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."

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