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Club Scene: Chicago blues with an Italian accent



It's Tuesday night at Rosa's, and strains of heavy bass and guitar playing are seeping out through the bar's walls. Near the entrance, a giant-screen TV blares classic blues concerts. It overlooks a pool table, surrounded by players coolly draping their bodies into shooting position. The walls are covered with Rosa's relics: pictures from the annual Blues Cruise, posters from past concerts, and a full-blown portrait of Mama Rosa herself.

A mix of people fill the place: college-student types, middle-aged, serious-blues-fan types, and natives of the neighboring west side. A group of fresh-faced patrons trudge up to the long bar, where Tony Mangiullo stops them. "Hi, welcome to Rosa's. This is my bar and I want you to have a good time," says Tony, patting the tallest of the group on the back. He talks in a thick Italian accent that would make Father Guido Sarducci sound eloquent.

Rosa's, touted as "Chicago's friendliest blues lounge," is nestled in an iffy corner of Logan Square, literally and figuratively miles from the typical yuppie-filled Lincoln Park blues club. "I want this to be like home. We are all family," explains Tony. "I'm not just here to make a dollar. I could 'ave kept my ass home for that," he says with a grin.

Home for Tony is Milan, Italy. He left 12 years ago to come to Chicago and play the blues. "In Italy, I was a blues drummer in a blues band. They didn't know what it was but we play anyway." Tony pauses, raking his brown beard absently and blinking his topaz eyes in reflection.

"Junior Wells is a famous harmonica player. I caught his act one day when he played in Italy. I share a bottle of JB with him and I tell him I want to play blues in Chicago. He gave me his address and told me to come see him in Chicago. So after a couple of years, I follow him."

Tony ended up following Wells to Theresa's Lounge, a legendary south-side blues joint that would serve as a spiritual model for Rosa's. "It was in a basement and it was narrow like a tunnel," says Tony, twisting his sinewy body sideways to demonstrate. "Right away, they were very friendly. They took my backpack and gave me a drink. I could not speak very much English, so they didn't really know who I was. But they still treat me like family. They told me to wait and Junior would come. Junior Wells came and he let me play drums with him that night. In my mind, it felt like home. I wanted to stay as long as possible."

And stay he did. Wells adopted Tony as his "godson" and introduced him to the Chicago blues scene. Tony was soon playing regularly with Jimmy Rogers and the Blues All-Stars.

Tony hops onto the stage with energy that belies his 31 years. He's wearing a pristine white shirt open to his hairy chest. "Good evening and welcome to Rosa's. We have a great show for you tonight. Tonight, we 'ave Melvin Taylor. He's celebrating his birthday tonight." The crowd whoops and screams. "But first, I would like to introduce the lady who made all of this possible. Let's give a hand to Mama Rosa behind the bar!" A stout, rosy-cheeked woman with gray-streaked hair waves from her post. The crowd applauds. "You think we should get started now?" The crowd gives an affirmative yell. "It's now show time! Welcome Melvin Taylor and the Slack Band."

Mama Rosa followed Tony to Chicago a year after he left; she wanted to make sure he was all right. "We have a priority for family," Tony says. "We no make kids and give away. We take care of family. That's how we do things. I don't just run Rosa's like a business, it's a family too."

It was Mama Rosa who wanted to open a business. Tony was traveling with various blues bands and she wanted him to have a base. She located an Italian real estate company to find a building, a company that only handled property on the northwest side--that's how Rosa's wound up at the corner of Armitage and Kimball. It opened in February 1985 and soon developed a strong reputation for good music and homespun style, regularly featuring such legendary blues acts as James Cotton, Junior Wells, Billy Branch, and Homesick James.

Melvin Taylor glides through the crowd and steps onto the stage. A black pin-striped suit hangs on his body like a candy bar wrapper. He slings on his guitar and begins tuning it. "Most people celebrate on their birthday. I started five days ago," he drawls. The crowd yelps with appreciation. His bandmates Willie and Curtis join him on stage, and he lights into a riveting sound collage, ending the song to a storm of applause.

Then he says into the mike, "Mama, I'll need a T-shirt and some jeans. This suit is killing me." He rips open his shirt and begins the next song. Mama nods and heads upstairs to the apartment that she and Tony share.

"Some clubs just do business, here, we do it different," says Tony. "Every detail, we take care of." He waves his hands for emphasis, jangling the gold chain around his neck. "We are family."

There's live blues at Rosa's every night; for this week's lineup see the Reader's Guide to the Music Scene in section two or call the club at 342-0452. Rosa's annual Blues Cruise is Saturday night; two Louisiana acts, Major Handy and Wolf-Couchon, will play and the Ragin' Cajun will cater aboard the Chicago Princess, which leaves the south dock of Navy Pier at midnight and gets back around 4:30 AM. Tickets are $30; call the club to reserve them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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