Restaurant Profile – These brothers turned their amusement park into a wild-west steakhouse and banquet center, and then kept expanding. Learn how a new menu and banquet spaces make this more than a wild west outlet.
When Mike and Randy Donley opened Old West Steakhouse & Saloon 13 years ago, 8512 S. Union Road, Union, Ill., they had no idea what they were getting into.
That’s because they’d spent most of the previous four decades running Donley’s Wild West Town, a western-themed amusement park with a museum, attractions and entertainment.
The Donleys found themselves in the food business after they fulfilled a customer request to hold a party in their barn. In time, they built a second hall to accommodate even more events. The Wild West Town was doing a brisk business, which meant hundreds of hungry customers pouring through the turnstiles. That’s when the brothers decided to convert the first banquet hall into a restaurant.
“We needed to feed the tourists,” Mike says. “This was never our grand plan. It just evolved over time.”
To move customers along quickly, Old West Steakhouse began as a buffet-style restaurant. But the cost and volume of food nearly did the business in, especially during slow winter months. So the brothers made the difficult decision to turn their business into a sit-down restaurant. “The first few years, we struggled trying to find our niche,” Mike says. “It was two different restaurants and two different crowds.”
The restaurant did find its niche and now is thriving, thanks not only to guests from the Wild West Town located next door, but also a dinner crowd, made up of customers from throughout McHenry County.
The Old West Steakhouse is known for southwestern-style food, certified Angus prime steaks and fresh seafood. Appetizers include prairie fire chicken wings and Santé Fe tenders. Burgers have fun names, such as the Hungry Cowboy and the Sheriff Bart’s Hoosegow burger. There is the Donley’s Cowboy Steak, a 10-ounce top sirloin cut; the Cattleman’s Pot Roast; and crispy fried shrimp and catfish. Save room for tasty desserts, including crème brûlée cheesecake and carrot cake.
The 200-seat restaurant received a boost a year ago, when Executive Chef John Hennessy joined the staff. Hennessy comes with an impressive resume – he’s worked at Boulder Ridge Country Club in Lake in the Hills, and owned Montarra in Algonquin and Hennessy’s Steak & Seafood in Elgin.
“He’s made all the difference, in terms of food and presentation,” Mike says. “He’s taken us to a whole new level, from a hamburger-and-fries joint to a very nice restaurant.”
Hennessy is in the process of tweaking the menu and wine list. Additions include southwest crab cakes; peppered seared ahi tuna on a tortilla chip; a berry salad; and hazelnut-crusted walleye with wild rice, the chef’s signature dish.
“I always wanted to work here,” Hennessy says. “There’s so much potential. My goal is to make the Old West Steakhouse a dining destination.”
It’s already the place to go for special events. A private dining room seats 70, and a large banquet hall holds 400. The restaurant is decorated with western artifacts like artwork, whiskey stills, even a stuffed buffalo – a popular backdrop for photos – garnered by the Donleys, passionate collectors who travel the country in search of rare finds. The mahogany bar, rescued from a defunct Houston tavern, is also a popular gathering spot. There’s plenty of space on the grounds to hold company picnics for up to 2,000 guests, and the Donleys are renovating the bar area and will soon add live entertainment.
For the Donleys, hosting high school dances, wedding receptions, birthday parties and other special occasions never gets old. In fact, it’s why they’ve come to appreciate the hospitality business.
“Our guests treat us like family,” Mike says. “That always makes us feel good.”
Starting on Memorial Day, Wild West Steakhouse is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Mon. through Thurs. and until 10 p.m. on weekends. The restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday during the winter. ❚