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Rosa's Lounge Still a Hidden Gem After 30 Years in Logan Square

By Victoria Johnson | February 14, 2014 8:21am
 Hole-in-the-wall blue's club Rosa's Lounge is celebrating 30 years in Logan Square this weekend.
Rosa's Lounge
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LOGAN SQUARE — Ask anyone around Kimball and Armitage avenues if they've been to Rosa's Lounge and you'll often hear, "Oh yeah, I've seen that place," or "I've walked by it, but I've never been in there."

It's something owner Tony Mangiullo, 55, is used to.

Though Rosa's Lounge, named after his mother, is celebrating 30 years in Logan Square this year, it's not well-known to people in the neighborhood.

"People have asked me through the years why we picked Logan Square. In reality, Logan Square picked us," Mangiullo said.

Born in Milan, Italy, Mangiullo grew up loving blues music. A drummer himself, he points out that growing up in the 1970s there was plenty of music to choose from, but nothing spoke to him quite like the blues.

"We knew where the music was coming from, and we knew what the importance was of that music," he said. "We really embraced it as a vehicle of our own expression."

So in 1978, after seeing Junior Wells play in Italy, he followed the famous harmonica player back to Chicago for what was originally going to be a short visit.

Instead, he wandered into Theresa's Lounge, a divey basement blues club in Bronzeville.

"It was from Theresa's Lounge that I decided to stay as long as possible," he said.

So about a year later, his mother, "Mama Rosa" followed him from Italy and told him they needed to start a business in the tradition of their family, all business owners in Italy.

"So for us to open a business it could have been anything, but I told Mama, 'I will not open a business unless it is music-related,'" he said. "I would be floating around the country somewhere playing my drums if it was not for my Mama."

When it came time to find a spot, the two found that what they could afford was a building on a rough strip of Armitage Avenue west of Kimball Avenue with an apartment above the club where they still live.

The neighborhood's changed quite a bit since they first moved in, but Rosa's Lounge is much the same — a long bar on the left side of the room with a few tables around a small stage.

Photos of blues legends fill the walls, along with a few of some other famous visitors, like Barack Obama, who held fundraisers there during his pre-presidential days.

When Rosa's first opened in 1984, Mangiullo said there were two other clubs nearby — a 4 a.m. bar frequented by gangbangers and a rough-and-tumble "hillbilly bar" across the street.

"There was not one weekend that there wasn't some shooting, people fighting, accidents, police — every weekend you could count on that," he said.

Even today, that strip of Armitage is not very glamorous, but the hip sheen of Logan Square is creeping west.

It hardly seems to matter to Mangiullo, though. Rosa's has always been a destination bar for blues fans, and he said he's never tried to turn it into a neighborhood bar.

"It did not happen because of a business plan," he said. "It comes from a passion for the music, it comes from a conviction that we can make it better and that we can have a home where the music can actually grow.

"We did not say we're going to do blues and then we'll do something else if it doesn't work out," he said. "Blues is what we do."

Rosa's Lounge will celebrate its 30th anniversary Saturday night with a performance by Billy Branch and the Sons of the Blues, the first act that ever performed there.

Tickets can be purchased on the Rosa's Lounge website.