Years before joining forces with high-school friend Jude DeSantis to open Gene & Jude’s (2720 N River Rd, River Grove, 708-452-7634), the suburbs’ most beloved no-frills hot-dog stand, the late Gene Mormino’s future as a legendary River Grove sausage slinger was decided in a single hand of cards.
It was 1949, and Mormino was losing big in a poker game. Never one to back out of anything and finding his wallet all but empty, he wagered the small hot-dog stand he had been operating for four years at Polk Street and Western Avenue. Mormino lost the game, and with his tail between his legs, the 30-year-old took his outsize personality and no-nonsense cuisine to a new stand in the ’burbs.
“Gene was a bit of a cowboy,” says his son Joe, now the sole owner of Gene & Jude’s. “He was a John Wayne–type character. He liked the cards and he liked to take a chance. But losing in that poker game was probably the best thing to ever happen to him.” Indeed, calories and grease aside, Gene’s loss was also a boon to the empty stomachs of River Grove residents.
Established in 1951, Gene & Jude’s bustles from late morning until 1am (2am on Fridays and Saturdays), despite the fact that the place is a bit…cosmetically challenged. Muted grays bathed in fluorescent light give off a vibe that has all the kitschy charm of a Soviet soup kitchen.
No eye-catching red-and-yellow tones or neon anthropomorphized hot dogs on the walls here. You won’t even find any tables or chairs, which apparently are too much of an extravagance. Most patrons lean against a small counter ledge that wraps around the rim of the place; when the weather’s warm, many head outside to eat off the hoods of their cars.
The constant customer rush limits the number of pleasantries offered by the sweat-drenched staff of beleaguered high-school boys—unless you consider a sharply uttered “Whaddya want?” friendly banter. The menu options are scant beyond Vienna dogs piled with Gene’s trademark condiment combo (mustard, onions, sport peppers, relish) and freshly peeled french fries. The dog is handed to you rolled—spuds and all—into a waxed-paper wrapper.
“There aren’t many decisions to make about what you’re going to order,” Joe says. “It’s pretty basic.” Gene & Jude’s slim selection of toppings is three short of the magnificent seven of the Chicago dog (no pickle slice, tomato or celery salt). “That’s just the way it always has been,” Joe says.
Gene & Jude’s is a living embodiment of the if-it-ain’t-broke attitude; changes to the stand have been made slowly, if at all. Despite many complaints from mustard-faced customers, Gene & Jude’s didn’t even offer napkins until the ’70s. “People would ask for napkins and Gene would hand them a hot-dog wrapper,” Joe says.
Although Gene did eventually cave on the napkin issue, Joe says his dad would be spinning in his grave if the stand ever began offering ketchup. “Gene always said that the condiment that was complementary to the hot dog was mustard,” Joe says. “One time, Jude’s son was working, and there had been some requests for ketchup. So, he thought, I’ll give them ketchup for the french fries. Well, Gene came in and found the ketchup packets [that his son had brought in] all over the place and said, ‘What’s this?’ Gene dumped all the ketchup out in the Dumpster and sternly told Jude’s son, ‘Not here.’ ” The McDonald’s next door now has a little side business selling ketchup packets for 25 cents each to desperate Gene & Jude’s customers.
That staunch resistance to change is something on which Gene and the late DeSantis prided themselves. “People stay true because we’re consistent,” Joe says. “My dad’s thinking was, Do one thing and do it well. There’s a sort of brilliance in that simplicity.”