Big Ed Nero chops up some of his famous rib tips with Mabel his trusty meat cleaver. The tips cooked in the smoker in the restaurant for hours. | Tina Johansson/for Sun-Times Media
Big Ed’s Bar & Grill
30 N. Genesee St., Waukegan
For a warm lunch that will stick to your ribs, come into Big Ed’s Bar & Grill in downtown Waukegan.
The place, offering “everything barbecue” which comes directly out of an in-house smoker, also features homemade goodness from soup to desserts, all from scratch.
After years of barbecuing for co-workers, friends and family, Ed Nero of Waukegan began a catering business which blossomed. Along with three business partners, he decided to open his first restaurant in North Chicago in 2008. The eatery moved to the current location in Waukegan across from the College of Lake County Lakeshore Campus, where it’s been for three years.
“We’ve been at it for five years total now,” said Nero. Partners include Nero’s wife Kim, and former co-workers, Rhonda Gage and Katie Sullivan.
Nero said he always had sights on one day having a place where he could showcase his dishes, but got sidetracked by having to support his family, which includes Eddie, 16, and Isiah, 15, who work part-time at the restaurant.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Nero, the youngest of seven children, learned to cook by watching his mother and father in the kitchen.
Now each day he cooks hundreds of pounds of meat over seasoned hickory wood in a large slow cooker, which was a gift from friend Dave Raymond, who happens to be named for Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce.
Nero too has branched out to create his own special sauces which are bottled and sold at the restaurant for $3.99 each. He has hopes to some day sell them in stores.
While Big Ed’s is cozy and charming, already it is too small for the ever-expanding clientele. “We’ve just outgrown it,” said Nero. In fact on Friday and Saturday nights when there is live music, reservations are a must.
The small kitchen off the dining area consists mainly of a stove, fryers, and preparation counter (there’s a larger kitchen upstairs for prep work), so it’s no wonder people say that this restaurant delivers “big taste from a tiny kitchen”
In March, the restaurant will be moving to the old Pizza Hut in Fountain Square on the southwest side of Waukegan. Plans include eventually owning the former pizza building.
Small or not, Mark and Jeannie Strong of Waukegan regularly squeeze into tables along with their children Sierra, Nicholas and Alexis. They said they enjoy just about everything here, and Jeannie added an all-time favorite: “I really like the chicken and corn chowder,” she said.
Janice and Eric Harvell of Wadsworth stopped by for their first time, sharing ribs and a pulled pork sandwich, finishing it all off with a slice of homemade key lime pie. “This is a great atmosphere,” said Eric, while Janice chimed in, “We are enjoying this to the fullest.”
The owners of Big Ed’s haven’t stopped at the food business. Three weeks ago, they purchased a convenient store at the corner of Washington and McAree in a former 7-11. “We’re hoping to create some jobs,” said Nero. His daughter Jasmine, 23, works at the new store.