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Article updated: 10/16/2012 11:12 AM

Wheaton's Jim Belushi: Actor, icon, pizza diplomat

Jim Belushi declares that Gino's pizza is the best in Chicago, except maybe for Lou Malnati's. Or Giordano's.

Jim Belushi declares that Gino's pizza is the best in Chicago, except maybe for Lou Malnati's. Or Giordano's.

 
Kyle Lane and Wheaton native Jim Belushi are partners in the Comedy Bar, a Chicago improv and stand-up venue.

Kyle Lane and Wheaton native Jim Belushi are partners in the Comedy Bar, a Chicago improv and stand-up venue.

 
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Who better to identify the greatest pizza in Chicagoland than a genuine local icon?

So, we tracked down Wheaton native Jim Belushi at a small house in the Bordeaux region of France where he and his wife, Jennifer, had just completed a 47-mile bike trip through the autumn wine country.

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Belushi, partner raising The Comedy Bar

"Every standup comic wants every other comic dead," Jim Belushi said. "Improv actors don't think that way. because they don't exist without the other actors. So we have a different philosophy: We support each other because we need each other. But standups? They work alone. Not only do they want other comics dead, they want their parents dead!"
What? And give up such rich source material?
"That's true!" Belushi agreed, laughing. "That's how ungrateful they are!"
The Wheaton native takes improv and standup so seriously that he invested in Chicago's The Comedy Bar at 157 W. Ontario Street, a nightclub comedy spot created by his new partner, Ohio transplant Kyle Lane.
"Comedy has always been more than my passion," Lane said. "It's been my life, my way of handling the struggles, trials and tribulations of life. It's something I care about on a crazy, crazy, level."
Lane used to be roommates with Rob Belushi, Jim's son. Both appeared in the 2009 comedy "RiffRaff."
That's how Lane met the elder Belushi.
"Every time I'd come to Chicago, I'd hang out with Robert and Kyle and we'd hit all the blues clubs and comedy clubs," Belushi said. "I fell in love with Kyle! He's one of the smartest, funniest, most aggressive guys I know. I believe in him."
"We have the same work ethic," Lane said. "We share some of the same ideas. He's created waves in the entertainment world during the last three decades."
The most recent wave is in Chicago comedy clubs. Belushi said he likes the Comedy Bar the best.
"Kyle has laid out that room so it's like grand entertainment, grand, but intimate."

"That's why I'm talking in a low voice," Belushi said in uncharacteristically hushed tones. "My wife's asleep in the next room."

For the record, it's 4 p.m. here in Chicago's suburbs, 11 p.m. in France.

Nope, Belushi isn't shooting a movie or a TV show. He's gone to France to ride bikes with his wife.

"She is the coolest chick I've ever met," Belushi said, still keeping his voice soft. "She works her (bumpkiss) off at home and sometimes she gets so busy that between my schedule and hers, I don't get to see her that much. I made a promise that I will steal her away for a week or two every year. This is that week."

Yet, Belushi still took a call from the Suburbs to Showbiz news team. We're flattered.

Wait. We digress. We were talking about pizza, remember?

"The one that has the most meaning for me is Gino's when it was down on Rush Street," Belushi said.

OK. Why?

"The first time I ever went downtown from Wheaton, my brother John took me on his 1961 BMW 250. He took me downtown, showed me the Humboldt Park neighborhood where Mom and Dad came from. Then he took me to Gino's. I swear it was the best pizza I'd ever eaten!"

So, Gino's is the tops in Chicago pizza?

"Yes," Belushi said. "That and Giordano's. Lou Malnati's is good, too!"

Spoken like a true Chicago icon and pizza diplomat.

We have to ask: What does being a bona fide Chicago icon actually mean?

"It means good seats at the Bears games," Belushi said. "It means good seats at Wrigley Field. I get good seats at restaurants when there are no reservations. And I get out of a speeding ticket or two."

Is there no limit to this iconic power?

"I can't get out of the parking tickets," he said.

Belushi is the star of many TV shows (such as the sitcom "According to Jim"), movies (take your pick from serious dramas such as "Salvador" to lighthearted comedies such as "Curly Sue") and voice-overs.

Plus, he's a musician in both the Blues Brothers Band and the Sacred Hearts Band.

Still, Belushi admitted that he thinks being called a Chicago icon is a bit embarrassing.

After all, he grew up the son of Albanian parents in the relatively quiet suburb of Wheaton. What makes him a genuine Windy City icon aren't the qualities that set him apart from other Chicagoans, but those qualities that make him the same.

Belushi's late brother John, of course, blazed the trail for him and other Chicagoans after his stint on the groundbreaking NBC TV series "Saturday Night Live."

It's no shock that comedians from Chicago and the suburbs were and still are in high demand. Belushi says it's all about Midwest audiences.

"What prepares us for the work is the training from the Midwest audiences," Belushi said. "Chicagoland has the best sense of humor in the United States. Absolutely. When you're training in Chicago as an actor and you're doing comedy -- like at Second City or at the Comedy Bar -- the audiences have a great sense of humor. You guide your material and your comic sensibility as a reflection of that.

"Then you take that elsewhere. Then it turns out that everybody likes that Chicago sensibility. You can go all the way to 'SNL' when John and Danny and Bill Murray and Chris Farley and Mike Myers and the list goes on and on. They were grinding the gears of the Midwestern sense of humor."

Sure, brother John might have greased the wheels for Belushi to succeed in show biz, but Jim gives credit to many of his mentors at Wheaton Central High School and at the College of DuPage.

"They guided me," he said. "At the College of DuPage I had so much one-on-one attention from the teachers. They built up my confidence. And the competition was so low, I starred in every show! By the time I got to a four-year university (Southern Illinois University), I had been in 40 productions. That's a lot of jobs."

And the teachers back at Wheaton?

"The Wheaton drama department was unbelievable. I was actually mad at them because they believed in me so much that they would constantly cast me against type because they wanted to make me stretch. They gave me these really dramatic, heavy roles when all I wanted to do was play comic relief. I played Casanova. I had to spray my hair white and do all this romantic stuff. It was just terrible!"

But did you stretch?

"Yes. Today, I can do it all. I have done drama. I've done comedy. I sing with the Blue Brothers Band and the Sacred Hearts band. I dance. I do voice-overs. I am not a terrific stand-up comic. No, I am a comic actor."

Belushi will back in Chicago Thursday, Oct. 18, to promote The Comedy Bar, an improv club created by his friend Kyle Lane. Belushi was so impressed with Lane's venue that he became a partner in the enterprise. (See sidebar.)

"Never feel sorry for me," Belushi said, still speaking softly. "I love every part of this. The only part I don't like is when drunk people come up and put their arms around you and touch you and get a little weird.

"Most people don't like drunks doing that to them. So it's not just me."

-- Dann Gire

• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always interested in hearing about people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great column, email them at dgire@dailyherald.com or jsotonoff@dailyherald.com.

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