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South Side mainstay Janson’s coming back

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Updated: June 12, 2014 6:24AM

It used to be that Janson’s hot dogs, cheese fries and banana milkshakes — with whipped cream and a cherry on top — were the best on the far South Side. And that quirky-looking, 1960s-era, light-up Janson’s Drive-In Hamburgers and Red Hots neon sign was a friendly beacon to teens too young to drive but too old to want to sit around Saturday night with their parents.

That was from 1960 up to the mid-1990s.

But then the family behind the name got older. Moved on. Janson’s closed. No more could someone scratch their name — and the name of their sweetheart — into the metal railing by the window. And the kids from the Beverly neighborhood, mostly the St. Barnabus, Christ the King, St. John Fisher and St. Cajetan parishes, lost one more wholesome neighborhood hangout.

That is, until now. Janson’s, at 99th and Western, is back. It reopened in mid-April with the blessing of the Janson family.

“You see all these middle-age people from the neighborhood who are bringing their children back to experience what they did growing up,” financial executive Cora Gamino Murphy says. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, but my husband was born and raised here. He went to St. John Fisher and Brother Rice. It’s so cool now because our kids, who go to St. John Fisher and St. Rita, are living vicariously through him.”

Opening day was packed. And though the cars now are more minivan and motorcycle than a big-body Caddy, the nostalgia still works. Even noted restaurateur Graham Elliott, via social media, noted the return of the Janson’s hot dog.

“I heard it was on sale in 2012, and I knew about the history of the place,” says Gus Pettas of Palos Heights, one of the new owners. He gestures to the original 1960s floating globe light fixtures, then to the goofy-looking dancing hot dog and hamburger characters and, finally, to the metal railing by the window, filled with scratched-in initials encircled by lopsided hearts.

Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), who frequented Janson’s as a kid, was excited when Pettas and partner Hiawei Yuan made plans to revive it with Janson family input.

“Every so often I would go there and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this place is terrible,’ ” O’Shea says. “To see a place you grow up with no longer have the quality it once had, you just stop going. But at the grand reopening, I met with several of the Janson family members who I remember serving me [back then].”

Original owner Joe Janson handed over his signature milkshake recipes. “I get along with them quite well,” says Janson, who lives in Cedar Lake, Ind. “You really can’t bring back exactly something in the ’60s. They don’t make buns the way they used to, so they went with a different kind of bun. ”

Yuan, who lives in Griffith, Ind., joined the project in December. Originally hailing from China, he didn’t grow up on Janson’s, but he did grow up on the American dream. “Many people told me ‘Don’t you dare change anything,’ ” says Yuan, a Purdue University MBA who became enthralled by the hot dog spot’s local history. “It was their happy time; in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I think it’s more their vision in their mind, even more than the architecture of the drive-in. They have happy memories, and I definitely respect that.”


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