Auction, Lawsuits End Dreams of Leo’s Coney Island

By Geoff Dankert | Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Leo's Coney Island holds auction of the restaurant's equipment after closing in September 2011. Credit: Geoff Dankert

For the first time in months, people filled the dining room at Leo’s Coney Island, 3455 N. Southport Ave. But patrons weren’t there to order the diner’s signature Detroit-style coney dogs or its Greek salads. They came hoping to snag bargains on booths and bar stools, plates and pots, signs and silverware.

On March 5, auctioneers sold off fixtures, memorabilia and other equipment acquired by the restaurant, which opened on Southport in 2010 as Leo’s first outpost outside the state of Michigan. The auction closed the book on a once-promising restaurant that ultimately ended with claims and counter-claims in court.

As prospective buyers registered for the sale, co-owner Jeremy Stolberg stood in his darkened kitchen and recounted the story of how he was introduced to Leo’s when visiting his wife’s family in suburban Detroit. Enjoyment of this occasional treat turned into a four-year effort to create a unique dining experience for Chicagoans and expatriates from Michigan.

“Every time we went there, I kept saying how great it would be to bring this to Chicago,” said the Highland Park native and resident of Deerfield, who added that he researched locations all over the city before selecting the former home of Chinalite restaurant at Southport and Cornelia.

“The neighborhood’s phenomenal. The location is awesome,” Stolberg said. “This had all the trappings of a family neighborhood, close to schools, close enough to businesses. We had some people come in four or five times a week. I cannot say enough about how supportive the neighborhood was. Business was good.”

Business may have been good, but documents obtained by Roscoe View Journal suggest that the relationship with the home office in Michigan quickly became anything but. Last September, Stolberg and co-owner Louis Goldhaber filed suit in Cook County against Leo’s franchising arm, claiming the home office’s lack of guidance and support caused “undue financial hardships.” In one case, the suit alleged, the Chicago restaurant had to wait six weeks for a shipment of Leo’s signature Greek salad dressing. Leo’s counter-sued, claiming the Chicago restaurant had failed to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in franchise and license fee payments dating back to January 2011. A day after the original suit was filed, the restaurant suddenly closed.

Everything must go, including plates and serving trays. Credit: Geoff Dankert

Stolberg would not comment on the lawsuit or its status, but admitted the whole experience was “sad.”

“This is something we were hoping to open a whole bunch of,” he said. “It was an unfortunate situation.”

Back in the restaurant’s dining area, stacks of items were examined by prospective bidders, including Ann Sather owner Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Colm Treacy of T’s Bar Restaurant in Andersonville. Outside, moms with strollers saw the signs on the papered-over windows and openly speculated about what kind of business might next occupy the space.

Stolberg said his successor is likely to be another restaurant owner, and he wishes them “nothing but the best.” As for his ambitions, he said he’ll “probably” open another restaurant again. “Much to my wife’s chagrin.”

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