Igor Russo and Ryan Rosenthal, co-owners of The Onion Roll, 6935 W. North Ave. in Oak Park, set out to build a better bagel for the restaurant they took over eight years ago. The bagel making venture is not something the duo entered lightly — they’ve made a commitment to craft the best artisan bagels possible as part of a plan to update their New York style diner for the 21st century.
“This is a 65-year-old business, and we want to build on that history,” said Russo. “To let all of this wither away would be wrong. We want to bring the Onion Roll to a new level to honor the legacy started here many years ago. Our bagels are a part of that.”
The business partners met in physical therapy school 24 years ago and decided to open a chiropractic clinic together upon graduation. The duo purchased the building that housed The Onion Roll and opened Advanced Physical Medicine in a neighboring storefront. Though they never intended to own The Onion Roll, the opportunity to take over the business presented itself in 2013.
“We work next door, so we became regular lunch customers at The Onion Roll,” said Rosenthal. “We are both Jewish and I have New York connections, so we decided to purchase the business when the former owner was looking to retire.”
They relied on longtime staff members and Russo’s father, Leo, to keep The Onion Roll going strong for several years. While they maintained the business to keep longtime customers satisfied, Russo and Rosenthal were making plans to take The Onion Roll to the next level.
Step one? Enter the bagel business.
The business owners wanted to offer handmade bagels featuring the crispy crust, spongy crumb, and simple chew synonymous with the New York Style bagels found on street corners throughout New York City. After doing extensive research and taking trips to the East Coast, Russo and Rosenthal hired a bagel consultant to get their bakery operation up and running.
“I am like a sick bagel fanatic,” said Rosenthal. “Growing up in New York there was a bagel shop on every corner, but our bagels have turned me into some kind of monster.”
Located behind the restaurant, the recently constructed bakery capitalizes on available technologies to make superior bagels. The Onion Roll owners added a water filtration system designed to chemically alter the pH levels in the water to make it more similar to the New York water credited with making bagels from the Big Apple better than others. Russo and Rosenthal are not aware of another small-scale bagel shop in the area making use of similar technology.
The recipes and cooking methods the consultant brought to the Onion Roll are closely guarded secrets, but the all-natural bagels go through a three-day proof before being boiled and baked in a large capacity industrial oven.
Melissa Matheus, head chef in charge of bagel production, learned directly from the bagel consultant and brings considerable experience of her own to the Onion Roll. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, she participated in the Food and Wine Festival and worked in the kitchens at Disney and Epcot before making her way to the North Avenue restaurant. She is a month into their new bagel production schedule and is pleased with the product consistency she is achieving. She and her modest kitchen staff churn out up to 800 bagels in 15 varieties per day.
Bagels containing potential allergens, like their signature “Onion Roll” bagels featuring a golden hued egg bagel topped with onion and poppy seeds, are hand-shaped to avoid cross contamination. A powerful divider-former helps to shape bagels made from a standard dough. No matter the flavor, a bagel from the Onion Roll boasts a signature sheen, notable blistering on the exterior, and makes audible crackle when torn in half. The bagels are already proving to be buzz worthy with folks taking to social media to declare “upgraded Onion Roll bagels are the real deal” and praise their “chewy, but not dense interior.”
In the future Matheus, Russo and Rosenthal would like to use the bakery to craft the challah and rye breads used at the Onion Roll. The business owners are already exploring potential partnerships with local businesses, including Kribi Coffee in Forest Park, to get their new bagels out to a broader audience. Bagels at the Onion Roll, however, are designed to sell out. Leftovers are turned into chips that are served as a snack to dine-in guests.
“Building the bagel bakery was an expensive venture, but this isn’t about money for us.” said Russo. “This is part of our plan to revamp the entire building.”
Russo showed off renderings of a reimagined Onion Roll. Down the road, the New York style diner is destined to have major cosmetic adjustments to the facade and interior, but the design retains the whimsical counter style seating and timeless dine in setting loyal customers expect. The Jewish style diner menu, including chocolate egg creams, matzo ball soup and corned beef sandwiches will remain intact for years to come.
“We have spent years getting to know our regular customers and working hard not to offend anyone with any changes we make.” said Russo. “We just want new families and younger people to experience the tradition of the Onion Roll. We want to be on North Avenue for generations to come.”