WEST ROGERS PARK — Rub's Backcountry Smokehouse owner Jared Leonard, a ski-bum-turned barbecue pit master, hopes to put Chicago on the map as a destination for barbecue junkies all over the country.
But above all, the 32-year-old wants to make the best slow-cooked, smoked ribs, pulled pork and brisket there is.
And, he said inside his newly expanded restaurant on Western Avenue in West Rogers Park, "I hope I can inject a little barbecue passion into Chicago."
The original Rub's opened three years ago just around the corner on Lunt Avenue.
It was a work in progress, said local barbecue expert Gary Wiviott, who reviewed Rub's for the Reader when it first opened.
Wiviott, a 60-year-old barbecue virtuoso pit master at Lincoln Park's Barn & Company and co-author of the barbecue how-to book "Low and Slow," said when the restaurant first opened, Leonard's barbecue "wasn’t very good."
"But it wasn't bad," he said. "I thought Jared and Rub had a lot of promise."
And over the years, Wiviott said, he turned out to be right.
"He's a real barbecue guy — not just a restaurant guy — but a barbecue guy," Wiviott said. "That means you're living and you're breathing barbecue."
Leonard admits, too, that when he opened the restaurant, he knew nothing about slow-cooking meat to perfection, let alone how to smoke a dozen beef briskets at once for hungry customers. In all, his restaurant now smokes about 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of barbecue a week.
More than a decade ago, Leonard said he had lived a "ski-bum" life in Vail, Colo., where he grew to love barbecue from a group of guys from Alabama that ran a food truck.
"I was immediately hooked," he said.
He started to barbecue for friends, then eventually moved to Chicago. As a day job he was trading stock online, but eventually found himself behind the slow cooker at street festivals.
Then it hit him, he said, "Why don't I do this full-time?"
So he opened the restaurant in the tiny storefront on Lunt Avenue with his wife, Amanda.
They hired a dishwasher and set up a gas cooker behind the building in a tight, drafty gangway surrounded by chain link fence topped with barbed wire.
To start, most customers were from the neighborhood, but after Leonard began offering barbecue classes, he said, people began to visit from as far away as Indiana, Wisconsin and Oregon.
After a year, they installed two smokers in a neighboring storefront, where they cooked exclusively with cherry and oak, Leonard said.
In March, they closed the original Lunt Avenue storefront and took over the spot next door to the smokehouse, doubling its seating and kitchen size.
Leonard's three-hour barbecue classes attracted 4,000 people last year at $120 a class. And now he's booked through August.
People thought he was crazy for trying to open a pork and beef restaurant in a neighborhood with a huge Hasidic Jewish population, he said.
"If we had to handpick a spot," he said, "it wouldn't have been in West Rogers Park."
Devon Avenue to the south is chockfull of Indian food, and Touhy Avenue to the north is loaded with kosher joints.
But the lack of American-style food turned out to be a blessing.
"That's the void we filled in this neighborhood," he said.
Leonard's wife, Amanda, now spends most of her time running the catering side of the business while raising their two children, but still jumps behind the counter when she needs to.
"When you engage in something — with your hearts in it — we want to be as best and as good as we can," she said.
At Ribfest 2012 in North Center, Rub's won Best Ribs.
Leonard and Wiviott, the barbecue critic, formed the city's first smoked barbecue competition last year and plan to host the next competition, the Windy City BBQ Classic, Sept. 1 in Soldier Field's tailgate lot — with $14,000 in prizes.
Apart from the competition, there will be a 40-foot stage, Lagunitas beer and a samplings of barbecue ribs.
Leonard said he hopes the festival and competition would put Chicago "on the map" as a barbecue destination.
He hopes to eventually open in an even bigger location and add a microbrewery and music stage.
But for now, they'll keep the smokehouse and its half-dozen tables or so.
"We're kind of a hidden gem over here," Leonard said.