Chicago gangsters during Prohibition used Wisconsin as a getaway for kicking back and doing business in quiet, secluded settings. Al Capone even built a big fieldstone house with armed-guard watch towers and an airstrip on 400 acres in the Northwoods, near Couderay, perfect for transporting illegal hootch, storing ammo and hiding out with partners in crime.
When they wanted a night out, they patronized rural supper clubs. Some gained notoriety because of gangster talk, real or fabricated.
Take a window seat on the enclosed, slanted porch that faces the Rock River. During Prohibition, the supper club’s owner doubled as a bootlegger whose moonshine routinely was shipped downstream. Add slot machines, reportedly from the Mafia, and gangsters as customers, including Al Capone’s buddies.
From the outside, this century-old building resembles a tattered dive bar. Inside, it’s homespun, cozy and quirky, with serious farm-to-table cooking by owners who double as farmers.
Car chase and gunfire scenes from the 2009 thriller “Public Enemies” – the saga of John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and other elusive bank robbers – were filmed in Mirror Lake State Park. That’s where this beloved supper club is located, at the end of a remote road, facing the lake.
“By Itself Alone” is the Winnebago translation of “Ishnala.” Owners talk up the site’s beginning as a log cabin trading post but don’t mention underworld connections.
Count bullet holes among evidence of a botched FBI raid here in 1934. “Little Bo” was a resort back then, hosting a gang of 10 mobsters and their molls. Dillinger, Nelson and others were on the run, and the FBI caught wind of their location.
But feds by mistake targeted innocent diners who approached a roadblock, which gave the real gangsters time to bolt in another direction. See what they left behind – clothing to a machine gun – in display cases at the supper club, and know that “Public Enemies” filmed the FBI’s surprise attack here.
“For Fun – For Profit – Visit the Plantation.” That was the slogan when business began in 1938. Walls of slot machines surrounded diners. Craps and horse betting happened in a back room. In the area were acrobats to tap dancers, which turned this part of the Northwoods into a mini Vegas.
For the Plantation, wild times came to a halt only four days after opening. That’s when two gunmen shot a night watchman, taking slot machines and cash from Fourth of July business. It took one year to reopen.
Sandwiched between a sports bar and office building is a cozy, brick and house-like structure with deep gangster roots. When the brother of Chicago mobster Roger “The Terrible” Touhy opened Wonder Bar in 1929, he was expanding the family business – illegal alcohol sales – to the outskirts of Wisconsin’s capital city.
Start your night out with The Godfather: Chambord, vodka and pineapple juice. Dine on the 18-ounce Chicago Chop, pork stuffed with apple-herb dressing. See how the “steak house” and “supper club” experience overlaps.