Getting rid of the rust (belt), Janesville rises to serve dining, shopping, and all weekend items

Anthony Bourdain inspiring a fundraising event along the Rock River on Saturday.

If you had to guess where in Wisconsin you could celebrate Anthony Bourdain’s Day, the famous chef’s birthday on June 25, with a “Negronis for Tony” fundraiser, would you choose Janesville?

Mostly not. When most people in Wisconsin last paid attention to Janesville, national media announced her death after General Motors shut down its assembly plant here in December 2008, just as the country was falling into the Great Recession.

But the funny thing is, Janesville isn’t dead, and at least downtown along the Rock River is more trendy than it ever was. This is where you’ll find a sandwich bar, where on Saturdays you can sip on a bitter Italian aperitif to salute Bourdain, the chef and author who died in 2018.

The restaurant’s owners, Joanne and Richard Nino, donate all proceeds from Saturday to HealthNet of Rock County, to help it provide free and reduced-cost mental health services. You can raise a Negroni toast to a giant mural of Bourdain, which peeks out from the wall.

Joanne Nino once met Bourdain at a trade show when she was representing Madison chocolatier Gil Ambrose.

“I was so nervous, and he was so cute,” she said. After his death by suicide, she said she found it difficult to watch his travel shows such as “Parts Unknown”.

A mural of legendary chef and travel writer Anthony Bourdain looks down from the wall of the Sandwich Bar in Janesville. (Photo by Susan Lambert Smith)

“It felt like a personal loss and I think it was for a lot of people,” she said. “He was very human and eloquent. He was really important to a lot of people.”

If Bourdain was still around, I could have seen him host a special party about the rebirth of Janesville.

Sandwich Bar is one of three establishments Ninos owns along a mural-bright stretch of Main Street from a festival called Art Infusion that brings muralists into town every fall. Their upscale American restaurant is called Lark, which opened in 2017. During the pandemic, they opened the Lark Market, to keep kitchen staff working while no one was eating out.

Joanne and Richard Nino own three businesses along Main Street in Gainesville: Sandwich Bar, Lark, and Lark Market. (Photo by Susan Lambert Smith)

The store has a variety of wines and liqueurs for making craft cocktails, and popular Wisconsin brands like Hook’s Cheese, Potter’s Crackers, and Gail Ambrosius chocolates.

“We decided to stock up on things we love that we’re tired of having to drive to Madison or Rockford to buy them,” she said.

Nino said Janesville’s grieving reputation wasn’t entirely wrong. She came to town in 2008 when the SSM was building a hospital here. She remembers when Janesville St. Mary’s Hospital received 13,000 applications for 300 job opportunities.

“People have written Janesville for a long time and with justification,” she said. “Leaving GM was a wake-up call.”

Even during GM’s glory days, the city was known as “Chainsville” because you can find every fast food chain known to Americans near I-90 intersections.

Neeno says things started to change in downtown Janesville in his mid-teens, when the Studer family bought and began renovating Block 42 of Main Street. Today it is home to The Bodyshees on Block 42, which includes a coffee and sandwich shop, an olive oil shop and a specialty kitchen, and a salad restaurant called SoChopped. You can have your lunch and eat on the deck outside along the river and watch the swans paddling under the dam.

Nearby is a wisteria hanging entrance that marks the entrance to the Sugar Exchange, an old fashion candy store.

Sugar exchange candy store in Gainesville. (Photo by Susan Lambert Smith)

Another downtown redevelopment family, the Graffts family, purchased the Empire Second Building that housed a church and Masonic hall on the top floor, and retail stores at street level. They rehabilitated and reopened in 2015 as a wedding and event space called The Venue.

Up the street, Genisa wine bar features an Italian menu and al fresco dining. There is event space on the second floor and a luxurious loft on the third floor of the historic Italianate building. Across the street is the modern style Drafthouse, where you’ll find dozens of beers on tap. Janesville’s sushi restaurant, Sandee’s Thai Fusion, is also located on Main Street.

And if you want to go on a date with dinner, you shouldn’t miss the oldest Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin, located across the river at 214 W Milwaukee St. Flood. The 100-year-old Cozy Inn is the oldest Chinese restaurant in Wisconsin and one of the oldest in the country. Upstairs you’ll find curved mid-century banquettes and old-fashioned Cantonese food.

So immune, how should your lunch wear out? Well, Janesville is home to one of the major park showcases in the state. The Rotary Botanical Gardens includes 20 acres of plants displaying 26 garden styles ranging from Japanese to French and English formal cottage. Gardens are familiar to listeners of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller Show, as former horticultural director Make Dwyer is a frequent guest on Garden Talk segments. During the winter, Rotary Park attracts visitors from across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois for the Holiday Light Show, which displays more than a million lights throughout the park.

The Tallman House, a restored Italianate mansion that hosted Abraham Lincoln, offers two tours – a traditional historic tour and a view of Victorian life from the eyes of the servant class.

There are also some great shopping opportunities downtown. Velvet and Tulle has women’s clothing, and there are Classy Rascals right around the corner for those occasions kids must dress up. And if you’re a bargain shopper, Carousel Consignments is a treasure chest.

Part of Birth of New Janesville includes a new Town Square, complete with a children’s splash board and Festival Street, located along the river. It hosts a farmers market every Saturday morning.

“Music at the Marv” is a free event Tuesday at the Marvin W. Roth Community Pavilion located in Courthouse Park along Main Street in Janesville. (Photo by Susan Lambert Smith)

If you’re in town on a Tuesday, don’t miss the free “Music at the Marv,” the Marvin W. Roth Community Pavilion located in Courthouse Park along Main Street. On Wednesday nights in the summer, Rock Aqua Jays put on a water ski show on the river.

And don’t leave Janesville this time of year without a basket of fresh berries from Skelly’s Farm Market.

Nino says that when she was talking to visitors to the restaurant and learning they had made the trip from Madison, she was amazed, something she attributes to an “inferiority complex” that developed during tough times for the city. Now she is happy to show off her city.

“I’m really proud of Janesville,” she said. “We’re really stepping things up.”

So, if you’ve been harboring a picture of Janesville as the Rust Belt was, it might be time to hop in the car and see what happens. After all, Bourdain himself advocated travel as a way to rid ourselves of outdated notions.

“I always get the idea that I’m wrong, or that I’ll have to revise my mind,” Bourdain once said. “I feel good most of the time; sometimes it’s really painful and embarrassing.”

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