“WHEN IRISH EYES ARE SMILING”
4501 N. Rockwood Drive
Open Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
[Some images courtesy of the restaurant]
By Mike Foster
Fine food and friendly fellowship made Donnelly’s Irish Pub, Peoria’s first truly Irish tavern and restaurant, one of the best and most beloved of Peoria’s dining and drinking places.
Founded in 1970 on Dec. 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Donnelly’s, formerly known as the Shamrock and located on 4908 Rockwood, will turn 46 this year.
Its conception wasn’t quite immaculate.
“We [he and wife Molly Donnelly, who still is active in the family enterprise] started off with a frying pan,” said founder Terry Donnelly in an interview eleven years ago. “Ham and cheese, burgers, corned beef. It was 85 percent bar and 15 percent food then. Now it’s the reverse.”
Native Peorian Donnelly started dating Molly Ryan when he was a Spalding Institute senior and she an Academy of Our Lady junior. They married on Feb. 25, 1967, before Terry’s Air Force tour in Vietnam, where he rose to the rank of staff-sergeant serving as an MP with a K-9 unit in Cam Ranh Bay. He left for his assignment right after daughter Chrissy was born.
Just after second child Patrick was born, so was the Shamrock.
“That first St. Patrick’s Day,” Terry wryly recalled, “we sold 23 kegs of green beer. Pabst Blue Ribbon, 23 kegs, in this little place. We had to eye-dropper every glass with food coloring.”
One of Terry’s last big parties at Donnelly’s was his Spalding-Academy class of 1964 fifty-year reunion on Aug. 8, 2014.
The pub was packed, with classmates and spouses overflowing out onto the porch.
It was a joyful event, and for many of us, it was the last time we saw Terry.
He died at home at age 68 on Jan. 21, 2015, surrounded by his family, including his five children and many grandchildren.
His funeral, held at St. Thomas Church in Peoria Heights, and was thronged with many of those grade school and high school friends. The Irish wake after-party was held at his pub.
When the Shamrock opened in 1970, the food was inspired by his family, who grew up in St. Bernard’s parish where Terry attended grade school.
His mother Bert’s chili soon joined the bill of fare. So did Terry’s version of the Wisconsin Tap Italian sausage sandwich of 50 years ago, his dad Hank’s favorite: Donnelly’s signature Irish sausage.
“We just showed the Italians how to cook it,” he said with a droll grin.
A true believer in supporting local family businesses, Donnelly had Matarelli’s Grocery on Prospect Road in Peoria Heights make the secret recipe first. Then Pitsch’s Sausage Shop on Adams took over until that business likewise closed.
“I thought a lot of Paul [Pitsch] and them,” recalled Terry. “They did a fabulous job with our recipe for years.”
Another local wholesaler, Raber Packing Co., does the sausage now. Dixon’s Fisheries, run by fellow St. Bernard’s alumnus Bob Dixon, provides catfish, tuna, and walleye. Waugh Foods supplies the hamburgers, poultry, coleslaw, potato salad, and pork for the homemade tenderloins
Donnelly was serious about his commitment to Peoria businesses.
“I think it’s very important,” he declared. “[There are no family] pharmacies, no groceries. I’ll put my quality of food up against any chain anywhere. They’re all bag soups. Every one of ours is from scratch.”
He credited mentor LeRoy Cook, cook at his first restaurant, Terry’s Old Times Inn on Knoxville just north of Pioneer Parkway, as an early teacher.
“He cared about his food. We used recipes but we cooked by taste. [He] pretty much helped me with [creating] clam chowder and all my soups.
“His chicken gravy is almost a delicacy. He came here and said, ‘Brother-in-law—that was his nickname for me, for some reason–this is one time the student has surpassed the master’ which I considered a heck of a compliment.”
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, they come home. One guy was here four days last year,” he said, relishing the memory.“Reuben, Irish sausage, tenderloin, and catfish and chicken.”
Peoria expatriate Steve Rager, keyboard player and guitarist with the cult retro surf band Untamed Youth pondering the annual traditional reunion lunch with fellow Illinois Central College journalism alumni, wrote from Columbia, Mo.:
“I’m always torn between the famous Irish sausage with pepper cheese and grilled onions and the tenderloin. I’d eat both in one sitting if I could.”
Donnelly knew his crowd:
“We get a lot of retired groups—Hiram Walker’s, Caterpillar, Spalding. It’s one of the nice things. So many people from so many classes, ten years older and ten years younger than us. We’re lucky. They’re treated like family.
“When I go out to eat, I go to family places like The Fish House or Jim’s Steak House downtown. Gene Farris [pianist there and erstwhile Spalding music teacher] still shakes his head about our class.
“Local places need your support. We’ve got a pyramid going. Some nights we have three or more generations here.”
Chuckling, he recalled a “guy who had his first drink here when he was 21…maybe. The other night he brought his daughter in for her 21st.”
Some longtime locals took years to discover the place.
Brooks McDaniel, a retired ICC philosophy professor and one of A Fine Kettle of Fish’s drummers, moved to Peoria the year that Donnelly’s opened. His first taste came only in 2005.
Love at first bite.
“The closest thing to an English pub I’ve experienced this side of the pond. The menu is extensive; the food is predictably tasty. Good variety, good taste, moderate prices, and a variety of beers imported and domestic: who could ask for anything more? To top it off, it has a comfortable family feel like a good pub should.”
That feeling is honestly earned.
This writer can attest to many Foster family reunions there on the Friday after Thanksgiving, sometimes with as many 18 people. Friends and former ICC journalism and English students enjoy three-hour lunch reunions there. Bridge foursomes, book groups, and retirees gather for long afternoons or evenings. Some of the regulars are 80 or older. When designing the new pub location, the Donnellys made sure that it was handicapped accessible.
Terry, who was the man in the kitchen when he wasn’t in the backroom office, worked 16-hour days seven days a week, except on Christmas, for 45 years. He was justifiably proud of his success, and especially of his cooking.
“We were the first to put hot pepper cheese on a sausage sandwich. A customer suggested it. We followed the suggestion, and it was a good idea. We had the first half-pound hamburger here.”
His younger sister Pam was lunch cook every day for 15 years.
“If I had a bunch of Pams,” Terry said in 2005, “we’d have all five [Donnelly Pub] places still going.”
Younger sister Patty helped with bookkeeping. All three sons have a hand in the Shamrock’s menu success.
“My boys Patrick and Ryan are more into cliquish foods. The portabella sandwich and the spinach-artichoke dip are theirs. The private wings sauce they came up with. They’re the new old standbys.”
Patrick is a stockbroker. Ryan, a John Marshall Law School graduate and a non-practicing lawyer, is purchasing the pub, insuring that Donnelly’s remains in the family,
Terry valued their contribution to the legacy.
He wanted the Donnelly’s heritage of fine food and friendly hospitality preserved, he said in 2005.
This writer can attest to the fact that it is. On my last visit there for an ICC Harbinger editor’s reunion on Feb. 27, I ordered the catfish dinner with coleslaw and French fries smothered in chicken gravy.
Molly Donnelly laughed when I told her of that order on St. Patrick’s Eve, 2016.
“Well, it is great gravy,” she said.
“Our ribeye is as good as any on a steak house menu,” Terry declared. “Our tenderloin, our catfish are really fine all the time. All the time people tell me ‘That’s the best Rueben’ or ‘the best catfish I ever ate.’
“I can cook with any [bleeping] chef in any [bleeping] culinary school where they take your degree to learn taste and presentation,” he said with Celtic contempt. “A couple pretty little sticks on it and it’s all cold and tasteless.
“A guy who cooked here went out to a culinary school in San Francisco. He told Richie, ‘Your dad can cook with any of these.’”
Daughters Chrissy and Katie and son Richie, the youngest of the five children, all worked there. The eldest, Chrissy, is now a teacher and a tutor for Peoria School District 150. Katie is a homemaker.
Terry, the second-born of five, and Molly, the sixth of Dr. Dave and Rosie Ryan’s 11 children, finally got to visit Ireland in 2004 along with Molly’s older sister Pat and husband John “O’Matarelli.”
Terry’s kin come from Tipperary; hers are from near Waterford in County Cork.
His Irish eyes shone wistfully, recalling that trip.
“It lived up to my hopes. Amazing how green it is: emerald green. The rolling hills are so green. The people are friendly, the landscape was beautiful.”
“The best restaurant we ate in was a Donnelly’s,” he added mischievously.
But their home is, was, and always will be here.
“Ever since the Shamrock days, Donnelly’s has been a treasure of Peoria. It’s always been a step above. Families with children running around.”
Later he said:
“The Shamrock will never be retired. The boys will keep it running. It’s in their blood.”
Thanks to copy editor Jo Foster.