Palatine's Durty Nellie's turns 50 -- and its owners look to the future
Durty Nellie's in downtown Palatine, arguably the Northwest suburbs' best-known music venue, is turning 50 next week, and its owners can hardly believe it.
"It's weird to be 50 and still going in the same business," said Jimmy Dolezal, 61. "It's evolved, sure, many times over, but it's amazing. It's surreal."
"I am amazed I am still in this business at all," said his brother, Mark Dolezal, 71. "I thought it was just going to be a few years when I got into it."
After a rough three years following a devastating fire and the COVID-19 pandemic, the brothers are excited for a 50th anniversary celebration that begins with a daylong extravaganza Saturday.
It all starts with an Irish breakfast at 8:30 a.m. at the pub, 150 N. Smith St., followed by a St. Patrick's Day Parade at 11 a.m. and an "epic party" back at the pub with Irish music, dancers and food.
The parade used to be called "Paint the Town Green," which led many to mistakenly assume it was the village who organized it. This year, it's simply called Durty Nellie's St. Patrick's Day Parade.
"We are super excited to bring everyone back, because Nellie's really does bring life into this downtown, and it's good for all the businesses," said Melanie Santostefano, of Vicarious Multimedia, which does marketing for the venue.
"I am so proud of them," she said of the Dolezals. "This is a business that has stood the test of time."
Change of location
Durty Nellie's stage has been graced by numerous well-known acts over the years: Lucinda Williams, The Marshall Tucker Band, Cracker, the Violent Femmes, Gin Blossoms, Johnny Winter, Dick Dale, Ronnie Montrose, David Allan Coe, Jonas Brothers, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and many others.
Mike & Joe, Sixteen Candles and Hi Infidelity are among recurring regional favorites.
Jimmy Dolezal said he loved a show by Dave Mason, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a founding member of Traffic.
"I was in awe. It was kind of amazing that the guy was on our stage," he said.
Mark Dolezal fondly remembers a show by John Mayall, who sold his own CDs in the lobby afterward.
The journey started when Durty Nellie's opened its doors March 17, 1972, on St. Patrick's Day, at its original location at 55 N. Bothwell St., also in downtown Palatine. The pub is named after one of Ireland's oldest pubs, Durty Nelly's in County Claire.
The Palatine pub's owners were a pair of airline pilots who sold the business to the Dolezal brothers in 1988.
Mark Dolezal used to be a bartender, while Jimmy Dolezal worked in transportation for a lumber company. Always close, they joined forces and, to their surprise, their pub adventure became a long-term commitment.
The younger Jimmy, a gregarious type, grew up admiring his older brother Mark, who is more chill.
Now, it's Mark Dolezal who looks at his younger brother with admiration. "Jimmy's done a great job. He's always creative."
The brothers said their working relationship always has been good.
"We butt heads sometimes, but it's normal, isn't' it?" Jimmy Dolezal said. "We are always there for each other."
Another brother, Mike Dolezal, works as beverage manager at the Palatine venue after retiring as dean from Grant Community High School in Fox Lake.
The old Durty Nellie's location was about 3,000 square feet with capacity for 300. "We were busting at the seams every weekend," Jimmy Dolezal said.
The pub moved to its current location at Smith and Colfax streets in 2003, after the village asked the brothers to relocate to accommodate its downtown redevelopment.
The Dolezals traded land with a real estate and development company that gave them the current site. The old location was razed and new development took its place.
The current Durty Nellie's is 15,000 square feet with capacity for 800. It cost $3 million to build from the ground up, the Dolezals said.
Downstairs, there's a bar with 12 TVs, a concert room with a bar and a stage flanked by a colorful mural on both sides, and an outdoor beer garden. Upstairs is a mezzanine level with a bar and an outdoor patio with a bar. The brothers said they take pride in offering a full menu with vegetarian options.
One thing that helped set Durty Nellie's apart is its commitment to music shows for all ages, the brothers said. The young ones stay downstairs, and the 21-and-older crowd can drink alcohol upstairs with a view of the stage. "That has worked out very well," Jimmy Dolezal said.
The January 2019 kitchen fire was caused by a leaking gas line. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and insurance covered $1.4 million in damages, the brothers said.
The 10-month rebuild was tough, but support from the community was heartwarming, the Dolezals said.
The venue reopened in November 2019, only to be hit with the COVID-19 pandemic four months later -- a double-whammy that was difficult to deal with, the brothers said.
Finally, things are starting to look up as life starts to return to normal, they said.
A neighborhood pub
Despite the move into a bigger building, Durty Nellie's neighborhood vibe never changed, longtime patrons said.
Kevin Thomas of Palatine started frequenting the pub about three decades ago, when it sponsored his softball team. Nowadays, he meets up with buddies there once or twice a week for a drink before dinner, he said.
"People are friendly. It's not a snooty crowd and it's not a criminal crowd," he said laughingly.
Scott Malak of Palatine said one of his favorite memories is a show from The Rembrandts on the night of the last episode of the TV show "Friends." The band wrote the show's uber-famous theme song, "I'll Be There for You," and played after the final episode was broadcast on the pub's TVs and a big screen in the concert hall.
"That was a lot of fun," he said.
Malak, who later became a vendor for Durty Nellie's, said the Dolezals make it a point to get to know their customers.
"They are very dedicated to what they do. They have been a huge part of the community for decades," he said.
Durty Nellie's has had an excellent relationship with the community, said Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz, who held a celebration there when he was first elected in 2009.
The venue brings people to downtown, and its owners consistently have given back to the community by sponsoring events and activities in town, Schwantz said.
Business at Durty Nellie's boomed for years, but things started declining a bit around 2015, the brothers said.
One reason was that many suburbs started holding more summer fests where people could see bands for free, they said. Also, the live entertainment world has changed.
Dave Ensslin, a booking agent and guitarist with Sixteen Candles, said the general decline in concert audience numbers started before the pandemic.
The younger generation doesn't feel much need to leave the house to be entertained or meet new people, and music consumption habits have changed with streaming and downloading, Ensslin said.
Still, Ensslin believes things are starting to shift positively for Durty Nellie's and other venues.
"We (Sixteen Candles) call Durty Nellie's our home away from home," he said. "They got behind us early on, and it really helped, for sure, in the early days."
The Dolezals said they, too, are hopeful the future holds good things, starting with Saturday's St. Patrick's Day and 50th anniversary celebration.
"I don't know if we will get back to the days when we had 700 or 800 people coming through the door," Jimmy Dolezal said, "but we are going to do our best to get there."
Meeting new people and forging friendships with customers and musicians has been the best part of the job, the brothers said.
"That's what makes it all worthwhile," Jimmy Dolezal said, "to see that people are smiling."