About a year ago, I came across an on-line article about places outside of the Chicago area that have what the author thought were Chicago-worthy Italian beef sandwiches. One place that was mentioned was Schooners, a neighborhood place in downstate Bloomington. While on a trip driving by Bloomington one day, it was close to lunch and I decided to stop into Schooners to give one of their Italian beef sandwiches a try.
Schooners has been around since 1983 when Bob Groetken and Greg Gebbards opened the door to their little neighborhood bar in Bloomington in what was a former Pizza Hut location near Illinois Wesleyan University. They moved to their present day location on E. Grove just east of S. Clinton 30 years ago. (see map) Today, Bob Groetken continues to run Schooners along with his wife, Deb. (There is a Schooners in Morton, IL, a suburb of Peoria, that seems to be similar in many aspects to the one in Bloomington. But the Groetkens are not the owners of that establishment.)
In the summertime, Schooners opens its popular beer garden attached to the backside of the restaurant. Acoustic and light electric music is played a couple times a week mainly on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.
I was able to find a parking spot in the lot on the side of Schooners. I went in and found a table in the larger of the two dining rooms in the restaurant. It appears that the room I was in may have been an addition at some point in time as it appeared to be a little newer than the other bar/dining area in the restaurant. There was an interesting mix of people at Schooners - I saw businessmen in ties and buttoned down shirts, and there were blue-collar types, along with a number of older people in the place. It was a popular place for lunch.
I was given a menu and while I had it in my head that I was going to get an Italian beef sandwich, I found that they had a number of other things to choose from. Schooners is famous for their beer-battered chicken that was developed by Greg Gebbards years ago. "Gebby's Beer-battered Chicken" is available either as part of a dinner, or pieces are available a la carte. Schooners is also famous for their chicken wings, as well as their huge pork tenderloin sandwiches that could easily feed two people. House-made soups and chili are available on a daily basis along side a number of salad offerings. In addition to their Italian beef sandwich, Schooners also has a corned beef or turkey reuben sandwich, their variation of the Central Illinois-favorite Horseshoe sandwich, a batter-dipped or grilled chicken breast sandwich, and a handful of specialty burgers.
But I went with the Italian beef sandwich, sticking to my plan before I even stopped in. I had my choice between potato chips or crinkle-cut fries and I wasn't enamored with either one. I got the chips because I figured that I wouldn't be eating much more than the sandwich. I got a Lagunitas IPA that they had on tap - a schooner size, of course.
The beef was thin, tender and juicy. The beef also some good Italian seasonings and spices slow-cooked into it. The hoagie bun was light, but held together very well. I got a side of peperoncini's to help spice the sandwich up a bit, and the au jus that was served on the side was piping hot. The overall taste of sandwich was excellent. My only quibble would be to have some good ol' Chicago-style giardiniera available to put on the sandwich. But in hindsight, the Italian beef sandwich at Schooners really didn't need much help in its taste and quality.
Schooners was a neat little place, a great little neighborhood bar that wasn't fancy, but it had a nice homey atmosphere. My Italian beef sandwich was very good and worthy of Schooners being named one of the top places in the state to get such a sandwich. The service I had was friendly and efficient, and the beer was cold. If you're not from the Bloomington/Normal area Schooners is a little tough to find, but it's worth the stop for above average bar food.