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Tavern license awarded to new owner of The Lantern in Naperville

Ownership of The Lantern in downtown Naperville is changing, but traditions that date back nearly six decades are not.

Naperville resident Mike LaCoco said he expects to close on the purchase of the tavern, which has been owned and operated by the Feldott family since 1966, sometime in the next 30 days.

Because the city doesn’t allow licenses to transfer to new owners, the sale of The Lantern was contingent on LaCoco acquiring the same Class C tavern and package store license the owners currently have — a request approved by the Naperville Liquor Commission this week with a 4-2 votes.

Such a license allows the business to serve alcohol without providing food service, although The Lantern does have a kitchen and a menu of appetizers, sandwiches and salads.

Besides The Lantern, only four other Naperville establishments have tavern licenses: the Judd Kendall VFW Post 2873 west of downtown, It’s a Southern Thing on Freedom Drive, and Miss Kitty’s Saloon and White Tavern, both on Ogden Avenue.

LaCoco, who owns investment properties and Naperville Auto Haus on Ogden Avenue, said he wants to keep everything the same, including hiring Teri Feldott as manager.

“I’m more or less new to this, so it’s kind of a turnkey business. I don’t know all the ins and outs of that, but that’s why I’m retaining people to go forward,” he said.

Among the properties LaCoco has owned, he said, was an old Taco Bell on Ogden Avenue that he rented to the founders of Naf Naf Grill.

Although they occasionally struggled at times to pay rent, LaCoco said he had faith they would succeed and now Naf Naf is a 36-restaurant chain with locations in 12 states.

LaCoco said he’s hopeful the city has a similar belief in him.

For Teri Feldott, the sale of the corner bar at Chicago Avenue and Washington Street is bittersweet.

“To be honest, it was devastating to realize that legacy is ending,” she said.

What brings her solace, she said, is knowing LaCoco doesn’t want to change anything and she can help him carry on the traditions that have set The Lantern apart from other downtown businesses.

As someone who was born and raised in Naperville, Feldott said she’s seen the city change over the years for the better. “We’re kind of fancy now, and I love it,” she said.

But The Lantern is a throwback to an earlier era, with a neighborhood bar look and feel that can’t be found elsewhere downtown, she said. “We’re far from fancy,” Feldott said.

“We still have free popcorn and free chili during (Chicago) Bears (football) games on Sunday. We’re very comfortable,” she said.

North Central College alumni bring their families, she said, and kids who came with their parents and got a lollipop from behind the bar are bringing their children to do the same.

Even customers who’ve moved away from Naperville make it a point to visit, she said, and always say the same thing, “It’s just how I remember it.”

Customers watch North Central College play in the NCAA Division III Football National Championship at The Lantern in downtown Naperville in 2021. Popular with sports enthusiasts, the tavern offers free chili on Sundays during Chicago Bears football

Feldott said she hopes LaCoco keeps the restaurant and its traditions alive. Calling it a tavern fits the bill because occasionally they don’t open the kitchen, she said.

On Thanksgiving, for instance, they open early for families and friends to watch the Naperville Noon Lions Turkey Trot 5K runners. “We sell a ton of bloody marys, and then we close and spend a holiday with our families,” Feldott said.

In addition, The Lantern opens early for the Memorial Day and Labor Day parades.

“It’s just a really fun day, and we just serve drinks. We don’t have to worry about food, which is nice. And then we all get to go home,” Feldott said.

Initially, Mayor Steve Chirico and other liquor commission members had concerns about giving a Class C license to someone with no track record in the restaurant or bar industry.

Most establishments in the city receive a Class B license, which requires that the business’ primary purpose be meal service with which alcohol can be served.

Commissioner Mitch Stauffer, who cast one of the dissenting votes, said the city has been very intentional in its avoidance of issuing tavern licenses, particularly downtown.

“We don’t want downtown Naperville to be a Rush Street,” he said.

Stauffer said it appeared the only reason The Lantern had a tavern license was to keep up a tradition a few days a year. “But you’re asking for an eight-lane superhighway license to accommodate a couple of holidays, which doesn’t strike me as fundamental to the business,” he said.

Many of the commissioners’ fears were assumed when LaCoco stressed the management would not change.

Commissioner Karyn Charvat said she was drawn to how the family is standing behind the new ownership. “I feel like the family really knows this business model the best for the past 57 years,” she said.

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The Naperville Liquor Commission granted a tavern license this week to Mike LaCoco, the new owner of The Lantern in downtown Naperville.

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