Saloon keeper Al Rompza is a muscular, athletic guy, the type of man who could hit a black rubber handball so hard it chipped plaster off the front wall of the court at the Irving Park YMCA.
The first time this writer played handball with Al back in 1979, he pounded the ball so severely it exploded into two black rubber half-moons. The remains of his powerful back-wall “kill shot” just laid there on the wooden court floor.
Later, in the locker room, I told Al I managed a softball team named “Solidarity”. Rompza, a colorful guy who sports a shaved head, a gold earring, a mustache and goatee, asked why I chose that name.
The answer was that the roster was filled with great Polish-American or Ukrainian-American players with names like Placek, Skowronski, Sortal, Wysocki, Dudek, Oleksy and Gorzynski.
When I told Rompza I was part Bohemian-American, he smiled and immediately offered to sponsor the Solidarity team at Trebes Park out of his family saloon—the Burwood Tap, at Burling and Wrightwood in Lincoln Park.
Later, in the early-1980s, Rompza and partner Jerry Ranalli opened the Ultimate Sports Bar, a saloon on Armitage and Sedgwick in Old Town. That bar sported a real boxing ring as a focal point. They also offered to sponsor Solidarity.
Al’s other partner, Jimmy Rittenberg, owned Juke Box Saturday Night on the Lincoln Avenue saloon strip. With Solidarity playing at Oz Park, it made sense to hold the post-game festivities at Juke Box Saturday Night, just around the corner from Oz Park.
After a few beers were guzzled at the Ultimate Sports Bar, Solidarity’s players headed to Juke Box Saturday Night, where jitter bug and twist contests were held, and platters were spun by a disc-jockey who sat within the interior of a 1957 Chevy convertible. The players wore tailored silver and navy-blue championship jackets and looked like rock stars.
In 1988, Rompza purchased the old Grover’s Oyster Bar on Irving Park Road, just east of Western Avenue. It was renamed Chicago Joe’s, the now famous restaurant/saloon and sports bar at 2250 W. Irving Park Road in the North Center neighborhood.
Earlier in the 1980s, Solidarity had won a championship in the tough Kosciuszko Park league. In 1985, the team was reunited under the name “Risk” in honor of my oldest son’s graffiti tag. Artist Erik DeBat also was a fine softball player, and the fastest runner on the team.
My friendship with Al Rompza proves a relationship with a good softball sponsor can last longer than a good marriage.
Saloonkeeper Al always will be a roué—a man with a great laugh and a twinkle in his eye. He always bought a round of drinks for steady customers and the softball teams he sponsored.
That’s the way it was for 28 years for Risk, my 16-inch slow pitch softball team that later was renamed “Vintage Risk” because many of the finest players were getting older.
In the 1990s, Chicago Joe’s was such a softball mecca it once sponsored teams virtually every week night. One of its female bartenders played 16-inch softball on five teams.
Chicago Joe’s not only sponsored my team, it also changed my life. One evening in the spring of 1992, I met my future wife at the saloon. In 1994, Al Rompza threw an impromptu, but memorable, bachelor party for me that ended with our skinny dipping at 3 a.m. in the swimming pool at his Old Irving Park home.
From 1988 through 2016, the sports-bar restaurant sponsored the Vintage Risk team loaded with a roster of Chicago 16-Inch Hall-of-Fame softball players. In 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2016, Vintage Risk won championships at Horner Park.
Vintage Risk teammates partied hard, hung signed championship game balls from the ceiling of Chicago Joe’s, and held their victory party washing down buckets of hot chicken wings with pitchers of beer in the restaurant’s outdoor garden.
“Together we shared great times and a lot of fun memories at Chicago Joe’s,” recalled Dave Ganir, who along with his late father, Hall-of-Famer Sal Ganir, starred for Vintage Risk. Several future HOF inductees—John Clausen, Bob Egan, Keith Dickens and Gary Bergner—also anchored the team.
But those fond victory celebrations and bonded softball camaraderie are long gone. Rompza and his family have listed the property, which consists of the commercial spaces, six rental apartments and a parking lot spread over four city lots, for $2.4 million, according to Realtor Nicholas Jakubco of Jakubco Development, Inc.
The restaurant will continue to operate until the property sells, Jakubco said. The highest and best use for the site likely is for redevelopment as a mixed-use condominium or rental apartment project. “The sellers also would be open to a sale of the business, its assets and the restaurant,” he said.
“Chicago Joe’s is named after Joe Rompza, my grandfather, who grew up in the neighborhood, played handball at the Irving Park YMCA and loved good home cooking,” Al Rompza recalled.
“Weekly in the early 2000s, we served lunch and dinner to more than 2,000 people—more than 100,000 customers a year—in two spacious dining rooms and a large hardwood barroom that is tastefully decorated with sports antiques and historic Chicago memorabilia.”
During the baseball season, Chicago Joe’s attracted a large clientele of Chicago Cubs’ fans. Back in the day, such sports celebrities as the late former White Sox star Minnie Minoso and professional Cubs’ cheerleader Ronnie (Woo-Woo) Wickers were regulars.
The walls and ceilings at Chicago Joe’s are covered with signature baseball bats, batting helmets, vintage hockey sticks, old boxing gloves, signed championship softballs, historic sporting event tickets, and a collection of historic black-and-white photos of Windy City sports palaces—from Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field to the original Soldier Field.
There’s also a collection of vintage Chicago politician and sports celebrity photos, including Mayor Richard J. Daley, and Chicago Bears Hall-of-Fame tight end Mike Ditka.
Let’s hope some smart real estate investors keep this softball saloon and Chicago sports museum alive for a few more years. Do we really need more condos and apartments in the North Center neighborhood?
Don DeBat currently is writing, “Chicago’s Game,” a book on the history of 16-inch softball. For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.