Chef-driven Irish eatery a triple threat

Above, Sara McKinnon and Chef Corey Grupe at O’Toole’s in Libertyville. – Tina Johansson/theYOUjournal

by Long Hwa-shu

Customers have given a nod of approval for another O’Toole’s which has popped up, this time in Libertyville.

Flush with success in Chicago and Gurnee, the Timothy O’Toole’s Group has opened its third restaurant in downtown Libertyville.

Behind the success story is the husband-wife team that has made the O’Toole’s name synonymous with good food, and a happy spot to have a drink.

“We were looking for a place to expand and Libertyville turned out to be a good fit us after looking at potential places in Milwaukee, Long Grove and Lincolnshire,” said Sara McKinnon. She and her husband Humbert Martinez Jr. are owners of the restaurants.

O’Toole’s of Libertyville at 412 N. Milwaukee Avenue is in the former site of Mickey Finn’s Brewery which has moved a few doors away. After extensive remodeling which she said cost $2 million, the couple opened it in June, an addition which makes downtown Libertyville rivaling Highwood as the dining capital of Lake County.

I go down to farms so that I know where my pork, chickens and other ingredients come from.” – Corey Grupe, executive chef, O’Toole’s in Libertyville

“It’s refined-rustic,” said McKinnon of the interior décor, adding, “We want it to be casual but at the same time upscale.” In fact the first floor women’s restroom has marble sinks.

The restaurant with 10,400 square feet boasts of four sections on two levels with a bar on each floor. It can seat 450 people. The new O’Toole’s, like its sister locations, offers 48 different beers on tap, plus 90 kinds of bottled beer and a variety of craft beer. It boasts an extensive wine list.

Unlike the other two restaurants, both are award-winning, the new one, as stressed by McKinnon, is more “chef-driven.” Corey Grupe, the executive chef, who trained at Kendall College in Evanston, said he prefers local sourcing for freshness and naturalness.

“I go down to farms so that I know where my pork, chickens and other ingredients come from,” said Grupe who, like his boss, went to Libertyville High School although in different classes.


Of course, not everything can be local. The salmon for Jail Island Salmon, the chef’s signature dish, comes from Alaska. But the fish, McKinnon pointed out, is farm-raised on the ocean front. I tried the dish, which was pan-fried with garlic and ginger and served on a bed of edamame and rice. It looked elegant and was delicious. The skin was crispy and the flavors were delightfully pleasant.

Tina Johansson, our editor, ordered a grown-up version of a sloppy Joe made with wild boar. It came with thick dill pickle chips and topped with fried onion rings.

For dessert, we tried chocolate beer cake which the menu says features Dragon’s Milk Imperial Stout. It was served with chocolate ganache and fresh berry coulis. Never mind what it said, the generous slice came like a mountain slope, was sinfully delicious and decadently chocolaty.

“We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves with new menus,” said McKinnon, pointing out the menu changes with the season with specials for holidays.

For St. Patrick’s Day, for instance, it offers Irish nachos, Irish potato soup, Irish pub salad, St. Paddy melt, corned beef poutine, shepherd’s pie and, of course, Irish coffee and green beer.

McKinnon who studied marketing at Loyola University manages the new restaurant. The couple has three girls and one boy, ages 9 to 14. By the way, the O’Toole’s name came from the Chicago restaurant near the Magnificent Mile the couple bought. She is Irish and they liked the name.

Martinez who went to University of Illinois at Urbana balances himself between the Gurnee and Chicago restaurants.

“I love what I do. There are a lot of sleepless nights because I’m always thinking about new menus and how to better train our staff. We want to be the best in town,” she said.

Asked if they plan to open another O’Toole, “We’re always looking,” she said.

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