.

He sees the area as "a community center for, really, the suburbs of Chicago, but also for visitors."

While the long waits for bowling lanes at the Boston-area Kings haven't yet materialized in Rosemont, Stryjewski says he is confident they will as people learn of the area and its options.

Bowling, he says, "is a sport that's reinventing itself." And if for no other reason than that, it's a pretty good fit for the village of Rosemont, destination-in-waiting. Twitter @stevenkjohnson

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