Restaurant Profile: Meet a local restauranteur whose newest venture may look and feel very familiar to the Rockford-area dining scene.
You probably know Michael Verace better as just Michael.
And there’s a chance you also recognize his restaurant’s new home, a staple in Rockford’s Miracle Mile corridor.
Verace is the name and face behind the newest iteration of Michaels Restaurant, 4002 E. State St., in a building best known to local diners as “the old Ground Round.”
In his new venture, Verace combines a relaxed yet classy atmosphere, with a comfort-food menu of nearly 30 items, ranging from New York strip steaks and pasta to burgers, fish and chopped salad. The wide appeal is exactly what he is aiming for.
“I’ve been in this town for 35 years, and I have a passion for this industry, and I have a love for this business,” he says. “My goal is to be on the Miracle Mile, in the heart of Rockford, and to bring to the community a concept of affordable food, a friendly atmosphere, an unpretentious dining room and an eclectic bar.”
This isn’t the first go-around for this professional restaurateur. He’s also known for former businesses Michaels on Charles Street, Michaels on Perryville and Michaels at Harrison and Alpine. With each venture came updates and new touches, but this Michaels Restaurant is grounded in a deep understanding of the local palate.
“Guests will recognize linguine with garlic butter sauce, the salmon, the strip and rib-eye steaks,” says Verace. “They’ve eaten that exact product, just with a different presentation. A lot of my guests have been with me for a long time. They get a good feeling about this place, like it’s a Michaels Restaurant. We haven’t tampered with what I’ve been doing for most of my career.”
One thing that has changed is pricing. As the sign outside suggests, everything on the menu is affordable. New York strip steaks are $10, salmon is $7, and chicken fettucini is under $8 on the lunch menu. Only a few of the fanciest entreés on the dinner menu cost more than $18.
One favorite item isn’t on the menu at all – barbecue ribs. This nightly special features 18 ounces of tender, fall-off-the-bone ribs in a full meal presentation for $18, or a half rack for $12. The salmon, Reubens and burgers are popular, too, and Executive Chef Raul Ojeda prepares a fresh fish course nightly.
True to his Italian roots, Verace makes his new restaurant an extension of his home. Hardly a guest passes through the front door without his noticing. On any given night, he warmly welcomes and rubs elbows with them. That friendliness and enthusiasm are his signature.
“I go table to table. I go around handshaking all night,” says Verace. “I know the anniversaries, the birthdays, the first names. I know what they like and don’t like, and they love it that I just have to jump up and talk to them.”
Much like the menu, the setting speaks to many tastes. The dining room, with plush seats and linen tablecloths, set against wood floor and trim, is classy yet casual. The opposite room, with bar, is comfortable but with refined touches.
In a tip of the hat to the old Ground Round, baskets of peanuts are placed at every table, but the shucks are not tossed to the floor. In its new life, this restaurant reflects the same optimism found in its neighborhood, which is undergoing a major facelift and a new sense of purpose. As Verace sees it, this is the pinnacle of a lifetime’s work.
“I love it here,” he says. “I live all of about nine minutes from here, and for me, it’s a perfect fit. It’s close to my home, and Rockford is my home. I will not be leaving Rockford. I’m going to make the Miracle Mile location my home, and I plan on making the most of every day, every week, every month, and satisfying every guest.”