Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.
There’s a restaurant that has managed to combine some of Chicago’s most iconic eats, and it’s not even in Chicago. The Olympic Tavern in Rockford, Illinois may be some 85 miles away from the city, but it serves tavern-style pizzas with an extra Chicago twist: customers can order both a Chicago hot dog and Italian beef version.
“We found out that the weirder the pizza special that we run, the better,” says Zak Rotello, the general manager of the Olympic and the third generation of Rotellos to run the restaurant. They’ve had crab Rangoon pizza, dill pickle pizza, and a brisket sandwich pizza. “Things that are like a sandwich translate well into a pizza and always seem to do well,” Rotello says.
So an Italian Beef pizza isn’t too difficult: the bread is replaced by the crust, which is topped with beef, giardiniera, and—perhaps an affront to a real beef, but it is after all still a pizza—cheese. The Chicago Dog is a bit trickier, given all its components. Poppy seeds and celery salt season the crust, along with garlic butter. Hot dogs from local Rockford butcher Pinnon are sliced thin, like pepperoni, topping the mozzarella-covered crust along with diced pickles, tomato, onion, giardiniera in place of the sport peppers, squiggles of yellow mustard, and neon-green relish. When Rotello first put the pizza on the menu in April, he offered Old Style and Jeppson’s Malört along with it.
“Malört’s popular [here] because I push it on people,” Rotello says. “Me and the bartenders are big bitters geeks…I definitely know the Malört guys, I got the Malört gear. I’m usually wearing my Malört hoodie.”
He also knows many of the brewers in Chicago and offers an ever-rotating selection of their beers on the 30 taps at the Olympic Tavern, along with draft cocktails, wine, and non-Chicago beer. (Being about as near to Milwaukee as Chicago, the Olympic’s preferred cheap beer of choice is not Old Style but PBR.)
Despite the various Chicago influences, however, the Olympic is firmly grounded in Rockford. It dates back to 1945, when Rotello’s grandfather, Anthony, bought a small tavern on the northwest side of Rockford after serving in the Marines in World War II. “He figured if he could cook with whatever was showing up in cans overseas, he could do better back here,” Rotello says. Anthony renamed the spot the Olympic Tavern and turned it into a neighborhood restaurant and bar. “Back in the day, it was mostly pasta, red sauce, pizza, nickel drafts of Blatz beer,” Rotello says.
Rotello’s father, Tom, eventually took over the restaurant, which has gone through several extensions and remodels. Zak is Tom’s oldest child, and “the only one crazy enough in the family to continue doing this,” he says. He always felt a pull to the restaurant, from the time when he was twelve years old helping make salads and run food to tables. After a stint in Portland, Oregon when he learned to brew beer, he decided to come back to Rockford and work at the restaurant instead of trying to compete with the explosion of craft breweries in Chicago. “I’m just happy to run the fun bar and restaurant that’s a good beer destination in our neighborhood,” he says.
The Olympic isn’t “on the growth side of town” that’s east of the Rock River, Rotello says. It’s in the midst of several historic neighborhoods, and is “kind of an anchor for this neighborhood,” according to Rotello, who estimates that a large majority of the guests at the bar on a given evening are there two to three nights a week. Much of the staff has worked there for years; the only people new since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are a few dishwashers.
“We have access to all different parts of Rockford, and the more different crews I can get in here the better,” Rotello says. “To the west of us, there’s $20,000 bungalows. To the east of us is million-dollar houses on the river.” He cherishes a time when he saw a heavily tattooed metal musician chatting and laughing together at the bar with two businessmen in suits and two older ladies.
“People like to slag on Rockford a lot,” Rotello says. But he loves the city, which is the largest in Illinois outside of the Chicago metropolitan area. The Olympic is in a pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhood, there are “low barriers to entry,” Rockford is just over an hour away from Chicago, Madison, and Milwaukee. “You just got to kind of make your own fun out here,” he says. At the Olympic, “We just try to keep people’s interest and make some fun stuff happen.”