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Everyone grab a Chicago Social! There’s a 3 page, 9 photo huge spread on Rockit Ranch Productions’ 10 Year Anniversary – with really fun quotes and comment by the partners and friends! Scroll through the pictures for some of the great shots featuring the Stanley Cup, Barbara Streisand, David Beckham and more! – KatieRose Cronin

“The stretch of River North that fans out from Hubbard Street and runs west from the Mag Mile to the river is a far more happening place than it was in 2002. Back then, sparsely used parking lots and adult video stores abounded. True, there were some standout restaurants—Brasserie Jo and Rick Bayless’ mini-empire on Clark Street—but a lot of vacant buildings, too.

It could be argued that what set the neighborhood on its breakneck path toward being the dining and nightlife juggernaut it is today was the 2004 opening of Rockit Bar & Grill, the jacket-free place for a power-lunch/celebrity hangout/rock bar/Sunday brunch standby that was the brainchild of Rockit Ranch Productions. This month, the company celebrates its 10th anniversary as it prepares to launch its fifth establishment, a barbecue restaurant with Asian influences called Dragon Ranch that’s slated to open at 441 N. Clark St. later this summer.

Rockit Ranch Productions now employs more than 500 people, but in 2002, when the company was brought in as partners by Le Colonial’s Joe King to make a hit out of the velvety Gold Coast nightclub Le Passage, there was only the now-familiar trio: Billy Dec, the baseball cap-wearing celeb wrangler and ubiquitous face of the operation; Brad Young, the sharp-eyed money guy who quit his dad’s investment banking firm to found Rockit; and Arturo Gomez, the youngest of the three and a smooth, suited-up nightlife natural who veered into the business on his way to dental school and never looked back.

With little more than a printer and a bank account to make things legit, the Rockit team transformed (the now closed) Le Passage from a nonstarter of a spot into the place to be by nixing the froufrou French house music in favor of mainstream music and hip-hop, switching out the staff, changing marketing tactics and finding a sweet spot between glam factor and hometown hospitality. “Not all of the owners were from around here, and they didn’t know what Chicago wanted,” says Young. “We did.” King agrees: “They were the missing link we needed, and our sales improved significantly.” Lines became a given outside Le Passage’s red-carpeted alleyway, and the Rockit guys began scouting a location for their own venture.

Young took Dec to see an old lamp factory on Hubbard Street. The place was gutted, the windows were kicked out, and there were male prostitutes lingering on the sidewalk. “When you’re used to being anchored in the Gold Coast’s plushest little room, that space seemed like a huge risk,” says Dec. “We’d take our investors to see it, and they’d keep going outside to check on their cars.”

It wasn’t like the Rockit guys didn’t know what they were doing, though. Dec was a nightlife veteran, having started as a bouncer while in law school at Kent. He later opened several nightspots, including the 17,000-square-foot Circus on Weed Street, a project Young was involved with (Gomez also came into the picture about that time, after working as a bartender in Lincoln Park and then approaching Dec for a job). They had all witnessed the inner workings of the industry, and together they realized that the clientele who’d shocked them by lining up 4,000 deep on Circus’ opening night was getting older. They were going to need a more sophisticated place to play.

Rockit Bar & Grill, with its industrial-chic design by a then almost-famous Nate Berkus, was conceived as a hybrid, “a one-stop shop,” Gomez says. Patrons could have dinner downstairs (better-than-basic comfort food like burgers with truffle fries and giant salads became Rockit’s signature), and then simply walk upstairs to play pool, drink and party in the bar. (Rockit’s Wrigleyville outpost recently evolved into “Rockit Burger Bar” to reflect the neighborhood’s ordering patterns.)

When it became clear that the concept was working, the trio decided to keep the train moving by quickly opening up spot No. 2, The Underground, a few blocks away. Since staying out until Rockit’s weekend closing times of two or three in the morning wasn’t late enough for some revelers, it made sense to snap up a nearby space with a rare 4am license that happened to be for sale at the time. Bunker-themed The Underground—inspired by a club Young had visited in Jerusalem—was an immediate hit, bolstered in part by Dec’s knack for bringing seemingly every celebrity who happened to be in Chicago through the club’s inconspicuous metal doors. A recent example: the night Jamie Foxx grabbed the mic at The Underground and belted out a tune while the cast of Glee danced around him.

Next came Sunda, the Illinois Street restaurant that marked Rockit’s leap into fine-ish dining. The exotic-looking room and the sushi-leaning menu both aim high, but with the sound system turned up and a glossy crowd that likes to hit the bar for pre-dinner cocktails, the vibe is more party than proper—unless you’re Barbra Streisand and you require a bit of privacy, in which case you’ll enjoy a quiet meal upstairs, as the singer/actress and her husband James Brolin did last summer….

To enjoy the entire article, click here!

 

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