LINCOLN PARK — Longtime patrons will gather at Augie’s Booze and Schmooze one last time on Tuesday before the beloved bar closes for several months.
The bar at 1721 W. Wrightwood Ave. opened in 1994, when the neighborhood was more industrial than residential. Since then, it has been a space for softball teams, retired neighbors, holiday enthusiasts and families to connect, toss a volleyball around, drink a beer and raise money for Misericordia.
The pub was put up for sale in April, and longtime owner and neighborhood pillar Roger “Ozzie” Babilla died a month later. Its liquor license expires Tuesday, and the bar, under new owner Isabelle Nigro, will start an overhaul that will take nearly a year to finish.
A larger bar, new menu and an event space all are part of the plans, Nigro said, but the intent is to keep the Augie’s vibe. But for now, last call is Tuesday afternoon.
“This isn’t a dive bar. This isn’t Wicker Park. This is a neighborhood bar,” regular Justin Smith said. “Everybody’s welcome here. We’ve never been in here and not had a good time.”
‘This Is A Regular’s Bar‘
The area around Augie’s looks a lot different since it opened at the corner of Wrightwood Avenue and Altgeld Street. Nearby factories have closed and expensive homes have been developed in their place — but Augie’s stayed the same.
“Not much changed, and that’s the glory about [Augie’s],” said Dave Duran, who has been going to Augie’s since its doors opened. “It’s got that character that people love.”
Jami Duffy has been working as a bartender and manager at Augie’s since the beginning. She and customer-turned-bartender Tina Morales said most bars in the neighborhood have become “Instagram-y and corporate,” something you would never get from Augie’s. The two see Augie’s as similar to “Cheers.”
“When certain people walk in, they sit in a certain chair and you put that TV on,” Duffy said. “This is a regular’s bar.”
Duffy said it’s long been a space for anyone and where everyone respected each other.
“I know girls that come in here and always say, ‘I always feel comfortable when I come here.’ You didn’t feel like you were in a bar where people were gonna bother you,” Duffy said. “I don’t think our guys would stand for it.”
Augie’s was steeped in rituals.
The bar held summer volleyball tournaments, with players enjoying games over buckets of beers. If a player hit a ball into the adjacent dog day care, their team had to do a shot of Malört.
“And if you hit the ball over, I swear your team is gonna beat you up,” Duffy joked.
Years before pop-up bars in nearby Wrigleyville, Augie’s ruled the holiday bar scene with its vibrant Christmas decorations. Babilla compared the tradition to “Marshall Field’s in the old days.”
A model train runs on tracks above the bar. That was Babilla’s “baby,” Duffy said. It even has an Augie’s logo emblazoned on its side.
“We had really nice decorations … stuff you would see at your grandma’s,” Duffy said. “We’d have shuttles come, and they’d be waiting in a row to come in for the decorations.”
The holidays at Augie’s were “exhilarating” to Duran.
“This place would be packed with people from grade school and high school and college,” Duran said. “People would fly in from different states and [say], ‘Hey! You’re gonna be at Augie’s Saturday night?’ It was a great place to come and rekindle that fire.”
Augie’s was a home for people without nearby family for the holidays, too, Duffy said. She would cook a turkey on Thanksgiving, and patrons would gather with side dishes to eat together.
Nigro and her husband, Michael, plan to close on the space in January. The suburban duo, who have a background in Chicago-area restaurants and event spaces, are close friends with the bar’s managers and helped when staffing was low.
“Our plan is to revive it, keep the same kind of cool neighborhood vibe it has, yet expand on the restaurant portion of it, clean it up a bit,” Nigro said.
Nigro envisions a spiffed-up menu with “higher-end bar food.” She wants to extend the bar and turn the volleyball court into an outdoor patio for additional seating.
Nigro also plans on turning the upstairs of the building into an event space, but she wants to keep one of the apartments. The process of permitting and renovations could take many months, going into late 2022 or even early 2023, she said.
“There’s very few of those left in Lincoln Park — those corner spots that are in those residential areas,” Nigro said. “It could have been redeveloped into more townhomes or more condos, and I think it’s very important to keep a restaurant and bar right there.”
‘It’s Hard To Work Every Day Without Him‘
The man behind Augie’s is remembered for his gruff persona and his warm heart.
A lifelong North Sider, Babilla owned and operated a handful of bars over the years and ran Augie’s for the greater part of his life. He also was known for his fine cars, which would be parked right outside the bar when the gutter wasn’t flooded. A favorite of his was a low-seated Jaguar.
And when the gutter did flood, Babilla would set out rubber ducks to bob in the city water, calling it “Lake Ozzie.”
Babilla was as much of a philanthropist as he was a local barman. Each summer, he would host a luau-themed party with live music on the volleyball court, tropical food abound and tropical attire — all for the benefit of Misericordia.
He was also known for his love of 16-inch softball. He organized and sponsored teams for decades, even winding up in the Chicago 16-Inch Softball Hall of Fame.
But Babilla was most known for was his ability to bring a community together at his corner bar. He’d often be spotted in a Hawaiian shirt, sitting out in the summer sun on one of the bar’s yard chairs.
“Oz really thought that this place had a lot of value,” Morales said.
When he died, “It was very disheartening. It was like it was like losing a father,” Duran said. “He was our staple here in the neighborhood. He had an open heart towards everyone and anyone who came into his establishment.”
Operating the bar for almost three decades together, Duffy said she and Babilla bantered and teased each other constantly as they became closer friends over the years.
“It’s hard to work every day without him,” Duffy said, tearing up.
With the pandemic, the Augie’s crew hasn’t been able to decorate for the holidays like they normally would. The train is still running, though.
“And I’m telling you right now it’s heartbreaking for me,” Duffy said. “I answer the phone and people ask me ‘Are you decorated for Christmas yet?’ and I’m like, ‘No, not this year. Ozzie passed away, we’re not, but look forward to next year and hopefully the new people carry that on because it really was a tradition.'”
With Augie’s starting a new chapter, its stalwarts said they hope they’ll still find much of what made them fall in love with the corner bar for nearly three decades.
“I want to come back when it reopens,” Duffy said.
“And just to be proud,” Morales added. “Like a legacy.”
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