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Millennium Park gets food, beverage makeover; clout-heavy Park Grill will reopen with new name

City Hall picks Eleven North Hospitality as Millennium Park’s concessionaire, with renovations already underway at the 140-seat restaurant behind the skating rink.

The Park Grill in Millennium Park.
The Park Grill in Millennium Park.
Sun-Times file

Visitors to Millennium Park — the Midwest’s No. 1 tourist attraction — will have more food and beverage choices, thanks to a $2.5 million investment that will reopen and re-brand the clout-heavy Park Grill restaurant.

The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said Tuesday it has chosen Eleven North Hospitality to serve as Millennium Park’s concessionaire, with renovations already underway at the 140-seat restaurant behind the skating rink.

The joint venture also plans to offer a “broad range of food and beverage options” that include:

  • A café serving Mexican food across from the wildly-popular Cloud Gate sculpture — better known as “The Bean” — that has emerged as one of Chicago’s favorite meeting places.
  • A coffee bar and tearoom operated by Momentum Coffee. It will be located in the Park Café space just south of the restaurant.
  • Two new kiosks — one serving “grab-and-go” food, the other selling Chicago-themed items and sundries.
Cloud Gate, or ‘The Bean’ in Millennium Park.
The Bean (official name: Cloud Gate) in Millennium Park is a popular photo stop for residents and tourists. The city on Tuesday announced it had reached an agreement to upgrade the concessions in the park.
Sun-Times file

The Park Grill was managed by James Horan, owner of Blue Plate Catering, and Michael O’Malley, owner of the Chicago Firehouse restaurant. They were backed by a group of clout-heavy investors with close ties to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

But the investors wanted to bail out of the sweetheart deal because the restaurant’s losses were mounting after it was forced to close because of COVID-19 and years of litigation with City Hall during the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

They sold out to a restaurant group headed by John Wrenn, brother of Emanuel’s former chief of staff Eileen Mitchell. Wrenn operates the popular Theater on the Lake restaurant under a deal he received from the Emanuel administration.

Emanuel lost a court battle in 2015 to break the Park Grill concession deal Daley had awarded Horan and O’Malley, who originally landed the deal while O’Malley was having an affair with a park district official he has since married.

Emanuel agreed to drop the litigation in August 2016 as the Park Grill agreed to start paying for garbage collection, natural gas and water and to accelerate rent payments.

The city’s law department estimated the settlement would ultimately save the city $5.7 million. The city had spent $6.9 million in legal fees battling the restaurant.

Daley never testified at the trial, but, in a deposition, the former mayor said he couldn’t remember anything about the restaurant, not even attending the grand opening in November 2003, which was documented by photographers.

As Daley was leaving office in 2011, Horan and O’Malley sought to sell their management stake to Levy restaurants for $8 million, a deal the Chicago Park District refused to approve.

It’s unclear whether City Hall had to approve the sale to Wrenn’s restaurant group, or whether any other companies wanted to operate the restaurant.

The city’s announcement said principals at Millennium Park Joint Venture are “transferring their concession agreement, subject to the consent of the city, pursuant to assignment rights set forth in the agreement.”

“The actual assignment of the concession (and sale of the restaurant’s equipment and other assets) is expected to be finalized later this month,” the written statement says.

Wrenn’s partners in the joint venture include Nicholas Hynes, Luke Cholodecki, Michael and Dennis Chookaszian.

Hynes and Cholodecki renovated the Dock at Montrose Beach and Caffe Oliva at Ohio Street Beach. Joint-venture partners also own or operate: Lizzie McNeill’s Irish Pub on Chicago’s North Side, Napolita Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Wilmette; Pescadero Seafood & Oyster Bar in Lakeview and Wilmette and Double Clutch Brewing Company in Evanston.

“When visitors and Chicagoans alike come out to enjoy all that Millennium Park has to offer, they should expect that the restaurants, cafes and concession kiosks are as compelling and inspiring as all the other features of the park,” the press release quoted Wrenn as saying.

“It’s our mission to make that expectation a reality.”

Mark Kelly, the retiring city culturual affairs and special events commissioner, said he was “thrilled about the additional capital, time and dedication” Eleven North has “already put” into Millennium Park.

Kelly said he “couldn’t have asked for a better partner” with a more “proven track record.” The commissioner said he is certain the investment will “help Millennium Park grow even stronger than before the pandemic.”

Millennium Park has been Chicago’s quirky town square almost since the moment it opened in 2004 after construction delays and cost overruns more than tripled the original cost — to $475 million.

In 2016, City Hall finally got the statistics to prove its popularity, showing nearly 12.9 million visitors in the last six months of 2016.

That made the 23-acre expansion of Grant Park, built over a railroad right-of-way, the top tourist attraction in the Midwest and among the Top 10 in the country. It’s right up there with New York’s Central Park and the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

According to City Hall, the new count was conducted by a “third-party vendor using passive electronic sensors” in people’s cellphones.

The six-month count was conducted during the surge of tourism generated by the Cubs’ march to their first World Series championship since 1908.