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Chi Lives:Joanne and Sons' kitschy kitchen

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No dish at Joanne and Sons costs more than $4.75. But the conversation that Joanne O'Reilly provides is priceless. Or at least free. O'Reilly comes on strong about any number of topics, with relationship counseling the main course. "I'm not here to intimidate you," she says. "This is my opinion. You don't have to follow it. I'm not going to say, if you don't do what I think you should do, then you're a big idiot or I don't wanna be your friend. It's my opinion. It's just my way. You make your own choices."

O'Reilly is a cherubic, red-haired Italian in her late 40s. Her father was a cook at Augustine's, an Italian restaurant downtown, but she didn't expect to end up running her own diner. She got married at 19, got pregnant at 20, and worked, as she puts it, as a "beautician and a mom." Her husband, Martin, died suddenly in 1980, and she was left to care for her sons, Anthony and Nick, aged three and ten. The kids attended Saint Gregory's, a Catholic elementary school on Bryn Mawr, and O'Reilly occasionally volunteered for school activities. When a cafeteria manager position opened up at the accompanying high school, the principal offered her the job. She worked there for the next nine years. After that, she moved on to a bigger high school in Oak Park, where she fed nearly 3,000 people a day.

A few years ago, O'Reilly and a friend were eating at an old neighborhood restaurant called Mary's Kitchen. It had been in the same building by the Ravenswood Metra tracks since the 1920s, where it had previously been called Helen's Kitchen. Mary told O'Reilly that the place was for sale. O'Reilly didn't have much capital, but she decided she really wanted to buy the place. After cashing in some insurance policies and getting loans from her mother, her in-laws, and a friend who sold real estate, O'Reilly approached Mary with what she had. Mary said no. O'Reilly scraped up some more, and Mary finally caved, knocking $2,000 off the selling price and turning over the lease.

"I didn't want it to be Joanne's Kitchen, that was for sure," O'Reilly says. "Then I was gonna name it O'Reilly's, but then it sounded too much like an Irish pub, and I thought people would see that name and be confused by that. Joanne and Sons. It was a female thing. You know how men will have on the side of trucks Smith and Sons. Whatever. A father and his two boys. Well, since I was a single parent, it was kind of a statement to say that I'm a single parent and I have two sons, and women can do that too. It was kind of a female statement that I was making."

In the five years since Joanne and Sons opened, O'Reilly has filled her diner with assorted knickknacks, stuff accumulated gradually over a lifetime. Some of the things came from her mother-in-law's basement, others were gifts from customers, but most she bought at thrift stores, never for more than two dollars. "I had to put something up on the wall," she says. "There was no rhyme or reason for it. It just started coming."

The stuff includes Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls, a pink dress bearing a banner that reads "Queen of the Hop," a tuxedo jacket, vintage cameras and transistor radios, a Silver Streak sled, a photograph of the Dionne quintuplets, Illinois license plates from several decades, a Bozo puppet coming out of a Cracker Jack can, and an enormous photograph of a homemaker preparing biscuits. A smaller photograph shows a happy housewife serving a turkey to an eager preteen boy. Recently, O'Reilly repainted the place blue and white and reorganized her stuff by theme: The Wizard of Oz dolls went on one shelf, the Pepsi memorabilia on another, the train-related kitsch on still another.

The north wall of the restaurant is reserved entirely for photographs and paraphernalia bearing the likeness of Elvis Presley. O'Reilly has been a dedicated Elvis fan for many years, and her mind is never far from thoughts of the King. "One time somebody was talking in here about the king of a country, you know, like some country with King So-and-so. And they were saying 'The king the king the king.' And I instinctively said, 'Are you talking about Elvis?' I hear 'the king,' I think of Elvis. I didn't think that there were actually king people. It's like one of those word association things. People would say king, maybe you would say queen. Maybe you'd say rich. They say king to me? Elvis. King Elvis. And he was gorgeous."

She thinks Elvis would have enjoyed her food. "He just liked regular cooking. It wasn't like he needed mushroom sauce poured on stuff." The fare is basic diner--eggs, burgers, sandwiches, and chops--and includes daily breakfast and lunch specials. O'Reilly and her son Anthony, the only two cooks, use fresh ingredients and roast their own turkey and beef. O'Reilly regrets that she doesn't have much time to visit with her clientele, but when she does, they get plenty of advice. "Some people, they come every day. They're wonderful customers. The owner of the company which is on the other side of the street, he comes in and he says, 'Why do you ask what we want? You're going to give us what you want us to have anyway.' I'm like, 'Now you've got the idea!'"

Joanne and Sons, 1775 W. Sunnyside (773-334-0101), is open Monday through Saturday, 8 AM to 2 PM, and Sunday, 9 AM to 2 PM. Weekends are breakfast only.

--Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos of Joanne O'Reilly and restaurant wall by Katrina Wittkamp.

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