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‘You never notice the little cool things that are around until it is too late,’ auction of beloved Chicago restaurants’ neon signs held in North Center – Chicago Tribune


Loyal customers and curious buyers flocked to a public auction Saturday of Chicago restaurant memorabilia. The most valuable? Neon signs for two long-time North Center neighborhood eateries.

The signs, for the now-closed Chicago Joe’s and the possibly soon to be shuttered Orange Garden, sold in the five figures each: $32,450 and $20,060, respectively. The sign for Lakeview’s Dinkel’s Bakery, which officially sold its last pastry Saturday, will be auctioned next month.

The auction — which brought nearly 300 people — was held inside Chicago Joe’s, 2256 W. Irving Park Rd., where every single collectible had been ripped down and displayed for buyers. Tables, milkshake cups, plates, framed newspaper articles, light fixtures, sports items and even the Rock-Ola jukebox were for sale.

Viewing began at 9 a.m. and the auction went from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

A place where “average Chicago Joes” would gather and enjoy cheeseburgers, the building was purchased by a construction company that plans to build condos in its place.

Chicago Joe’s was one of the many restaurants that suffered financially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After closing in Oct. of 2020 following statewide restrictions for indoor dining, Brad Rompza, Chicago Joe’s last owner and grandson of the restaurant founder Joe Rompza, made the tough decision to close after being in the neighborhood since 1980.

Michael King, 30, has been a customer for many years but this was his first auction. Besides snagging some hockey sticks and Chicago sports photos for less than $100, he was able to secure the Chicago Joe’s van for only $500.

“I didn’t come here thinking I was going to get the van, but I thought it was gonna be a fun little thing to have, it was a pretty good deal for $500 and I like the slogan on it,” King said.

Chicago Joe’s neon sign was purchased by an anonymous buyer from Michigan.

Meanwhile, the recognizable bright orange neon sign affixed to Chinese restaurant Orange Garden, also on Irving Park Road in North Center, was sold to a local buyer from north suburban Highland Park.

The double-sided porcelain sign with neon lights, the original signature of this restaurant from 1932, has been a neighborhood staple for 90 years.

Though Orange Garden, 1942 W. Irving Park Rd., remains open for business, its manager said they’re looking into selling next year because the owner wants to retire and the sign hasn’t been working since the months before the pandemic in 2020.

“We don’t want the sign to go to waste,” said the manager, who said he did not want his name used because he did not want the publicity. “So we decided to sell it in the auction before we sell this place to a company that trashes it.”

Both the Chicago Joe’s last owner and the manager of Orange Garden have received heartwarming stories from loyal fans who went on first dates with current spouses, celebrated birthdays, and met many friends in their restaurants.

Randy Donley, founder and owner of Donley Auctions in Union, IL was leading the team that organized Saturday’s auction.

Donley, 68, founded the company with his brother Mike Donley, inspired by their father’s business — a themed children’s park in Union, IL called Wild West Town after he collected tons of relics from the American frontier.

“The park had a huge museum of Wild West memorabilia,” Randy Donley said. “I remember going to auctions since I was five years old, and it always intrigued me. So you know, at some point in my life, I went to auctioneer school and just started selling.”

Additionally, Donley’s Auctions plans to sell the 101-year-old Dinkel’s Bakery neon sign in May after its closure Saturday. All of the proceeds from the Dinkel’s sign auction will go to charity, he said.

Wearing a vintage Cubs jacket, Harry Mitrovich, 55, was the second person who got to Chicago Joe’s on Saturday morning to take a peek.

“You go to a restaurant or any place and you never notice the little cool things that are around until it is too late,” said Mitrovich who grew up in Lakeview and used to go to Chicago Joe’s frequently in the 1990s to meet with friends.

Before heading to the auction, he stopped by Dinkel’s around 6:45 a.m. to grab some last baked goods before the place closed.

“It’s so sad to see these places go,” Mitrovich said. “Chicago Joe’s, Dinkel’s Bakery, what’s next?”

Leroy Larsen, 81, lives in a rental apartment community for seniors a couple of blocks away from Chicago Joe’s, which was their “go-to” restaurant. Larsen recalls celebrating there with friends for their birthdays and using the special discount the restaurant offered to people in their residences.

Larsen, who is a U.S. veteran, was wearing his American Legion cap and stayed during the entire auction to bid on the set of three American Legion wall memorabilia items that have been in the restaurant for years, he said.

When Donley heard his story, he made the bids for Larsen and bought them for him as a gift for $225.

Georgina Kelle, 38, who also lives down the street, said she and her family came to the restaurant until their last days during the pandemic.

“We were here when they put the tables out (for outdoor dining during the pandemic). We had to come back for the key lime pie, the oysters and the burgers. Always the best!” said Kelle, who placed bids on multiple Chicago photos and also bought a few Chicago Cubs-themed kitchen utensils.

Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit that advocates for nurturing the local community by protecting Chicago’s historic buildings, creates a yearly list of the most endangered sites of Chicago and in 2015 they included neon signs.

“Neon signs are endangered in Chicago because they’re being taken down left and right, they’re not necessarily being appreciated, they’re not being maintained,” said Max Chavez, 33, the Director of Research and Special Projects at Preservation Chicago.

“So we’re extremely alarmed to see that not just one but three iconic neon signs are being auctioned in the next few weeks,” Chavez said.

Preservation Chicago wants to see the neon signs of the city officially landmarked just like any other historic building or monument so they can be protected.

“Chicago neon signs are really like pieces of art unto themselves,” Chavez said. “Every single neighborhood has their iconic signs recognized by locals, that remind them of home and matters to them.”



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