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Meet Anthony Potenzo, Taylor Street's Rock 'N' Roll Restaurateur

By Mark Konkol | January 30, 2014 8:37am
 Three Aces co-owner Anthony Potenzo is Taylor Street's rock 'n' roll restaurateur.
Three Aces co-owner Anthony Potenzo is Taylor Street's rock 'n' roll restaurateur.
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DNAinfo/Mark Konkol

LITTLE ITALY — When Anthony Potenzo was 7 years old, his pal's pet spider monkey attacked him.

Potenzo didn't suffer injuries other than embarrassment, thanks to the quick work of his pal Jonathan Cain, who stopped that monkey from going after Potenzo's face and who, fun fact, eventually grew up to write the song, "Faithfully" and "Who's Crying Now" for Journey.

But what's important here is the lesson a person can learn from the man who survived it: Without good friends, you're, well, vulnerable to monkey attacks, among other things.

These days, you can find Potenzo at Three Aces, his Rock 'n' Roll American craft beer and bourbon whiskey-soaked gourmet pub-grub joint on Taylor Street, safely surrounded by friends, and so many folks who gravitate to his speed-talking, storytelling brand of hospitality.

Potenzo was born in Little Italy and grew up in Belmont Cragin — where his mother was the "young, hot Italian mom" surrounded by ladies in babushkas at the Polish grocery.

And on summer weekends, he spent a lot of time playing in the alley behind the building that now is his tavern — and once was a jewelry store owned by the uncle of Benny "The King of Swing" Goodman.

"Back then this was all clapboard houses, and now there's nothing but $500,000 condos. Opening Three Aces here wasn't some big romantic gesture coming back to the old neighborhood," Potenzo said. "This was just the spot that had everything we were looking for … and I'm glad. Is there anyone alive and here from when I was a kid? No. But I'm a Chicago guy. Love this street."

At 55, Potenzo is just hoping folks who visit his spot "have half as much fun as I do."

But I'll warn you, that could take some serious work. Potenzo's a rocker from way back.

He's played drums and guitar in rock bands since his second-grade debut with the Wild Cats — a garage band specializing in covers of "Louie, Louie," "Stepping Stone" and "Tequila" — and has been in a dozens of bands since.

Just watching the fast-moving fast talker work a room is entertaining. On Tuesday night, Potenzo whipped out a harmonica and joined in as Three Aces regular, Joynt nightclub owner Russ Brunelli, played the blues on an electric ukulele.

When you're hanging with Potenzo, there's always potential for an impromptu party.

It's been that way since Little Italy's rock 'n' roll restaurateur got into the business back when the Rat Pack partied in Chicago and the Pump Room was still cool.

You could say his long road back to Taylor Street all started with a car crash. Potenzo totaled his ride on a rural road, collected the insurance settlement, immediately moved to Streeterville and scored a job working the morning shift as a Pump Room waiter.

After just a few weeks, Lettuce Entertain You CEO Rich Melman promoted Potenzo — a rocker in a Valentino suit, no socks and a lot of attitude — to take over for old school maître d Arturo Peterrino.

 Anthony Potenzo's Three Aces on Taylor Street modeled after everything the longtime restaurateur likes — dim lights, whiskey and rock 'n' roll.
Anthony Potenzo's Three Aces on Taylor Street modeled after everything the longtime restaurateur likes — dim lights, whiskey and rock 'n' roll.
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DNAinfo/Mark Konkol

A big part of his job was catering to the Pump Room's celebrity clientele — actors, rockers and regular visitors, including Ted Turner and Bill Murray, among others.

"I once got an indirect $500 tip from Sinatra," Potenzo said. "Came to work and there was an envelope for me with five crisp ones in it. But I never got to meet him. I'd have given up $5,000 to hang out with Frank."

From there, Potenzo took over the now-closed Jilly's Piano Bar on Rush Street, once a Rat Pack hangout in a corner of the Gold Coast entertainment district now better known as the "Viagra Triangle."

When Comedian Don Rickles stopped at Jilly's, he and Potenzo had a running joke.

"Rickles would say, 'What's on the menu?' I'd say 'gefilte fish,' " Potenzo said. "And he's yelling, 'No, Jew food, please,' and everyone would laugh. Oh, Rickles was always a riot."

Potenzo made a lot of pals along the way, including artist Tony Fitzpatrick (who later designed the neon sign for Three Aces), a boatload of musicians and quite a few WXRT on-air hosts who you'll now find at Three Aces on any given weeknight.

In 2010, Potenzo partnered with his best pal, Lye Aker, to open Three Aces — a dimly lit pub the menu describes as "the Italian countryside meets the American Farmhouse in Keith Richards' basement bar."

But if you know Potenzo it could say: Welcome to Anthony's living room.

"This place wasn't born out of a focus group. This looks like my apartment!" Potenzo shouts, so he can be heard over the wailing blues harmonica blaring from the speakers.

"This is my music, my soundtrack. And the food is what I like to eat. People come in and are either cool as hell and get us, or they don't."

Tattooed drinkers, musicians and locals come for the handmade Italian-fusion pub grub creations carved from "cows and pigs" by chef Matt Troost, tasty craft beer and Potenzo's bluesy, rockabilly playlists.

Potenzo says he opened the place so his daughter and his granddaughter, Sofia Francesca, might have more than just his endless stories to remember their family's long Chicago history.

"It's the greatest thing ever to have my daughter here with me and to know this is for her," Potenzo said. "That's why this isn't a restaurant. We're a neighborhood joint. This is the kind of place that could be here for a hundred years, long after I'm gone."

Until then, you can find Ol' Anthony down on Taylor Street surrounded by friends he trusts to protect him from spider monkey attacks, among other things.