The portraits on the wall at Bowmanville's Leadway Bar range from an elaborate feathered peacock's head on top of a business-suited torso to a fat-lipped gangster wearing a cocked fedora to a caricature of Bart Simpson. Most are unframed; they were done by customers using the paper, paint, and easels set out in the bar's makeshift studio. Owner Frank Ciucur sells the pieces for $10 a pop, but he doesn't pocket the money. "I give the ten bucks back to my customers the next time I see them," says Ciucur, a native Romanian. "I tell everyone to write his or her name on the back so I know who gets the money."
Ciucur, who's owned the 50-year-old bar on Damen just north of Foster for six years, grew up in Transylvania. When he was 16 his father crossed the border into a Yugoslav refugee camp; the family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 18, first living in Saint Louis for eight months before moving to Chicago and settling into a home near Irving Park and Elston. Ciucur worked in construction and janitorial services before landing a job as a plumber. In 1996 he noticed the Leadway had been for sale for a while, and he was ready to invest his decade's worth of savings. "I thought I could fix the place up," he says. He also bought two adjacent storefronts, converting the one farthest north into a hair salon, keeping the corner unit as a bar, and using the center print shop for storage.
He came up with the painting idea in 1999. "Not everyone likes to play pool," he says of the bar's former main attraction. On top of that, not everyone liked the crowd the pool attracted--an unsavory group of men who played high-stakes games, smoked heavily, fought frequently, and drove other customers away with their behavior.
After two years, countless meetings with the alderman, and several community hearings, he won approval for sidewalk seating. At the same time he came up with a strategy that he hoped would get rid of his rough regulars: in fall 1998 he told them not to return, and then he closed down for three months while he visited family in the old country. Then he came back and renovated the Leadway, replacing the small bar windows with French doors and building two wooden decks outside, framed by a handmade side rail topped with cheerful flower boxes.
Business stalled initially after the bar reopened, but Ciucur was determined to attract a cleaner crowd. To his benefit the neighborhood began to change; more artists began moving into this area just west of Andersonville where rents were still low. Ciucur thought painting might work well as entertainment for his new customers while they sipped a good variety of tap beers. He displays about three dozen of his customers' finished products at a time, storing the extras in the back room. "We sell about one or two per week," he says. This September he plans to hold a sidewalk sale of all the art and donate the money to a local public school. "I'll get all the others out of the storeroom and fill the sidewalk. They'll only be a few dollars each."
Ciucur's an artist himself, though he's hesitant to admit it, claiming, "I just happen to have this stuff." He's referring to the copper pipes and sheets, left over from his day job, that serve as his materials. Some of his work is functional--the welded copper pool-cue holder, the wineglass rack behind the bar--and some is decorative, like the massive abstract sculpture of copper and metal that he has hanging on the wall.
His industrious nature recently brought out another of his talents. "I always liked to cook," he says. Over the last few years he's catered for private events and neighborhood functions, and this summer he added a menu at the Leadway, mostly of bar food--breaded mushrooms and zucchini, burgers, and a pork chop. In early July he added a jazz barbecue Friday nights featuring local acts like Bill George and the Brian Citro Quartet. Without an entertainment license he can't charge a cover, so he collects five bucks for an all-you-can-eat buffet of barbecued chicken, pork chops, and grilled veggies; the proceeds go to the band after covering food costs. Sunday brunch started in mid-July. Locals gather for large made-to-order omelettes, along with a buffet-style smorgasbord of bacon, thick-cut ham, sausage, French toast, chicken tenders, home-style roasted potatoes with grilled red and yellow peppers, and trays of fresh fruit and vegetables. The $6.99 price tag includes juice.
To accommodate barbecue and brunch, Ciucur recently converted his storage room into a dining area. There's a buffet table at one end and seating for close to 30. Ciucur still works as a plumber by day, prepares for cooking in the early evening, and works the bar kitchen into the night. "I've been working 20 hours a day for the past 20 years," says the 33-year-old, smiling. "It's just the way it is."
Leadway Bar is at 5233 N. Damen, 773-728-2663.
Lexi's owner Nick Andrews will join forces this fall with Rushmore chef Michael Dean Hazen to open Phil and Lou's, an American restaurant at 1104 W. Madison. Hazen will remain executive chef at Rushmore with Gil Langlois (formerly of the Room) as chef de cuisine....Crab Street Saloon at 1061 W. Madison has closed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.