Olympic Tavern: Changing with the Times for 7 Decades

Now in its third generation of family ownership, this longtime Rockford favorite is still serving the community as the “living room of the neighborhood.”

Zak Rotello, beer director at The Olympic Tavern, in Rockford, is the third generation of his family to run the cozy restaurant. (Samantha Ryan Photo)

The Olympic Tavern, 2327 N. Main St., has been a family-owned Rockford icon for 70 years, always changing with the times, yet always giving the public what it wants.
Beer Director Zak Rotello is the third generation of his family to work in the restaurant. He’s an authority on craft beers, which comprise a growing segment in social drinking. Having grown up in the business, he helped his father, Tom, and grandfather, Anthony, in whatever ways possible.
“The craft beer business is exploding because people like the variety of styles, flavors and ingredients. They want to meet the guy who brewed their beer,” he says.
Olympic isn’t only about beer, but also wine, cocktails, food and service. Parties or special events can be arranged for up to 70 people. Special days are always celebrated. This past St. Patrick’s Day, Olympic Tavern went through 1,200 pounds of corned beef and lots of Irish beer.
Special events such as beer tastings and beer lectures by industry experts are not uncommon. Daily specials of seasonal items not on the menu range in price from $14 to $19. Monday night is always burger night, with a half-pound burger and fries for $5 (no carry-outs). The $12 Friday night fish fry includes cod and all the trimmings, plus a choice of other fish. The patio seats 80 and recently was equipped with all-new furniture from Village Green, located just up the street.
Rotello says he likes the craft beer business because it’s more about socializing while drinking. “Session beers” are lower in alcohol, so a person can enjoy several beers while spending time with friends.
“The trend now is to offer lower-alcohol beers, so people can have a few beers with friends, not to get drunk, but to have fun talking and drinking,” he says.
The beer menu at Olympic changes daily and lists 28 drafts from lightest to darkest, with a description of the style, alcohol content and price. Those customers who want to stay knowledgeable about the latest offerings can find them at beermenus.com/places. People can ask for a free “taste” or Olympic offers a “build your own flight,” made up of three or more beers in 4 oz. glasses.
Craft beers come mainly from small, independent brewers and combine traditional beer ingredients with some non-traditional ingredients to give the beer a unique twist and distinctive flavor.
Cinnamon, coffee, chocolate, cilantro, lime, honey, pepper, salt, hibiscus flowers, ginger, allspice, and many other spices and flavorings are used in craft beer.
The brewing process and how ingredients are combined, heated, mashed and fermented also determine variations in beer. Craft brews vary in flavor, color, richness and alcohol content.
After he finished college, Zak Rotello realized he was passionate about craft brewing. He spent a couple of years working at a Portland, Ore., brewery and then took a 12-week course in the brewing process at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago.
The Olympic Tavern remodeled, updated and expanded its bar about three years ago. The business has evolved many times since the days when Anthony Rotello, a former U.S. Marine, opened a little place where factory workers could get a burger and beer on the corner of Main and Fulton.
Although the business climate has changed, the same neighborhood still supports The Olympic Tavern.
“The public makes us who we are,” says Zak. “We’re the living room of the neighborhood – a place where people can stop between work and home – and we’ll do the dishes for you.”
Anthony’s son, Tom, took over the business in the 1990s. He realized his vision for a full-service restaurant that was three times larger, with a fireplace and lots of atmosphere.
Zak has a good role model in his father, who works every day.
“He taught me not to settle for second-best and to always strive to be the best I can be,” says Zak. “Our business is about hospitality and making people feel welcomed, whether it’s greeting customers with a smile or doing something special for them on birthdays and anniversaries.
“My dad is very supportive of anyone with a good idea and he’s committed to being of service to the surrounding neighborhood,” Rotello adds. “We’re one of very few places that have called Rockford home for this long.”