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Sitting at Uptown’s northern border, for 26 years the Hopleaf Bar has won countless fans for its massive beer list, upscale food, and cozy atmosphere. Uptown United spoke with owner Michael Roper about the bar’s storied history and his vision for the future.
Getting Hopleaf to where it is today has been a long road. After running a bar in Detroit, Michael came to Chicago in 1982. He looked for a long time to get his own place and, after coming close to opening a bar in Lincoln Square, he saw a taproom and liquor store for sale – Clark & Foster Liquors. He passed but saw it for sale months later and took a chance even though he was unfamiliar with the area. He took over on February 15th, 1992 when the area was sleepy and sat between the aging Swedes and Uptown’s Appalachian settlers. That April the City closed the street for a sewer project and, with his business in decline, he gutted the space. Without closing, in under a year, Hopleaf was born.
The name comes from Michael’s Maltese heritage, from the nickname for a pale ale brewed for the British Navy stationed in Malta in the 1920s that became the island’s national beer. Its “Hop Leaf” sign still hangs in every Maltese pub and Hopleaf’s logo, designed by his wife, incorporates this history. Meanwhile, the idea to focus on Belgian beer & food is a throwback to his Detroit roots as he is a fan of both Cadieux Café on Detroit’s East Side and of Belgium’s history of keeping ancient beer-making traditions alive.
Michael bought the 1896 building in 2000. The back was gutted for a kitchen and mezzanine and upstairs bars were added, which took until 2003. And in 2012, after years of planning and repairs, Hopleaf expanded into the building next door. An Obama-era stimulus package helped secure a loan for renovations. This big expansion, being so far from the Loop after the then-recent recession made for big news, giving the bar heavy press coverage. It was like a second grand opening and Hopleaf was the busiest than it’s even been.
Through it all, Hopleaf has weathered changes in dining habits, demographic shifts, and a boom in craft breweries – meaning that he is always thinking of how to keep standing out. In 1991, it was a big deal that Hopleaf served eight beer lines and had 35 beers in bottles. Today Hopleaf has 68 beer lines with 450 beers in bottles. Meanwhile, the kitchen serves grass-fed organic steaks and ingredients are bought local when practical, such as pork that comes from farms in Illinois and Indiana. The mussels are sourced from Massachusetts and the sausage is smoked in-house. Michael even invested in a reverse osmosis system so that the water served to guests tastes better. Plus, the façade was renovated and the cornice was restored, giving the building an appearance more appropriate for an 1896 building. The HVAC was upgraded and new seating was installed.
But more than ever, Michael feels wedded to the neighborhood. He partners with Pierce Elementary School and has been a top supporter for 12 years by donating all sales from a beer on the menu. Plus, each May Hopleaf hosts a ‘Peirce Day’ and donates 100% of sales, an event that raised $30,000 in 2017. Since he lives in the area, he works to invest in the ‘hood whenever possible and in the end, this only makes Hopleaf a better neighbor.
So stop in! Try the famous mussels and frites, pour one for the kids, and soak in all history just south of Clark & Foster.
This content was written while I was Program Manager at Uptown United, an agency working to nurture a diverse, vibrant, thriving and strong Uptown. [/two_third][one_third_last padding=”0 20px 0 0″][/one_third_last]