River North needs Rossi's Liquors in the worst way and you probably do too.
No list of Chicago dive bars is complete with Rossi’s Liquors, perhaps the poster child for dive bar authenticity, especially in the city’s River North neighborhood where redevelopment has run roughshod over the area but has so far spared on the area’s last real dives in Rossi’s. Even better, the exterior has remained untouched, unimproved, ungentrified to such an extent that online reviews of the dive bar often cite its intimidating appearance, a trait that can only be taken as a positive for a high-caliber dive.
River North is in many ways one of Chicago’s hubs of activities, a dense collection of high-gloss eating and drinking options that draws huge crowds, especially on weekend nights. And yet, somehow, Rossi’s Liquors has resisted the change that can sometimes come with the swell of gentrification nearby, its location just a half step off one of the area’s main walking areas somehow providing just the right amount of cover to preserve the experience.
The look from the outside is one of a classic bodega, signs cramming the windows, large awning with big block letters over the door, but here the signs are all based on alcohol and the stickered, windowless door adds an extra layer of separation between River North and the vibe inside. It should go without saying that Rossi’s Liquors is a cash-only spot, in this case one that straddles the line between bar and liquor store as the name suggests. And as an added bonus, the awning makes it clear that Rossi’s opens at 7 AM (though online sources suggest the time is 9 AM).
Neon signs crowd the slim front windows with a series of beer specials on posters underneath, but whatever clutter may exist on the Rossi’s Liquors exterior is dwarfed by the look inside where stickers, signs, string lights and flags converge. The vibe is almost like a beer-fueled clubhouse, the steeped roof adding a little bit of character to the space that also makes it feel a bit smaller than it actually is.
Pleasantly, most of the surfaces here have been left to their own devices, meaning ripped off stickers dot the walls and some nice wear & tear marks the bar. Rare is a space not covered by something within Rossi’s Liquors, all of it illuminated by string lights that run along the top edge of the walls throughout. Behind the bar, the visual intensity only increases, row after row of liquor bottles mingling with a sign here, an Irish flag there, all of it presided over by a “Cash Only” sign depicting, of course, Johnny Cash in full one-finger salute.
The bar counter forms a half circle, jutting out into the center of the small space that includes a few chairs and tables along the opposite wall and in the alcove created by the windows in front. In back, an electronic dart board can be found. Beer fridges can be found back here as well, the selection fairly extensive for a typical dive bar, chalked up to Rossi’s status as both on-premise provider and to-go purveyor of beer. Small tables extend from the walls in places, themselves worn in dive bar fashion, all of it wood and all of it the same classic dive bar hue of deep brown.
Tying everything together is the legendary tenure of Desiree Baines, a staple at Rossi’s Liquors since the 1980s who serves as General Manager. Though she was not working on this reviewer’s last visit, online reviews are flush with praise for Desiree’s management, the face to a dive bar with a history so extensive that no one is quite sure when the place opened. Current thinking pegs Rossi’s Liquors as over 50 years old and that’s probably exact enough to establish its tenured credibility.
Rossi’s Liquors is everything a dive bar should be, resistant to change, a bit intimidating at first glance, celebratory inside and presided over by someone who cares about its persistent divey appeal. As River North continues to add a modern dining concept here or a cocktail lounge there, Rossi’s Liquors provides reassurance that the area’s soul remains intact.