Raise your mugs: Rebuilt Illini Inn set to reopen

Raise your mugs: Rebuilt Illini Inn set to reopen

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CHAMPAIGN — With opening day a week away, owner Chris Saunders is ready to reopen the Illini Inn.

Workers were putting the finishing touches on the bar Tuesday and planned to install the Illini Inn's 16 draft-beer taps today.

"Wednesday the 22nd is the plan," Saunders said. "We've got our final health inspection tomorrow, and we've got a few city inspections to do, but we're getting there."

The renovated bar at Fourth and Daniel streets is no longer the dive that was there since 1960, first as the Midway Cafe, then as the Illini Inn beginning in 1970.

"This is more of a pub style," Saunders said. "We're keeping a lot of the same traditions, but it's definitely spruced up."

Saunders kept the Illini Inn name, as well as the popular mug club.

"Josh, what's our number on mug clubs?" Saunders asked general manager Josh Pearson on Tuesday while giving The News-Gazette a tour.

"94,283," Pearson said.

"We'll be at 100,000 members, hopefully by the end of the school year," Saunders said. "That's our goal."

He still has the books listing everyone's number, and the process for joining the club will remain the same: chugging a beer, ringing a bell and signing a card.

"You've got to remember your number to get your card back at the end of the night," Saunders said. "We'll continue the same mug-club traditions."

The new Illini Inn has a basement, main floor and mezzanine, along with a new kitchen serving pizza, sandwiches and other bar food.

It will also serve some local craft beer, such as Riggs (Urbana) and J.T. Walker's (Mahomet), as well as the cheap beer it was previously known for.

"We'll of course have affordable college beers," Saunders said.

But gone are the notorious bathrooms, replaced with clean (for now) ones.

"They were primitive," Saunders said.

Saunders bought the Illini Inn and its parking lot in June 2016 for $1.04 million, running it for a year before shutting it down in June 2017 for renovations.

While some people may miss the dive-bar feel, Saunders said there weren't many of those customers in its final year before demolition.

"Before it was remodeled, we didn't have very much business. It was dead," he said. "People have said they loved the place, but they didn't ever come in."

But for opening day, the Illini Inn is expecting a crowd.

"We've been a little bit overwhelmed with the amount of emails and calls and excitement we're getting, so we're kind of preparing to be slammed when we first open," he said.

Saunders considered just remodeling the building, which was built around the 1910s or 1920s as the Midway Confectionery candy shop.

But "the building was in really poor shape," he said. "It needed to go. It was just not up to code in any way. It's seen its days, it had a good run, but it was time for something new."

The city had to approve a special-use permit in 2017 to renovate the Illini Inn, which has always been zoned for residential use but has been allowed to remain a tavern.

With the renovations, Saunders rebuilt the Illini Inn where it was and constructed a seven-floor apartment building around it.

His company, Green Street Realty, will manage the building now known as the Midway, a reference to its original name.

"It looks like we put a newer building on top of an older building, but everything in here is brand new," he said.

The 22 apartments are 100 percent leased at prices of $850 to $1,100 a person per month, Saunders said, and residents are scheduled to move in Monday.

"It's expensive," he said. "There seems to be a market for new stuff. We try to price it competitively, and still be new."

"I tried to be as cheap as I could and see how little I could spend. That was the goal," Saunders said about his own college days. "These college kids ... it's nuts."

The apartments range from one to three bedrooms, with floor-to-ceiling windows on the seventh floor.

They're fully furnished, with stainless-steel refrigerators, large flat-screen TVs and sleek furniture.

They're nice apartments, but he acknowledged they could be a bit noisy.

"They kind of know what they're signing up for, for the most part," Saunders said.

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