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updated: 6/24/2014 1:31 PM

Service needs some sharpening, but Spears burgers, beers are on point

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  • Spears's burgers, including the Hangover Burger, start with antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free, grass-fed beef.

       Spears's burgers, including the Hangover Burger, start with antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free, grass-fed beef.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Mixologist Susan Brown pours a blackberry bourbon cocktail at Spears in Wheeling.

       Mixologist Susan Brown pours a blackberry bourbon cocktail at Spears in Wheeling.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Christina Moretti, left, of Rolling Meadows and Mioara Alfano of Wheeling try cotton candy at Spears in Wheeling.

       Christina Moretti, left, of Rolling Meadows and Mioara Alfano of Wheeling try cotton candy at Spears in Wheeling.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • A homemade ball of ice chills an Old Fashion at Spears in Wheeling.

       A homemade ball of ice chills an Old Fashion at Spears in Wheeling.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Bacon at the Bar has become a popular dish at Spears in Wheeling.

       Bacon at the Bar has become a popular dish at Spears in Wheeling.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Owner Joe Romeo, holding bottle, shows off his crew at Spears in Wheeling. The eatery showcases burgers bourbon and beer.

       Owner Joe Romeo, holding bottle, shows off his crew at Spears in Wheeling. The eatery showcases burgers bourbon and beer.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Spears opened near the Westin in Wheeling earlier this spring.

       Spears opened near the Westin in Wheeling earlier this spring.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 
By Thomas Witom
Daily Herald Correspondent

Spears, a convivial new arrival on Wheeling's restaurant row, bills itself as a gourmet burger cafe with a bourbon and craft beer bar.

But this latest venture by Joe Romeo (Beer Market in Vernon Hills and Beer House in Lombard) -- with its slew of oversized flat-screen TVs along the perimeter, blasted recorded music selections from the '70s and '80s and meandering custom-made bar -- feels more like a sports bar.

Housed in a stand-alone building in the shadow of the Westin Chicago North Shore, Spears occupies a sleek space that seats about 160 in its airy main dining room-bar area and adjoining private party room. A seasonal patio with fire pits can accommodate additional guests. Vintage bourbon and beer signs decorate the walls.

An extensive bar menu puts the emphasis on craft beer and bourbon, with a small nod to wine drinkers. The listing identifies 36 bottled and 26 draft craft beers, including many from regional breweries.

Spears would do well to ditch its quickly outdated beer menu from a printed format in the menu and replace it with a chalkboard showing what's currently available. Our server still had a learning curve to climb, one that necessitated repeated trips to the bar seeking answers to queries on the style or provenance of certain beers and which ones were still actually available on hand. Additional training for the staff wouldn't be a bad thing.

Two Belgian-style ales sampled met our approval: hoppy Smuttynose Homunculus produced by Smuttynose Brewing Co. in New Hampshire and Golden Monkey from Victory Brewing Co., Downingtown, Pa.

Given that Spears derived its name from Jacob Spears, who is credited by some as the first distiller to label his product after Bourbon County, Ky., be it duly noted that its holdings include 79 bourbons ($4 to $12 a glass), 24 whiskeys and nine scotches ($8-$35 a shot). Eventually, the bar plans to offer both beer and bourbon flights.

Meanwhile, burgers started out as antibiotic- and growth-hormone-free cattle raised on a grass fed diet. Diners are offered plenty of topping choices, but in the case of my tablemate an error occurred when her build-your-own burger came to the table with something other than blue cheese.

The menu listed mini lamb sliders as a starter, and I was happy to find the kitchen amenable to a request to convert said ground lamb into a full-size burger, which was served on a pretzel bun with provolone cheese, caramelized onions, shiitake, lettuce and tomato. It was a substantial creation, sloppy to consume but thoroughly satisfying. Sandwiches come with fries or, for a small extra fee, sweet potato fries, which make a pleasant alternative.

Turkey and bison burgers are available, as well as other sandwiches such as a chicken club, crabcake and vegetarian versions, as well as various salads.

Marinated skirt steak, braised pork shoulder, bourbon-glazed shrimp and cedar plank wild salmon were among other entree possibilities.

While waiting for the burgers, we shared an order of Spears' popular Bacon at the Bar appetizer: thick slices of Wisconsin-processed Nueske applewood-smoked pepper bacon -- a decadent treat that acquired an added kick from a spicy maple glaze.

Another atypical item on the menu starred roasted bone marrow seasoned with shiitake mushrooms, topped with parsley-shallot vinaigrette and accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Only a handful of desserts are on offer, but you need look no further than the house-made pecan pie, nicely garnished with fresh berries and a glob of whipped cream.

Reservations are accepted only for large groups of 10 or more. Spears seats customers at the bar, banquettes and tables, including two communal tables, and it is scheduling live entertainment -- blues, guitar, '50s and '60s rock -- mostly Thursday through Saturday.

• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.

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