PORTAGE PARK — With 629 restaurants around the country, Culver's corporate leaders don't typically travel for a photo op every time construction begins on a new site. But Thursday was different, company CEO Joe Koss said.
"This is a pretty special day for Culver's," Koss said after a groundbreaking ceremony for the new location at 4939 W. Irving Park Road. "We've been approaching the City of Chicago for many years, but we've yet to open a restaurant here. It's a big day for us."
The drive-thru restaurant in the Six Corners Shopping District is one of three new Culver's outposts set to open around the city "hopefully within the next year," Koss said.
The chain still is trying to secure a lease for a location in Bronzeville, and the fate of a long-promised Wrigleyville branch is tied to a larger development planned for 3500 N. Clark St., the CEO said. The Portage Park location is poised to beat them both to service, with an opening slated for November 2017.
Ald. John Arena (45th) first invited company leaders to tour the neighborhood in search of their first city outpost shortly after his election in 2011, he said Thursday.
"We looked at a couple different sites around the area, and we knew we had some challenges to get to the place where we are today," Arena said. "A span of years is sometimes what it takes to bring all the pieces together in just the right way to make something like this happen, so I really appreciate their commitment and their endurance."
Known for its butter burgers, cheese curds and frozen custard, the Wisconsin-based company gives each operator free rein over its menu. Danny Ehle, who's been tapped to run the Portage Park restaurant, is planning special custard flavors like turtle, butter pecan and strawberry for his branch, he said.
Thursday's groundbreaking marked the latest step in a $16 million redevelopment set to transform the 4900 block of West Irving Park Road.
Boosted by $2 million from the Portage Park tax increment financing district, property owner Charles Cui set out last year to rehab the former Bank of America building at 4901 W. Irving Park Road. The plan called to fill the hulking gray building with a Retro Fitness gym, a Binny's Beverage Depot and a 300-seat theater.
The TIF money was marked specifically for the theater because of its potential to provide a "significant public benefit," according to Arena's staff.
Each component is poised to open by the end of the year, Cui said:
• Retro Fitness celebrated the grand opening of its two-floor facility last month.
• Having already cleared the construction and permit process, Binny's is now stocking its shelves and training its staff ahead of a ribbon-cutting set for July 21, Cui said.
• Cui has narrowed his search for a theater tenant down to three "very reputable and experienced operators," he said. He plans to announce his choice by mid-August.
• Renovation permits in hand, Cui is eyeing an October opening for Elly's Pancake House at 4925 W. Irving Park Road, he said.