by Joey Crandall, firstname.lastname@example.org Follow @joeycrandall
GARDNERVILLE, Nev. – The news is that Chicago Mike’s Pizza will open next week in the space that Pizza Barn had occupied in the Stratton Center on Main Street for somewhere around 30 years.
But that’s not the story.
The story is … well, the story is about a dream. Two dreams really. And how even when a dream gets put on hold indefinitely, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. Or how you can work and work toward one dream only to realize your real calling is in the very thing you’ve been doing to pay the bills just to keep the dream alive.
This is a story about pizza. And a family that came to the Valley long before many of us did, only to realize the timing just wasn’t quite right.
Chicago Mike’s Pizza was supposed to open in Gardnerville 42 years ago.
And that’s where this story begins.
“My dad, he had this dream of opening a pizza place near Lake Tahoe,” Gina Haase said.
“We loved the area,” Mike Neuens said. “We came to Lake Tahoe for vacations. It was really a beautiful place.”
Haase was 7 years old when Neuens, her father, packed up the family – her brother, sisters and mother – and shipped out from Chicago.
“We arrived in June of 1973,” she said with a laugh. “We got here on my birthday. He had this dream of opening a pizza joint like you’d see in Chicago with the red gingham checked table cloth and everything.
“We left everything in Chicago to come here. He looked and looked and looked to find the right spot, but he couldn’t find it. Basically, it ended up being that we packed back up and went back to Chicago.
“He tucked that dream away, but he never gave it up.”
Years went by. Decades even. Neuens settled into a career running an architectural firm in Chicago.
Haase grew up and went to school to get a degree in accounting, paying the bills with a job in Chicago’s famed Carlo’s Restaurant, run by Carlo Lorenzetti.
She graduated and began working in the accounting field. But it just didn’t feel right.
“I worked for a couple of months, having just gotten my degree, and I remember telling my dad, ‘Dad, this just isn’t for me,’” she said. “All through college I’d waited tables and worked at Carlo’s, learning all the aspects of the restaurant business.
“I knew I wanted to work in management inside full-service so I went back to school to learn that side of it.”
So followed 22 years of restaurant management, including helping to get Logan’s Roadhouse off the ground.
“All through it,” she said. “Pizza was still my dream.”
Neuens never lost sight of Carson Valley, and he built a house in the foothills after retiring.
Haase and her husband were living in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., when the 9-11 tragedy hit.
“We lived in a secure air space,” she said. “We weren’t even able to get our children out of daycare that day. When you live right by the Capitol, you have to do what they tell you to do. But it’s something that really troubled us, to the point where we ended up moving an hour and a half away from D.C. and commuting to work every day.”
It went that way, for six more years, before Haase and her husband came out on their wedding anniversary to visit Chicago Mike and see the Lake.
“We were here for the weekend, and I remember distinctly sitting in the Bucket Of Blood Saloon in Virginia City, looking out the big picture window,” she said. “My husband just said, ‘Let’s sell everything and come out here.’ So we did.
“I wanted to be closer to Dad, we wanted our kids to be in a good school district. It was a good fit.”
Haase managed the AM/PM near Lampe Park in Gardnerville for seven years. Neuens enjoyed retirement.
They’d have family get-togethers on Saturday nights.
And it was great.
“We’d sit around and he’d always say, ‘Someday, we’ll do it. We’ll open that pizza place. I’m not getting any younger, you know.’”
He even had the spot all picked out. It was the perfect size and location, right in the middle of town. Had the right look and everything.
But it was occupied. And it just happened to be occupied by the longest-standing pizza place in town.
So Neuens, now 73 years old, put the dream back in park.
Last fall, Haase’s phone rang. It was Chicago Mike.
“There’s a ‘For Lease’ sign,” he said. “That’s our sign.”
Indeed, Pizza Barn was in the process of moving its operation off of Johnson Lane (and, incidentally, has since changed its name to Pizza Farm).
“We came out and took a look at it,” Haase said. “It was going to be a lot of work, but we knew we could do it.
“We joined forces, father and daughter, to open it up. It means so much to me because I want to see him live out his dream and be a part of the legacy of something he has wanted to do his entire life.
“We met with the Strattons, worked out a deal on the lease and haven’t really stopped moving since.”
They refinished the walls, repainted, ripped out the carpeting and replaced it, tore out the booths and replaced them. Nearly the entire interior of the building is new.
It has the checkered tablecloths, just as Neuens had dreamed, and a double-decker conveyor-belt oven, tuned for the highest efficiency and consistency.
And the food. Get Chicago Mike and his daughter talking about the food, and you’ll see them really start to light up.
“You can have five pizzas with the exact same ingredients right next to each other,” Haase said. “But how you build it, that changes everything. Chicago-style, people think Chicago-style means deep dish, and Chicago did create the deep dish, but it’s really known for crispy cracker-thin crust, cut in square pieces. The ingredients go under the cheese.
“This will be authentic Chicago-style pizza.”
Everything from the sauce to the dough is made from scratch. Many of the ingredients are being provided by the famed Vienna Beef in Chicago, including the hot dogs.
They feature a 20-inch family size pizza.
“We had to get custom boxes made for it,” Haase said with a laugh. “Where I grew up, family size meant you could feed a whole family with it. When we first moved here, we got a ‘family size’ pizza and they brought us a large. We’re not doing that here.”
They also have an authentic Italian beef sandwich, served dry (with Au jus on the side), wet (Au jus on the sandwich) or soaked (the sandwich dipped in Au jus … they serve with extra napkins).
And a Chicago hot dog – Vienna Beef frank on a poppy seed bun with relish, mustard, diced onion, tomato wedge, dill pickle spear, sport peppers and a dash of celery salt.
“No ketchup,” Haase said. “You go to a hot dog joint in Chicago, they won’t give you ketchup.”
There are desserts, like the sweet potato maple layered cheesecake and Tiramisu, and appetizers like the Grit Stix (grits and pimento cheese combined with bacon aioli sauce).
And of course the pizza – thin crust and deep dish.
“We’re so excited to open up and see what happens,” Haase said. “We’ve really been shooting for Spring Break, April 7, a lot of people have been asking us to get ourselves to that point so they can order some pizza.”
Chicago Mike’s Pizza is located at 1544 U.S. Highway 395 North in Gardnerville. They can be reached at 775-392-1638.
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