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Leadbelly Serves Up Burgers, Beer with a Side of Rock 'n' Roll

PORTAGE PARK — Gourmet burgers and craft beers with a side of Blues and Rock 'n' Roll are on tap at Leadbelly, a new restaurant set to open Saturday in the Irving-Austin Business District.

The menu pays homage to the legendary blues and folk musician Huddie William "Lead Belly" Ledbetter - and to owner Nicole Masse O'Brien's love of food.

"Our burgers are crazy," Masse O'Brien said. "This area really needs a place like this."

All of the menu items are named after Lead Belly's songs, and feature ingredients made from scratch like beef ground on site and buns baked daily.

Masse O'Brien's husband, Steve, a chef, helped design the menu. The couple met at the bar next door to the restaurant several years ago, and Masse O'Brien used to live a few blocks away.

"I've been wanting to start a restaurant for some time now, and we love the area," said Masse O'Brien, who has been cooking for friends and relatives for years. "It needs a place that sets it apart from other neighborhoods."

The walls are covered with pictures of musicians like Kurt Cobain, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Beatles - all of whom were inspired by Ledbetter and, in some cases, covered his songs. Rock videos will play on a flat-screen television to give the eatery a cool vibe, Masse O'Brien said.

The restaurant hopes to capitalize on the demand for gourmet burgers stoked by restaurants like Kuma's, which opened a second restaurant in Lincoln Park in February.

For example, the Amazing Grace burger features smoked pork belly, homemade onion straws, homemade Siracha pickels and Carolina mustard creme. But the menu is capped by the Titanic, which is shaped like a 14-inch pizza and includes two pounds of beef and four toppings. Hungry diners should be prepared to order that beast in advance, Masse O'Brien warns.

With every order, diners will also get one of what Masse O'Brien calls Leadbelly's Soon-To-Be-Famous Butter Cookies, which are drizzled with white and milk chocolate and almonds.

"My husband made them for an event that President Clinton attended," Masse O'Brien said. "The president loved them so much he sent Secret Service agents back for all of the leftovers."

In addition, Lead Belly will offer chocolate, vanilla and very berry shakes — both virgin and spiked with alcohol for a grown up sweet treat.

Masse O'Brien, who grew up in Portage Park and attended Luther North High School, is hoping to capitalize on improvements along Irving Park Road near Austin Avenue. 

The Patio Theater recently reopened after being shuttered for 10 years, and businesses in the area have begun working together to draw shoppers to the area by forming the Irving Austin Business District.

A former teacher in the Chicago Public Schools, Masse O'Brien said she hopes the restaurant will give her more time to spend with her son Myles, who is in kindergarten, and her 2-year-old daughter Molly.

"I think people will really dig it," Masse O'Brien said. "It's my chance to do what I love on my time."

Leadbelly will open at 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and at 11 a.m. Sunday for brunch featuring a Bloody Mary bar.