Many Chicago politicians have gotten the itch through the years to try their hand at the restaurant and bar business in hopes of having a place of their own to eat and drink with friends and play the big shot.
What distinguishes Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski from the others is that he used taxpayers’ money to get his own place.
As the mayor of McCook, the least populous town in Cook County, Tobolski led an expensive renovation of a village-owned “pub” into what its website describes as an “upscale dining establishment mixed with a classic social club.”
It’s a club all right, say those in the know.
“It’s like a boys club. They treat this place like their basement,” said Autumn Pippenburg, who worked as food and beverage director for the McCook Athletic & Exposition Center, known as “The MAX,” and its adjoining restaurant, Alta Grill.
By Pippenburg’s account, Tobolski used the taxpayer-subsidized dining spot as his private hangout, often staying past closing time to drink with pals while running up tabs he sometimes didn’t pay. Tobolski regularly went behind the bar to pour himself a drink or wandered into the kitchen to order up items not on the menu — and insisted the restaurant always be prepared to serve him his favorite dish: grilled octopus, she said.
Federal investigators are currently making life much less pleasant for Tobolski. They performed a surprise search of his village hall office on Sept. 26, looking for documents about his annual Cubs spring training trips and his home heating and air conditioning system, among many areas of interest.
They ended up hauling away Tobolski’s computer hard drives and documents related to at least two of the contractors who worked on the Alta Grill renovation.
Investigators also asked for items related to Gold Rush Gaming and its owner, Rick Heidner. Gold Rush provides the video gambling devices that are installed in the Alta Grill.
The daily goings on at the restaurant may ultimately have little to do with the case federal investigators are trying to build against Tobolski, but Pippenburg’s story is instructive as to how business is done in McCook.
McCook is a unique place. Its tiny residential enclave of modest homes along historic Route 66 is dwarfed by thriving industrial parks that give the town much more economic heft than its official census count of 228 people would suggest — and by extension gives more political power to the person who controls it.
That’s Tobolski, who took over as mayor in 2007 upon the death of his father. The elder Tobolski had only been mayor for two years, but he had been the village’s longtime police chief before that. Tobolski’s grandfather was a village trustee.
Among Tobolski’s biggest moves as mayor was the acquisition of The MAX, a sprawling indoor sports complex located inside a massive warehouse-style building in one of the industrial parks.
In 2014, the village opened The Pub at The MAX to cater to the sports-oriented crowd at the out-of-the-way location, leasing the facility to a veteran restaurant operator. But by 2018, Tobolski decided he wanted more of a “swanky” restaurant than a sports bar and ordered a major remodeling.
Pippenburg, 31, said she was hired directly by Tobolski in March 2018 for the job of overseeing the restaurant renovation.
She said she had met Tobolski five or six years earlier at one of his golf outings as a guest of another employee of The MAX and got to know Tobolski better through her work at Casa de Montecristo, a Countryside cigar lounge that also figures into the federal probe.
The cigar lounge is frequented by Tobolski and numerous other area politicians, including Cicero Town President Larry Dominick. Another regular was Omar Maani, one of the contractors on the restaurant project and an investor in SafeSpeed LLC, the red-light camera company that also is a focus of the investigation.
At the time she met Tobolski, Pippenburg said she was operating a “staffing agency” that provided women who worked special events in the cigar lounge’s lower-level VIP area. The women served cigars, which they would cut and light for the customers, she said.
Pippenburg, who operated under the business names Chitown Showgirlz Inc., Showgirlz Entertainment Inc. and Fantasize Chicago LLC, said her employees were always professionally attired. She said she hasn’t staffed the cigar lounge for several years.
Pippenburg said she did not provide the skimpily-dressed women who she encountered at Tobolski’s annual summer golf outings, where they served complimentary vodka lemonades from a tent hosted by Technicraft Inc. and its owner, Sebastian Jachymiak.
Both Jachymiak and Technicraft, an autobody shop located in Justice that provides towing services for municipalities, also have been named in separate search warrants seeking records from McCook, Lyons and state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago).
It was at Tobolski’s 2018 golf outing that Pippenburg says she was sexually assaulted by Simo “Sam” Krneta, a longtime friend of Tobolski who was also named in the search warrant. Krneta worked as the general contractor on the restaurant renovation and other projects for McCook.
At a bench trial earlier this year, Krneta was found guilty of battery in connection with the incident involving Pippenburg. She later filed a lawsuit naming Krneta, Tobolski and the village of McCook as defendants.
According to the lawsuit, Pippenburg was attending the golf outing in her capacity as a village employee — with the duty of selling raffle tickets — when Krneta allegedly pulled up her shirt without her consent.
When she rebuffed him, Krneta allegedly said: “I always get what I want. I am untouchable.”
Later that evening, Pippenburg said Krneta came up behind her, shoved his hand between her legs from the rear, and grabbed her vaginal area.
Pippenburg said she was “forced” to leave her job at the restaurant in November when village officials failed to enforce a court order barring Krneta from The MAX, where he continued his contractor duties.
In an interview, Pippenburg said the “boys club” atmosphere at the restaurant contributed to the incident involving Krneta, who she described as “really, really good friends” with Tobolski and one of his regular drinking companions.
“That’s the reason Sam feels so untouchable,” she said.
Krneta did not respond to repeated efforts to contact him. The Sun-Times has been unable to reach Tobolski for comment since the raid on his office.
Pippenburg also offered some insight into another item of interest on the federal search warrant: Latino Night at The MAX.
She said Latino Night was a popular monthly music promotion that served alcohol and produced more than $10,000 in revenue per event.
“There was a lot of cash coming in. They only take cash,” she said.
In a similar vein, the restaurant also hosted regular “charity” poker nights that also generated a lot of cash, she said. The search warrant didn’t ask about that.
Before this is over, Tobolski may learn what most politicians who invest their own money in bars and restaurants eventually discover: it’s rarely worth it.