Hillary’s BBQ — famous in North Chicago and Waukegan for more than 30 years for its unique sauce and succulent ribs, brisket and catfish — opened its first eat-in location in Lake Bluff on Friday, Nov. 15, with the next generation of the family at the helm.
Jeff Hillary, 41, of Waukegan, the nephew of Hillary’s founder Robert Hillary Sr., chose the site of the former McCormick’s Restaurant and Lounge, another 54-year family business, as the location for his venture.
The newest Hillary’s offers a casual restaurant and bar with seating for 90, an outdoor patio in season, carryout and catering.
Picking Lake Bluff was a strategic move for Jeff and his wife of 10 years, Jennifer Hillary, 33.
“There are a lot of good customers in this area that were driving to us for lunch orders — (Northwestern) Lake Forest Hospital, Lake Forest Sportscars and Knauz order all the time from us in Waukegan,” he said.
A vision to branch out further south to meet those customers led Jeff to Lake Bluff.
“I drove around until I found this place,” he said.
Located at on Skokie Valley Road just off Route 176, Hillary’s BBQ in Lake Bluff is situated at the busy Route 176 and Route 41 interchange — and right across the street from Knauz Auto Park.
“This is a good area because there’s no barbecue out this way,” Jeff said. “In this area, a lot of people have a half hour, 45 minutes or an hour for lunch. They don’t want to just get it and go back to work, or get it and sit in the car and eat. They want to sit down.”
Two short-lived businesses, first a Mexican restaurant followed by HOGS Sports Bar and Restaurant, have come and gone since the iconic McCormick’s closed its doors in 2009. Not daunted by the risky move and complete refurbishment required, Jeff forged ahead.
“I could see the potential,” he said.
While purchasing paintbrushes to tackle the job at hand, Jeff found his inspiration in a small poster of Muhammad Ali for sale at the counter, which featured his quote: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew who I was.”
“That’s what taking a chance is: Believe in what you’re doing,” Jeff said. “You can’t just do something and say, ‘I don’t really know if it’s going to work or not.’ You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing in order for it to work.”
Believing in his family business and his vision for the future, Jeff bought the poster. It is the only artwork in the new restaurant.
Jennifer admits she was skeptical at first about the location — it needed a lot of work — but Jeff forged ahead. He got into the building in March and spent the next six months removing all vestiges of the former businesses, but kept the bar.
“This used to be a local bar. It has history,” Jeff said. “I want to make the best of it.”
From an ultra-dark interior, heavy on red and black, the new Hillary’s features a calming coffee-and-cream color scheme that directs all eyes to the wall-mounted menus featuring signature entrees including ribs, tips, chicken, fish, shrimp, perch, catfish and hot links, sandwiches, hush puppies, French fries and other sides.
Like any good barbecue place, key to Hillary’s is the signature barbecue sauce and slow-cooking over real charcoal.
The closely-guarded sauce recipe has been passed down from generation to generation.
“It’s his uncle, Robert Sr.’s, original recipe from 30 years ago in North Chicago,” Jennifer said. “It became so popular that his dad, John Sr., opened the Hillary’s in Waukegan. When he retired, he passed it down to his sons — Jeff and his brother, John Jr.”
Robert Hillary Jr. operates the Hillary’s in Kenosha. The North Chicago branch has since closed.
The Hillary’s sauce cooks for four to four and a half hours, while the meats are slow-cooked over charcoal “just like on your backyard barbecue,” Jeff said.
Cooking starts at 6 a.m.
Outside, Jeff points to the red smokestack on the roof over the kitchen, which allows the tantalizing aroma of barbecue to escape.
“That’s free advertising right there,” he said.
The charcoal scent and red-and-white balloons attracted a steady flow of customers during Hillary’s soft opening on Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve been waiting for this to open,” Scott Brewster of Lake Forest, a first-time Hillary’s customer, said Saturday. “My father-in-law’s favorite place was Hillary’s in North Chicago. He loved it.”
Chelsey Bruff and Kyle Haines of Lake Bluff had never heard of Hillary’s before stopping by for Saturday lunch. They tried the beef brisket sandwich and fries.
“We’ve seen the signs, ‘Coming soon,’” Haines, who works in Lake Forest, said. “We’ve just been waiting.”