I was staying in the northwest suburbs of the Chicagoland regiion on a recent visit there. I wasn't familiar with many of the places to eat in the area, so I found myself driving around trying to figure out what to get for dinner in Mount Prospect. I went past an interesting looking place that had a number of beer signs in the window and decided to head back around the block to check it out. I pulled up next to the place - Jake's Pizza - and did a quick Urbanspoon search on my smart phone. It appeared to have good reviews all around, so I grabbed my Chicago Tribune and went inside.
Jake's Pizza is a small chain of pizza restaurants that were once part of a chain of over 50 locations. The original Jake's Pizza opened in October of 1961 when 24-year-old John "Jake" Flowers opened his first restaurant in Mount Prospect (see map). He sold his first local franchise in Jake's Pizza in the mid-60's and at one point there were 15 Jake's Pizza locations in the greater Chicago area.
In the seventies, Flowers brought on a partner, Samuel V.P. Banks. Banks was a Chicago lawyer of note and at one time a prosecutor who brought obscenity charges against 60's comedian Lenny Bruce. Banks then became a high-powered defense attorney for mob-linked and corruption defendants. His brother, William Banks, was a long-time and somewhat powerful alderman representing the 36th ward in Northwest Chicago.
Flowers and Banks set up a corporation - Jake's Pizza International - and began to expand franchises. At one point, there were Jake's Pizza restaurants in North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Arkansas, Arizona and Nevada. In the early 90's, the company signed on television personality Vanna White to be a spokesperson for the company and to appear at some restaurant openings. It wasn't long afterward that the company offered an initial public stock offering. And it was also about that time that John "Jake" Flowers retired from the company, but maintained a seat on the company's board of directors.
That's when things began to unravel.
The company raised over $3 million on its IPO, but under-financed franchisees and a hefty price-tag they had to pay to Vanna White caused the value of the stock to dive. The stock price sunk to a low of around 30 cents a share and the company eventually had to declare bankruptcy protection. Flowers came back out of retirement and dissolved the partnership. From what I understand, it was a pretty acrimonious breakup between Flowers and Banks. Flowers eventually bought the company back from the bankruptcy court in 1997 for just a tad over $250,000.
Today, there are 10 Jake's Pizza restaurants around the Chicago area, primarily in the northern and western suburbs. I'm not certain if they're still franchise-owned or if John "Jake" Flowers owns the restaurants.
So, the one in Mount Prospect is, indeed, the original Jake's Pizza. I wasn't sure of that until I found some bankruptcy information on line regarding Jake's Pizza International. I'm sort of surprised that I'd never heard of Jake's Pizza before my first visit there.
It was around 8 p.m. when I walked into a nearly deserted Jake's Pizza. Not necessarily a good sign, I thought, but I'd pretty much committed to eating there. I was greeted by a middle-aged lady who was also going to be my server that evening. She asked me where I'd like to sit and I took a look at the bar area to the left as you come into the place. They had a ball game on one of the televisions, but I wasn't interested in that. I ended up sitting in a booth with a hanging light above it so I could relax and read my paper.
The inside of Jake's Pizza was well lit with a series of high-backed wooden booths and a number of tables with ice-cream parlor style chairs throughout the room. It was nice, clean and modern. I'm guessing the dining room had been added on as the bar area looked a little dated. A satellite radio station playing an eclectic mix of classic rock, blues and modern rock played in the background.
My waitress gave me a menu to look over and in addition to pizza at Jake's they have appetizers, salads and sandwiches. But pizza is the prime menu item at Jake's. They have both thin crust and deep dish pan pizzas along with a handful of specialty pizzas that include toppings such as shrimp, chicken (made with their homemade alfredo sauce), and pizzas made with barbecue sauce. I'm pretty predictable when it comes to my pizza, especially when it comes to trying new places. I have to try a sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza and that's exactly what I ordered from the lady when she came back to take my order.
Since it wasn't busy in Jake's Pizza (although there were a handful of "to-go" orders that were picked up while I was there), I got my pizza pretty quickly. It looked and smelled very good. It was cut into party slices like a good Chicago tavern-style pizza. There was a plethora of fresh mushroom slices on top and the sausage and pepperoni were swimming beneath the slightly caramelized mozzarella cheese.
The crust was thin enough - sort of crispy to the bite, but not overcooked. The taste of the pizza overall was delicious. Surprisingly delicious! The sausage had a nice little bite to it, the pepperoni slices were plentiful and very flavorful, and I really enjoyed the somewhat forward pizza sauce. It wasn't too sweet, but had a nice spicy flavor to it. It was a superb pizza all around.
I hadn't eaten all day long and was very hungry. Since it was a thin crust pizza I was able to finish the whole thing. And one of my keys of a good pizza is whether or not it tastes good with a cold beer. Jake's Pizza was an excellent combination with a beer.
Sometimes finding a pretty good restaurant out of the blue helps add to the experience. I was absolutely impressed with the pizza at Jake's Pizza in Mount Prospect. I'm wondering if the other Jake's locations are as good as the original one. Sometimes that's not the case, but I'm guessing they've got to be pretty close. Now that Jake's Pizza is on my radar, I'll be more open to trying another one of their locations at some point.
(Update - I drove by the Jake's Pizza location in Mount Prospect on a recent visit to my dealer just down the street and saw a large "Building for Sale" sign. Looks like Jake's Pizza is no longer open.)