GARDNER — Much history went up in smoke Tuesday when flames leveled the Riviera Restaurant on Old Route 66, a reputed favorite hangout of Chicago mobster Al Capone.
Authorities were not saying earlier today if arson was involved.
However, investigators were checking the smoking embers this morning, and Gardner Fire Chief Randy Wilkey said the site is currently being treated as a crime scene.
Oddly enough, the front wall of the restaurant, still bearing the name, Riviera, remained standing while flames gutted the rest of the building Tuesday night.
The wall was still in place earlier today, noted passerby Jim Serena, who was the second on the scene when the Gardner Fire Department was dispatched at 7:04 p.m. Tuesday to the site.
Built in 1928, the Riviera was 50 percent engulfed in flames when Gardner firefighters arrived. The restaurant is four to five miles north of the village on the “Mother Road,” as Old Route 66 is known.
“Because of the structure of the building and its layout, the fire spread pretty rapidly,” Wilkey said today. “We set up a defense attack, and saved what we could save.”
The Riviera has been closed, and no one was in the restaurant, nor the living quarters at the back of the structure, at the time of the blaze.
“It had been closed down, and had gone back to the original owners,” Wilkey said. “There was a leasee who was leasing the building, and he had backed out of his lease. The building was unoccupied. Both the residential and commercial sections of the building were unoccupied.”
The building’s history was known throughout the state, and had spread as far as Europe, Wilkey said, recalling the many Europeans who have regularly stopped at the Gardner Fire Station, local police department and other establishments through the years for directions to the site.
“They were fascinated,” he said.
More than 23 area fire departments were at the scene Tuesday. Due to some miscommunication with a couple of police dispatch centers, some fire departments were delayed in their response.
“Whether the dispatch centers were overwhelmed, I can’t answer that question,” Wilkey said. “All I know is, we had some area departments that should have been there that were not dispatched to be there.”
The Morris Fire Department was among those that was missed during the dispatching, he said.
“We used a lot of resources,” the chief noted. “The area fire departments did a swell job.”
Rumor had it the Riviera was one of Capone’s favorite eating establishments, Wilkey said.
“He used to frequent the Riviera on a regular basis during Prohibition days. He probably had a little alcoholic beverages with his meals.”
Wilkey said the destruction was “really a shame, because a lot of history was here.”
Jim Serena grew up in South Wilmington. Seeing the Riviera go up in flames was “kind of shocking.”
“Kind of surreal,” he said. “It had been there ever since I could remember. We’d eaten there, but that’s been years ago.”
Serena vaguely remembers pictures from the Prohibition days on the walls of the restaurant.
He remained at the scene until about 11 p.m. Tuesday. Spectators stopped their vehicles on Illinois 129 to watch the flames. Other people actually walked down the railroad tracks to the site, he said. About 20 or so spectators were watching the destruction at any given time, he noted.
Among the fire departments Serena recalls at the scene were those from Mazon, Dwight, Braidwood, Coal City, Verona, Wilmington, Reddick, Essex, Emington, Troy Township, East Joliet, Sough Wilmington, Braceville, and, of course, Gardner.
“Throughout the whole thing, the front wall with the sign, Riviera, remained standing,” Serena said. “It’s amazing it survived.”
He, too, recalled the restaurant’s reputed background.
“We’ve always known this place as one Al Capone frequented in the good old days,” Serena said. “Urban Legend. People from out of town know about that stuff, but people here actually knew him.”
Gardner resident and Grundy County Sheriff Terry Marketti said that, growing up in the village, he’d always heard about gambling machines and such in the restaurant in the old days.
“Stories about Al Capone visiting quite often,” he said. “These were stories that went along with the Riviera restaurant and bar. The Riviera was like a roadhouse setup with basement and living quarters. We ate there numerous times, especially when the Girot family owned it.”
During Marketti’s high school career, the students gathered at the Riviera for pizza after basketball games.
“The Riviera was famous for its pizza bread,” he said. “And yes, I heard a lot of stories about it while I was growing up. Obviously it was a very busy restaurant, but the business had died down lately.”
Probably because of the economy and the owners becoming older, the sheriff said.
He also called the Riviera a piece of history.
“Being on historic Route 66 made it a big attention grabber for people traveling the road,” he said. “Growing up and hearing about it, eating there over the years, and knowing the people who owned it.”
The Riviera “always” had flooding when the Mazon River rose over its banks. Marketti said the flooding happened numerous times through the years.
“It was as well known for that as for Capone being there,” he said.
Marketti said the restaurant was closed for a time, then recently reopened for a brief period, then closed again because of non-compliance with fire department regulations.
“I certainly hate to see it gone,” Marketti said. “It would have been nice if someone had put some money into it and fixed it back up to what it was years ago.”