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By Ginger Reilly
Chicago Tribune (TribLocal Lincolnway – Frankfort, Mokena, and New Lenox)
For more than 40 years, a steak and lobster restaurant owned by a couple married 63 years has strived to offer quality food and a casual elegance inspired by the bygone-era supper club.
“This is a family restaurant and our children are involved with us — all four children,” said Joy Leonardo, who co-owns with her husband, Benny, Mr. Benny’s at 19200 Everett Lane in Mokena and its second location in Matteson.
Benny Leonardo was in his late 20s when he entered the restaurant business after his tobacco business folded during a difficult time in that industry.
“I had to make a living for my family,” Benny Leonardo said.
In 1957, he opened the bar Dominick’s in the Chicago Heights neighborhood where he lived. Within a year, he began serving food and a few years later he opened a cocktail lounge.
“The food came because the steel mill workers were working nights” and looking for a good restaurant, he said. He served a steak dinner with potato salad, bread and butter for $1.95.
He evolved into opening a fine-dining restaurant in the late 1960s. It was Mr. Benny’s in Chicago Heights, bearing the name that a man who cleaned one of the bars would use, asking for Mr. Benny when picking up his paycheck, Joy Leonardo said.
It was a time when steakhouses were becoming popular but Mr. Benny’s went against the tide, serving high-quality steaks when competitors were not.
“I survived and they didn’t,” Benny Leonardo said, adding that he gradually gleaned customers from five nearby country clubs, the steel mills and a racetrack.
He modeled the steak and lobster house on the Chicago supper club of the post-World War II era when he courted Joy — places like the “absolutely beautiful” Shangri-La of Chicago, he said. It was an era when people dressed up, practiced good manners and men could be counted on to be gentlemen, he said.
“Where you can entertain a girl and hopefully you get her to love you,” Leonardo said, adding that Mr. Benny’s has been the site of proposals and wedding ceremonies.
In 1976, Mr. Benny’s relocated from Chicago Heights to Matteson, which was growing. Around 2000, a second location was opened in Mokena, Joy Leonardo said. Both restaurants have similar menus but different specials. In Mokena, the post popular items include the New York strip and porterhouse steaks, prime rib (available only on Saturday), lobster tail and crab legs.
The restaurant interior is burgundy and hunter green, with tables, chairs and booths that can accommodate about 250 people.
“It’s warm and casually elegant,” Joy Leonardo said.
Steaks are usually in the $29.95 to $34.95 range and seafood, including lobster tail, is generally in the range of $19.95 to market price, which can sometimes be around $55 or $65.
Mr. Benny’s of Mokena is open for dinner only — 5 to 9 p.m. when the kitchen closes Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and an hour later on Friday and Saturday. It is closed on Monday.
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