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Iconic Irish Bar Reaches its Ruby Anniversary

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Owner Jimmy Spears

Who goes to Jimmy’s Bar?

Owner Jimmy Spears could drop name after name from the legion of celebrities who have dropped by. He also could brag about international attention sparked intentionally (through a strong relationship with Peoria’s sister city in Ireland) and accidentally (via the bizarre kidnapping of a bar-top Elvis Presley bust).

But if you ask Spears about the heart and success of Jimmy’s Bar – the 40th anniversary of which he celebrates this summer — he first and foremost gushes about familiar faces.

“I can’t say enough about my family and friends,” says Spears, 67. “Without them, there’d be no Jimmy’s Bar.”

He means that in two ways. One is practical: Over the years, his payroll has included scores of relatives manning the bar and kitchen. The other is convivial: While Jimmy’s hosts a boisterous Bradley University crowd come nightfall, the daytime clientele involves a dedicated and jocular core of longtime regulars.

That’s been the thriving mix for four decades, a duration that is a rarity in the food-and-drink industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, almost one in three restaurants fail in their first year. Only 20 percent survive past five years, according to CNBC.

Jimmy’s, at 2601 W. Farmington Road, has enjoyed a long roadhouse legacy. Spears believes the first business there appeared in the late 19th century as a two-story stagecoach stop, with food and drink available on the first floor and lodging upstairs.

Owner Jimmy Spears

Afterward, the property changed hands among bar owners. The original structure burned down in the 1950s, leaving only the foundation. A new building arose, dubbed the Loading Dock, carrying that name among multiple owners into the early 1980s. That’s when Spears entered the picture.

The Peoria native and Bradley business grad was employed in sales at Melton Electric in Bartonville, a job he’d hold for 40 years. But as a young man, he’d also tended bar at the Lariat Club and elsewhere. In 1982, thinking his mixology expertise could pay off as a second career, he and a partner bought and overhauled the Loading Dock.

“We gutted the place,” Spears recalls. “The floors were rotted. The walls had carboard in them.”

With the new look came a new name, Jimmy’s Bar. He began to festoon every inch of the walls and ceiling with odds and ends, mostly from his father, Joe.

Indeed, sports gear (a Marcus Pollard football jersey, a hurling stick) and mementoes (a Mike Ditka autographed 8-by-10, a 2013 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup tapestry) make for much of the décor. But also fighting for space are beer signs (heavy on Guinness), Irish homage (including a neon shamrock) and music memorabilia (such as a Robertson Fieldhouse handbill touting a Jimmy Buffett show).

The atmosphere is familiar, if evolving. Over the years, Spears — who bought out his partner in the 1990s — has extended the footprint of the pub to include an outdoor area, a patio deck and other seating. Plus, though the house beverage is decidedly the $5 Guinness draft – at times, the saloon has been the top seller of the Irish stout in downstate Illinois – barkeeps are allowed to create new cocktails on a whim.

Some of those coworkers have shared Spears’ genetics. Among the first kin to work there was his dad, Joe, always smiling behind the bar. Jimmy Spears cherishes that memory – “I got to work with my dad,” he gushes – as a high point.

Though Joe Spears died in 2005, Jimmy can’t help but grin and share an old joke: “The saying was that I couldn’t fire my dad because my mom wouldn’t let me. She wanted him out of the house.”

Such wisecracks are common among the Spears clan, who often share their tomfoolery with patrons while manning the taps. Indeed, all six of the owner’s brothers have worked there, as have his three daughters, plus 18 nieces and nephews.

The Spears lineage seems certain to continue, as daughter Grace Spears has transitioned to manager. She hadn’t planned on taking up the family business. “But then I realized that I felt happier when driving to my job here than when driving to any other job,” the 27-year-old says with a dad-like grin. “It’s kind of like a family here.”

Matt Rambke feels the same way. The 39-year-old Peorian has been coming to Jimmy’s since childhood, when his father would bring him along for lunch. “Everybody here is nice,” he says. “Everyone here is good to talk to.”

The friendly vibe is why celebrities are known to pop in. When a local host wants a warm place to take a famous face – say, TV host Mike Rowe (“Dirty Jobs,” etc.), Olympics silver medalist Katie McLaughlin and National Baseball Hall of Famer Lee Smith – Jimmy’s is the go-to.

The ebb and flow of customers tickles barkeep Tommy Eckstein, who first worked there part-time during college. Though now a successful pharmaceutical salesman, the 50-year-old still pulls Saturday shifts, in part because he enjoys the intriguing chitchat.

“One thing people often ask is, ‘Is Jimmy real?’” Eckstein says.

Spears isn’t just the face of the bar. Though he pours a Guinness with the best of his barkeeps, before opening time he often can be found mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, watering plants and doing other jobs to keep the place humming. It’s not all drudgery. Spears has been the driving force behind the bar’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities and its wondrous Christmas display.

Jim Dillon is grateful for all of Spears’ work. The longtime West Peoria mayor, known to occasionally wander into the pub for a beverage, lauds Jimmy’s not only as an economic anchor but also as a gathering point for birthdays, retirement parties and other celebrations. Plus, the business regularly hosts fundraisers for academic and social-service causes.

“Jimmy’s Bar is a community focal point,” said Dillon.

Elvis bust

It’s also an international focal point. Jimmy’s has been key to Peoria’s sister-city relationship with Clonmel, Ireland, with contingents traveling there and also hosting visitors from the Emerald Isle.

Meanwhile, the bar triggered headlines last year when an Elvis bust – a gag gift that became a bar-top mascot – vanished. After Jimmy’s Facebook page featured a post about the thievery, local headlines ensued. The Associated Press picked up the story, which eventually ran in the Washington Post and the United Kingdom, as did follow-ups when the bust reappeared. Apparently, the mystery thief was stricken with a guilty conscience.

“Elvis made Jimmy’s go viral,” Dillon said with a chuckle.

Even as a first-hand witness to the merriment and dedication at Jimmy’s, the mayor still marvels at the saloon’s staying power in a fickle industry.

“Forty years?” Dillon says. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Spears admits to a sense of wonder over the milestone. He isn’t sure what sort of celebration is appropriate, as every year he hosts a week of festivities – Customer Appreciation Day, Christmas in July and other novelty promotions – to mark the July 28 anniversary. But he realizes 40 years is something special.

“It doesn’t seem like that long,” he says, grinning. “I should be retired.”

He pauses to think. The smile grows wider. The motivation is clear.

“It’s still fun.

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
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