The weather outside may be frightful, but on the outdoor patio at Casa Bonita in downtown Libertyville, it's a balmy 80 degrees.
Thanks to the standing and hanging propane-fueled heaters by each of the patio's 14 tables, diners can enjoy their margaritas and steak relleno in any kind of weather. There are even floor space heaters to keep customers' feet toasty.
"People love to sit out there during the snow," said Pat Patterson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Alicia. It gives people the chance to feel like they're in warm Mexico, Patterson said.
The year-round outdoor seating is just one of the many things Casa Bonita is offering to continue to grow its business. Originally founded in Waukegan in 1989 by Patterson's in-laws, Horacio and Isabel Lopez, Casa Bonita relocated to Libertyville nearly four years ago.
"It ended up being really busy right from the start," said Patterson. He and Alicia grew up in Libertyville, graduated from Libertyville High School and still live in the village.
In addition to its prominent location on the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Lake Street, Patterson said Casa Bonita offers excellent customer service, upscale Mexican dishes and its famous tequila bar with 150 types of tequila.
"Opening here in Libertyville, we wanted to be sure everything was exceptional," said Patterson.
The outdoor patio is often full, as is the indoor seating. The restaurant seats a total of 220 people, and employs 50 people in the summer months and 40 in the winter. Patterson aims to hire staff members who can all get along, which makes for a positive working environment, happy employees and a pleasant dining experience.
Just what are people enjoying when they visit Casa Bonita? Definitely the margaritas.
"We sell $700,000 a year in margaritas," said Patterson, noting that the restaurant goes through 30 cases of tequila a week, on average. Casa Bonita, he said, is one of Milagro Tequila company's top clients.
The restaurant's tequila bar is the largest in Illinois, and is among the top 10 in the country, Patterson added. There are even shots that cost about $50.
"We sell a lot of those," said Patterson, noting that customers who select those are often doing so to celebrate.
"People come here for the margaritas and the food," he said.
Casa Bonita prides itself on serving the freshest ingredients. The limes are fresh-squeezed each day. The pineapple margarita includes freshly-diced pureed pineapple. And the "simple syrup is made right here in our kitchen," said Patterson.
There's a special margarita every week—and staff members get to sample the new flavor before it becomes a special. A specific employee makes all of the mixes daily.
"He's like a chef himself," said Patterson.
Adult Root Beer?
The restaurant's newest drink offerings include craft beers from the 5 Rabbit Brewery in Chicago and an adult root beer, appropriately called the Not Your Father's Root Beer.
"It's a really great drink," said Patterson, adding that it has 10 percent alcohol in it. There's also Amber grains, malt, molasses, honey, applewood-aged vanilla bean, wintergreen, ginger, licorice and hops.
When it comes to the food, fresh ingredients are the key.
"Everything is made fresh here," said Patterson. "We don't cut corners."
The chefs cook whole chickens, and they don't buy steaks pre-cut, instead opting to butcher the beef themselves. Seafood is purchased fresh only from dedicated seafood merchants.
Among the most popular dishes is the Steak Relleno, which features a tenderized, marinated skirt steak stuffed with shrimp, mushrooms, green pepper, onion and Chihuahua cheese. The Camarones Acapulco, or Acapulco Shrimp, is also quite popular, Patterson said. It features butterflied Gulf shrimp sautéed in a spicy garlic butter sauce. It's served with a rosemary-garlic-wine sauce for dipping.
Year-Round Outdoor Dining
Diners can enjoy these signature dishes and margaritas outside year-round. Plexiglass was installed using custom-made stainless steel brackets that Patterson designed. The propane-fueled heaters, along with the floor space heaters, resulting in each table putting out about 100,000 British thermal units of heat. Patterson said it costs just $10 per table, per night to keep the outdoor patio at 70 to 80 degrees.
Though the patio is mainly heated on the busy Friday and Saturday nights, the heaters can be turned on as needed during the week if customers want to dine outside. Those heaters warm up the tables and seats, keeping diners nice and toasty.
Patterson expects the patio to be especially busy on New Year's Eve, so make your reservations now!