Villa Park Town Focus

Back in the early 1960s, Villa Park was a good place for Dick Portillo to set up a hot dog stand that would ultimately become a multimillion-dollar quick-service restaurant chain. There’s still a Portillo’s restaurant on the spot --— fittingly, it has a 1960s theme. And as recently as last July, this western suburb was deemed the perfect location for the opening of More Brewing Co., a trendy microbrewery and restaurant, with a signature tikka masala dish to accompany small batch beers like hennas and hazes.

Villa Park, just west of Elmhurst and east of Lombard, sometimes gets overlooked among its larger neighbors, but that hasn’t stopped entrepreneurs — or homeowners and renters, for that matter — from putting down stakes in town. Villa Park’s population of nearly 22,000 residents may swell, too, after Money Magazine ranked the town 28th in its 2017 list of Best Places to Live in the U.S.

"Little Villa Park being named as the 28th best town to live in America is really no surprise to me," says Alesia Bailey, executive director of the Villa Park Chamber of Commerce. "It’s because we make things happen on a shoestring with the help

of volunteers and the awesome business community. Our schools are among the best in the country, our community is close-knit and I am so proud we are getting acknowledged for how awesome we are."

That sentiment is shared — and expounded upon — by Village President Al Bulthuis, a former trustee who was elected mayor this past spring. "What attracted me to Villa Park 35 years ago and what attracts people now is the location," he says. "It was convenient for me and that’s still the case, plus it’s a nice, family-oriented village. Because we are a landlocked community, our housing stock stays the same, and, while it turns over from generation to generation, I’m seeing more young

people moving in now."

History, Homes and Hot Chocolate

History has it that Villa Park was incorporated in 1914 as an amalgam of two tiny turn-of-the-century villages named Ardmore and Villa Park. The town developed as a surrounding community for the Ovaltine factory, which moved in a year later and needed homes for its workers. The location suited the chocolate maker because of the rich farmland and good water supply, plus the easy access via railroad to Chicago. An electric railway — the "interurban" or the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad — ran from the Chicago Loop and connected Villa Park and neighboring towns to the city. For seven decades the factory — and Villa Park — thrived, the morning factory whistle and the smell of cocoa giving the town its unique character. While production at the chocolate plant ceased in the mid-1980s, the building was not razed, having been placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. After languishing in a state of deterioration for about a decade, the structure was later converted to loft apartments, preserving some of the original floors and walls.

In the 1920s, a small downtown area sprang up around the factory, near the railroad tracks leading to Chicago. Today, this stretch of town along Villa Avenue and the nearby train station is re-emerging as an attraction for visitors and residents.

Part of the housing stock that attracts people to the area includes a number of vintage "Sears" homes. They were sold in the first half of the 20th century through a Sears’ mail-order homes program in which every element — from doorknobs to stairways to shingles — was delivered to the nearby train depot for pick-up by the homeowner-to-be.

"That’s another nice thing about Villa Park. They were able to build those Sears homes because they could bring lumber from the city by railroad," says Bulthuis, noting that there are an estimated 70 Sears homes in Villa Park, of which 11 have been officially verified.

David Casey, owner of Mike’s Meat Market (where he began working for his dad at age 13) and a 30-year resident, is raising his family in town with his Villa Park-native wife. He agrees that the town has earned its ranking in Money Magazine. "There are a lot of great communities in the surrounding area, but the housing prices in Villa Park are rather attractive, and there are sections of town where you can really get a decent-sized lot," he says. "The schools are strong, and there are some great department heads in the village who have come in and really want to see Villa Park thrive."

While the town has a deep all-American spirit, complete with Friday night VFW fish fries, a locally owned coffee shop where people like to congregate, and a vintage, Wonka-esque former chocolate factory, it’s also diverse. Its multicultural population attests to the melting pot evolution of Chicago’s western suburbs.

Restaurants, Retailers and Rides

The entrepreneurial spirit remains very much alive in Villa Park. "The majority of businesses based in Villa Park are family-owned and founded. Their success is due to the blood, sweat and tears the owners pour into their businesses every day," says, Bailey, citing Mike’s Meat Market as well as places like G.M. Smith & Son Realtors that opened in 1920, the A to Z Repair Shop that dates back to 1958, AAA Overhead garage door sales and service, opened in 1964, and Steurele Funeral Home, which has been a Chamber member since 1978.

While it’s not as large of a central business district as other western suburbs, there are businesses along Villa Avenue that harken back to the town’s legacy. Pioneer Garden and Feed, for instance, will mark its centennial in 2018 and still caters to those who enjoy gardening and birding. "Regulars" in Villa Park and surrounding towns also visit familiar places like Mahoney’s Pub and Michael Anthony’s Pizza in this part of the village.

New businesses have added vibrancy to the Villa Avenue corridor. Among them is the aforementioned More Brewing, which offers a range of craft brews along with elevated pub fare, from masala dishes to traditional burgers and house-specialty cheese curds.

The train station near the former Ovaltine factory is also part of the community landscape. The old Villa Avenue station is home to the Villa Park Historical Society and Visitors Center, a small history museum and information bureau. (Commuters still get to downtown Chicago by way of the Metra Union-Pacific West Line, which has a stop in Villa Park on Ardmore Avenue.) Down the street, a small strip mall at Villa Avenue and St. Charles Road is a community hub, thanks to places

like Mike’s Meat Market, Kuppie’s Bakery and the Funky Java coffee house, among other businesses.

One of the benefits of being a fixture in the community is the loyal patronage, says Casey. When it came time to move Mike’s Meat Market to a new location from its previous smaller site about a decade ago, he opted to stay in Villa Park, in large part because of the customer base. "We’re now seeing third generations of people coming in. That’s the greatest compliment you can get," says Casey, who notes that the upcoming holidays are a particularly busy time that draws longtime customers and families. "We are part of people’s holidays and celebrations, and it’s awesome."

Beyond the eastern edge of town, Villa Park is home to a host of other eateries, stores and service organizations, including many that line the busy roadways of St. Charles Road, North Avenue and Roosevelt Road, as well as other routes like Ardmore Avenue and Park Boulevard. You might pop in and enjoy something from the tap at Lunar Brewing Co. on St. Charles Road or Stulgin’s Tavern on Park Boulevard or grab a bite to eat at Montecasino Café Grill on Ardmore Avenue, Las Islas Marias on North Avenue or Anyway’s Pub on Roosevelt Road, to name a few.

If you want to cook up some quality seafood, you might visit Supreme Lobster, located on North Avenue, established in 1973 and locally famous for delivering fresh seafood daily, which it sells to home cooks and restaurant chefs alike.

Reflecting Villa Park’s increased diversity, there are some small ethnic grocers such as Baladi Fresh Market on North Avenue. In addition to its selection of Indo-Pakistani spices, sauces and rice, it also carries British and Mediterranean imports. And the butcher counter offers halal meats, including goat.

Across North Avenue is Villa Park Fruit Market, a no-frills Mexican-run market with value prices on fresh fruits, meats and baked goods. Not to be missed are the cooked chickens, fresh off the outdoor grills, plus the whole hogs cooked the same way on Sundays. An indoor seating area offers $1 tacos and other Mexican favorites.

 Villa Park is also home to a notable "destination"store — Wild Fire Harley-Davidson on North Avenue. As well as a dealership for new and used Harleys, this is a meeting point for weekend rides and a culture-hub for Harley enthusiasts. Bike nights, demo days and battle-of-the-bands events are among the frequent happenings at the dealership.

Eclectic Events

As part of Villa Park’s evolution and improvement, new developments and upgrades are on the minds and in the plans of village leaders. Recently, a park area was designed and dedicated to military service men and women. "Cortesti Veterans Memorial Park features a beautiful veterans memorial," says Gina Racanelli, superintendent of recreation for the Village of Villa Park. This remodeled depot was the long-ago stop for the electric interurban line out of Chicago. "A large stage is home to free summer concerts, movies in the park, our Super Sensational Saturday mornings, and Brewfest, Villa Park’s very own craft beer festival," adds Racanelli.

Community events in Villa Park reflect its grass roots nature. As the holidays approach, one highlight is Joyful Traditions, held on the first Saturday of December. The free annual event includes trolley rides, horse wagon rides, food from local restaurants, pictures with Santa, carolers from Willowbrook High School and the tree lighting.

Hosted by the village and the Chamber of Commerce, the event is this town’s version of Chicago’s Mag Mile event, according to Bailey. "What started out as four Christmas trees on the Prairie Path back in 1998 has grown to 78 trees that stretch across a mile throughout the village. The lit trees are a highlight for families who adopt them in memory of a loved one lost, or businesses hoping to promote themselves," she says.

The Village of Villa Park, through its parks and recreation department, offers other seasonal events, including a holiday train ride, photos with "Santa Paws," sundaes with Santa and cookies for Santa.

On the flip side of the calendar year, the community is the site of an annual ice cream social in August, sponsored by the Villa Park Historical Society.

A Trio of Trails

For a suburb of just under five square miles that doesn’t have wide swaths of open space, Villa Park does boast three trails that bikers, walkers and cross-country skiers use for recreation and fitness.

The Illinois Prairie Path cuts through the heart of Villa Park near the old Ovaltine factory. "Our section of the Prairie Path is the most used section," says Bulthuis of the 62-mile trail.

Connecting to the Prairie Path in Villa Park is the eastern part of the Great Western Trail, which was part of the abandoned Chicago Great Western Railway. That trail starts at Villa Avenue in Villa Park and was upgraded and converted to a bike trail in the 1990s.

The Salt Creek Greenway Trail, named for nearby Salt Creek, is a 30.6 pedestrian-bicycle path that winds through the western suburbs, including Villa Park. That trail also links with other regional trail systems in the area.

The Ruggard Gazebo along the Villa Park Prairie Path is a popular meeting place and hosts concerts and other community events during the summer.

Other Highlights

Willowbrook High School, part of District 88, serves students from Villa Park, Oakbrook Terrace and parts of Elmhurst, Lombard and Oak Brook. In addition to its athletics and academics, the school is known for traditions like "the Rock" —  a giant rock in front of the main doors that is often painted (and painted over) by students and alumni.

While some people still hit the links on temperate days this time of year, Sugar Creek Golf Course will be back to its regular business next spring, when golfers from throughout the westerns suburbs tee off on the nine-hole course. Sugar Creek also has a popular driving range, and its facilities include a banquet space and pro shop.

More than a million people a year pass through Villa Park by way of the 130,000-sq-ft Odeum Expo Center, which hosts a variety of trade shows, special events, sports-oriented activities and banquets. Once the site of the Hat Trick Hockey Link, the Odeum now serves as the home of one of the country’s largest arts and crafts fairs each spring and fall. A boon to the Odeum is Villa Park’s easy proximity to major highways to Chicago, neighboring suburbs and beyond.  Another Villa Park attraction is Safari Land, an indoor amusement park featuring a small indoor roller coaster, along with other rides, go-karts, a video arcade and bowling. It’s a popular spot for children’s birthday parties.

The Villa Park Skate Park draws local skateboarders, BMX riders and roller bladers. Built in 2013, the park is on the property of the Iowa Community Center and is run by the parks and recreation department. The center also includes a gymnasium, fitness and dance rooms and classrooms, as well as outside grounds with a picnic area, playground, and bocce ball court.

In summer, residents flock to Jefferson Pool and Lufkin Pool for swimming and water recreation. In winter, the parks and recreation department offers an ice fishing program, as well as other fishing events and activities throughout the year. Twin Lakes Park at Ardmore Avenue has an accessible fishing pier, two fishable lakes and nature areas.

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