Small Town Big Business

Old Chicago here in Tucson turns 20 and you have an arcade game to thank for the name

When Old Chicago moved in on Campbell Avenue in 1997, most Tucsonans thought it was a family run place that took over the space for the longstanding Italian restaurant Mama Louisa's.

The fun casual environment mixed with a stunning beer selection alongside delicious takes on familiar food made it a go-to spot for family gatherings, pre- and post-UA games and a comfortable neighborhood hangout.

No one even questioned that it might be a chain because it didn't have the look or feel of a sterile and overbearing sports bar concept, and to this day it still doesn't.

C'mon, it's Old Chicago. You've been there. We all have.

To help celebrate 20 years in Tucson, the crew at Old Chicago is throwing a big party on May 20, and everyone is invited.

But before we divulge into the logistics of the upcoming festivities, how about a brief history of a favorite midtown beer and pizza joint? That, you know, has corporate backing.

First of all, Old Chicago is not named after the style of pizza they serve or the city in which it hailed from.

Founder Frank B. Day and his friends used to gather in a funky bar in Boulder, Colorado to play a pinball game called, yep, Old Chicago. This was the early 70s and the backglass featured a turn-of-the-century gambler flanked by two comely good luck charms in a ribald, gangster-run city.

When Day decided to open up his own establishment in 1976, mainly a place where he and his buddies could drink beer, play games and eat the food they liked to eat, he needed a name. In a turn of good sport and fun, he decided to call the restaurant Old Chicago, which still confuses regular customers to this day.

Although the pizza crust might be thick in some forms, they don't, or rarely, serve the cake-like sauce and cheese stack that the restaurant's city's namesake might imply.

Old Chicago, which was bought by Rock Bottom Restaurants in the late 90s, has now expanded to various locations across the U.S., and luckily for us, Tucson was one of the first outside of major Colorado cities.

It was immediately embraced by students and faculty alike, quickly becoming a tradition to fuel up before a game, and later, to celebrate a win ... or to drink and eat your feelings from the agony of defeat.

If you are a true craft beer fanatic, Old Chicago is the place to go to explore hoppy, malty goodness from local and domestic breweries as well as suds imported from across the globe. Its humble beginnings started out with just a few taps and a couple of bottles in the cooler.

The Old Chicago today now has a glorious 110 beers on hand and 36 taps, which are always rotating for the adventurous beer connoisseur.

In fact, the serious devotees have signed up for a rewards program and the World Beer Tour which basically gets you free stuff the more beer you drink or visit. With each "mini-tour" you are gifted a free T-shirt to commemorate its theme and since Old Chicago has been here for 20 years that is a lot of shirts.

This weekend for its anniversary if you show up with a vintage World Beer Tour shirt, like really old school, you get a prize that they have yet to hint as to what it is, but bets are on it involving pizza or beer. One can only hope.

They will also be tapping something very special from Founders Brewing out of Grand Rapids, Michigan called the Kentucky Breakfast Stout that is infused with two styles of coffee and bitter imported chocolate to help get you going for the all-day festivities.

Speaking of beer, there will be reps from Firestone Walker, Sierra Nevada, Four Peaks out of Tempe and Tucson's own Crooked Tooth Brewing Company giving out samples and pouring ales and lagers both new and classic.

But since this is the Chow section, we should probably get down with some food news.

Old Chicago will be presenting a trip down pizza memory lane, firing up beloved combos from the past such as the Taos (a southwestern pie with a loyal fanbase but short menu life) and some new items that have yet to set a saucy foot on the menu. A pizza preview if you will. Not to mention a 90s-throwback pricing of their generous half-pound steak burgers with a side for only $8 beginning every Wednesday.

Once again, we are well aware that Old Chicago is not exactly a local small business, but it is a Tucson institution and for that we hope it sticks around for another 20 years or more.

Have you had the pepperoni rolls? Yeah, we'd miss those.

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