The Donley brothers spared no expense building their Wild West Town attraction in Union, so it only made sense that they’d hire a world-class chef to head the kitchen of their wildly popular Old West Steakhouse.
Food & Spirits: Fresh Menu at the Old West
You know you are about to experience something special when you see door panels covered in steer hide. Open them. The American Southwest of the 1800s spreads out in front of you. Rifles. Cacti. Bears. Bison. This isn’t a museum. In fact, it’s not something you would expect to find in the Union countryside. It’s one of McHenry County’s finest dining experiences: Donley’s Old West Steakhouse at 8512 S. Union Road.
Walk through those doors. The warm embrace of patina surrounds you. Log walls and wagon wheel chandeliers are what you see first. Get deeper into the décor details and you will find Native American blanket patterns adorning the dining booths and sumptuous red velvet drapes fringed in gold softening the walls and the windows.
A museum’s worth of Old West art covers the walls, including posters of old cowboy movies featuring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry, Dale Evans and more. You could spend a day just browsing the collection.
“We spared no expense on the décor,” said Mike Donley, who co-owns the steakhouse with brother Randy. “We’re very proud of the rustic Western Americana theme that runs through it.”
To prove the point, the restaurant’s 30-foot-long oak bar was found in Houston and shipped north. It is something you would expect to find in an old Western movie – bar back mirrors nearly 5 feet tall spanning its 120-year-old length. The only thing that could make it more authentic is a resurrected Wyatt Earp leaning on the worn surface, his boots scraping its brass foot rail.
Building a Culinary Attraction
Donley is a member of the clan that started Donley’s Wild West Town in 1974, now one of McHenry County’s favorite family attractions. He’s foggy on the date when the family opened the restaurant, sometime around 13 years ago. “We originally opened two halls for banquets,” Donley said.
As Wild West Town took on a life of its own and more visitors started showing up, the Donleys knew they had to serve some kind of food to the park attendees. One of the banquet halls was converted to a small snack shop, but visitors wanted something more substantial.
The Donleys wanted to provide something better, too. A buffet was the next answer. “It was one of the best in the county,” Donley said. “People waited in line for an hour to dine on Friday and Saturday nights.”
But the Donleys had even more in mind. They wanted to leverage their extensive collection of Old West antiques into a fine dining experience – something that was in keeping with their Wild West motif but completely out of character with culinary choices in rural McHenry County.
The conversion to a sit-down restaurant happened about eight to 10 years ago, Donley recalled.
Chef of Their Dreams
After several years of tinkering with the menu, the Donleys decided that another big change was needed to fulfill their dreams of becoming one of the best restaurants in the county. They needed an extraordinary chef – someone who was passionate about food and had the knowledge that could help realize the brothers’ fine-dining dream.
There was one man the brothers wanted to rope in: Chef John Hennessy. “We were after him for years,” Donley said. “Then one day he became interested and sat down with us and it just clicked.”
Donley says Hennessy’s knowledge of the nuances in food make a big difference in taste and customer satisfaction. “It’s the difference between me conducting an orchestra and a maestro doing it,” Donley said. “John knows how to bring out the best in the people in the kitchen.”
Formerly, Hennessy was the executive chef for Montarra Grill in Algonquin; Hennessy’s Steak and Seafood in Elgin; and Boulder Ridge Country Club in Lake in the Hills, among others. He calls Carlos Zambrano and a host of other Chicago Cubs friends, and often cooks for them. Dennis McKinnon, the wide receiver for the ’85 Super Bowl Champion Bears, is another one of his longtime comrades. He also has cooked for the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Hennessy says he is a “guy who needs constant change because he gets bored easily.” Creating in the kitchen is the perfect outlet for him because food trends and tastes are constantly changing.
Since the tender age of 12, he has been making those changes. Growing up in Itasca, he was always playing sports and always hungry. His father gave him the final push to become a chef. Hennessy recalls his dad saying, tongue in cheek, “you’re eating me out of house and home; get a job.” So he took his father at his word and began his career at the Nordic Hills Country Club.
A Simple, Well-Executed Menu
Hennessy calls himself a “steak and potatoes man” and says he is always fidgeting with the menu to make it better and bring new tastes to diners. His austere and detail-oriented food philosophy influences everything in the kitchen and the dining room: Do simple things well.
Crisp flavors and textures are paramount, Hennessy said. He doesn’t want to overpower his food with sauces and herbs. He wants all of the flavors to shine through so that diners are continually reaching for the next plate. “Steaks arrive at tables still sizzling and bubbling,” he said. “I want [diners] to taste the freshness from the broiler.”
It starts at the very beginning of every meal. Produce is handpicked for freshness and delivered daily. Steaks are certified Angus beef. Fish and seafood are flown in each day. Hennessy has a laser focus on the details – he prefers wild-caught salmon for one of his signature dishes, broiled salmon with lemon beurre blanc and Minnesota wild rice. “Wild fish have a different diet than farm-raised fish,” he explained. “It [enhances] their flavor and nutritional value.”
The restaurant is well known for its lobster. Hennessy chooses coldwater lobster for its sweeter taste and better texture. Donley says this simple choice makes a big difference in taste and preference, making the Old West Steakhouse the most popular restaurant for lobster in McHenry County.
“My fish supplier tells me we are going through more lobster than all the county’s restaurants combined,” Donley said.
Hennessy also thinks diners experience a “cleaner” feeling that comes from eating pure, fresh foods. His pursuit of cleaner and fresher dining permeates everything. It translates into gushing and devoted customers.
In describing the prime rib, which is slow-roasted for eight hours, Hennessy says one of his diners told him that he “had never had better prime rib anywhere.”
A Better Experience
For the Donleys and Hennessy, it’s always about providing a better experience, which extends to how they treat diners. Donley wants to make everyone feel welcome and at home.
He asks, “When you go to a restaurant and you’re recognized, doesn’t it make you feel good?” Adding, “Customers pay our salary. If we don’t do well, we’re all out of a job.”
Added Hennessy, “My diners are a big part of my success. They tell me what I’m doing well and where I need to change.”
He is visiting tables every night, listening to his diners. “With their eye for antiques and my food, it’s the perfect marriage,” he added.
The restaurant is open seven days a week in the summer. Reservations are recommended on the weekends.
>> For more, call 815-923-8000 or visit www.wildwesttown.com.