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Old Leona's Could Be Replaced By New Mexican Restaurant Americanos

By Howard Ludwig | September 12, 2017 8:31am
 Chef A.J. Castillo of Pilsen hopes to replace Leona's in Morgan Park with his first restaurant, Americanos. Castillo, a graduate of St. Rita High School, previously operated the Big World's Tortas food truck.
Chef A.J. Castillo of Pilsen hopes to replace Leona's in Morgan Park with his first restaurant, Americanos. Castillo, a graduate of St. Rita High School, previously operated the Big World's Tortas food truck.
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MORGAN PARK — Chef A.J. Castillo wants to replace Leona's in Morgan Park with a Mexican restaurant called Americanos.

Castillo, 27, hopes to open in mid-November at 11060 S. Western Ave. and attended a hearing Monday of the the city's Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building. Americanos needs permission to add a bar to the restaurant that closed July 1.

There was no action taken Monday. Ultimately, the measure will need to be approved by the full City Council. Castillo said construction to renovate the interior of the former Italian restaurant will begin once the approvals are secured.

He said the restaurant "will look completely different" when construction is finished. And customers can expect a modern look and feel. Unlike traditional Mexican restaurants, Castillo said Americanos will favor alternative rock music over mariachi bands.

"This will be my first restaurant. I am just excited to bring the neighborhood something I am putting a lot of effort in," Castillo said Monday.

Castillo was raised in Garfield Ridge and graduated from St. Rita High School in 2008. He learned to cook from his American parents and his grandparents, who arrived from Mexico. It's this combination of styles that influenced Castillo's cooking and led to the naming of the restaurant.

"There was never a night when there wasn't food on the table," Castillo said of his upbringing.

Castillo didn't pursue a career in food right away. Instead, he attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He focused on entrepreneurship while in school and initially opened a hat business.

Castillo, who now lives in Pilsen, also worked in the food service industry to make ends meet and fell in love with cooking there. He went on to open a food truck called Big World's Tortas and filled his Mexican-style sandwiches with unique ingredients.

Menu items included the popular torta filled with skirt steak, sautéed onions, jalapeños, tomatoes, refried beans, chihuahua cheese and cilantro. His meatless torta was filled with melted chihuahua cheese, sautéed poblano peppers, onions and refried beans.

The food truck relied on hungry customers both Downtown and in University Village. Castillo also used his truck to cater weddings, birthday parties and other private events.

"We did pretty well. People loved them," he said. "There was really no one taking the torta to another level."

Castillo wouldn't discuss what sort of tacos or tortas he's planning to unveil at his new restaurant just yet. But he said both will certainly be on the menu along with several types of plate dinners. If the bar is approved, he plans to stock it with a variety of Mexican beers along with locally-made craft beer.

The bar will also sell margaritas and palomas — a tequila-based cocktail. This drink is most commonly prepared by mixing tequila with a grapefruit-flavored pop such as Fresca, Squirt or Jarritos and served on the rocks with a lime wedge.

Castillo's restaurant dream began to take shape shortly after signing on with Edison Park's Firewater Saloon. The country bar and barbecue restaurant hired Castillo in April to help with its planned expansion.

The former Leona's property was originally considered by the owners of Firewater, but the chain later switched gears. The country-themed bar will instead replace TR's Pub in Mount Greenwood, leaving Leona's available for Castillo.

He plans to lease the spot that includes a 36-spot parking lot to the north. And Castillo said he met with a local zoning committee and received its approval ahead of coming to the city-wide hearing.

Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) spoke publicly and privately in support of Americanos Monday. He hoped the zoning board would act quickly to help fill the vacancy on Western Avenue.

"We are trying to bring in a quality restaurant to our community," O'Shea told the committee.