Harry Belafonte is playing on the turntable and the smell of smoked barbecue invades the room. Within moments of walking in, Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse proves true to its name, and feels more backwoods Nashville than it does Northside Chicago. Vintage flags, wagon wheel chandeliers and ornamental pigs decorate the space.
Through the economic downturn, struggling sometimes to even pay their employees, Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse survived while other businesses around it faltered. .
After opening its doors in August of 2010 at 2047 W. Lunt Ave., Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse has earned not only neighborhood praise and full booths, but many citywide accolades.
Owner Amanda Leonard described how she and husband Jared Leonard struggled opening a restaurant in a “hole-in-the-wall location.”
“There were days when we made less than what we could pay our (two) employees and days when we waited to make enough money to then go out and buy the meat we needed to cook for the next day,” Leonard said. “We had some tough times but we kept our heads down and worked very hard. We treated every person as our best customer. We relied on family and surrounded ourselves with people who we respect and trust.”
The business may have had a rough start, but on any given night Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse is bustling with barbecue lovers. The eatery reopened on Mar. 1 after a short renovation period and move around the corner to a bigger space at 6954 W. Western Ave.
The move gave the owners an opportunity to re-brand the restaurant. Despite a new look, name, and location, the neighborhood regulars and newbies who come from down the street and across the city are still coming in droves.
Rogers Park resident Molly Moran, 25, said it’s hard to choose one item she likes most. “I’ve tried a little bit of everything but if I had to pick, the pulled pork is my favorite,” she said. Moran said she loves to support local business, “Especially when it tastes this good.”
Leonard shared a few of her and husband, owner and pitmaster Jared’s proudest moments; “The day we aired on 190 North, the day we won ‘Best Ribs 2012’ at the North Center Ribfest using our new all-wood smoker, and the day we opened the new space on Western and had our friends and family in to celebrate.”
The restaurant was also featured on the barbecue edition of Chicago’s Best, a TV show focused on finding “The Best” of lesser known gems throughout the city.
The “no electricity, all-hardwood smoked barbecue” spot has also earned numerous mentions on top lists with the likes of high-end local legends such as Gale Street Inn and Carson’s.
Manager Gwyn Whelan describes the restaurant as a package that Jared and Amanda have worked to create. Whelan said it is about building a barbecue community, not just a restaurant.
“They did everything,” Whelan said. “They got the wagon wheels from a farm, the wood paneling on the walls is from an old barn, the tables are old butcher blocks. The food, the vibe, the whole thing from top to bottom is an expression of what they’re interested in.”
Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse may sound like an ordinary success story. Good recipes and good ingredients mean good food and lots of customers.
As many hopeful restauranteurs know, it isn’t so simple. In trendy neighborhoods like Wicker Park or the constantly crowded South Loop, the odds of success go up with the rent, but West Ridge has seen new businesses fail as well as neighborhood favorites close their doors.
The small space and off the beaten path location that the restaurant opened in only gave the Leonards and their staff more motivation to succeed.
In an effort to broaden their customer base and reach their goal of spreading their love of authentic barbecue, they have created a social media presence. The restaurant has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr- all of which are updated regularly by the owners. They offer recipes, welcome suggestions and keep their eager fans in the know of what’s coming next.
In addition to running the dine-in, carry out, and delivery aspects of the restaurant, they also are available for catering. Jared Leonard also conducts barbecue cooking classes for about 20 people three times a week, but you’ll have to be patient as they’re booked until July.
Besides slow smoked ribs and brisket, Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse has many other options. How about a woodfire-grilled panini? Truffle oil mac ‘n’ cheese? Or maybe loaded nachos with pulled pork or chicken and texas caviar? (Texas caviar is a vegetarian friendly item made of a fresh cold bean and veggie mix of red and green peppers, cherry tomatoes, and fresh cilantro.)
Doug Linde, 74, appreciates the new restaurant in walking distance of his home in Rogers Park. “It’s a great option when I don’t feel like cooking and want a home cooked meal,” Linde said.
The chef rings a triangle when an order is up and customers waiting for their meals risk developing a pavlovian response to that old-time chime.
From the cook books on the tables to the LPs playing overhead, everything about Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse evokes the feeling of having dinner at a friend’s home, which is exactly what Amanda and Jared Leonard want. “Barbecue represents comfort, community, and roots,” Amanda Leonard said. “Rogers Park has been very welcoming, as well as the barbecue community in Chicago. This sense of friendship helped us focus on providing a warm atmosphere with good food [where] people want to be.”