You might not expect to find an igloo in a small Midwestern town, but you will in Peru, Ill. The Igloo Diner, a local mom-and-pop, has been an icon there since 1937. Rumor has it that when the building was originally under construction, a passerby commented that the big white box looked like an igloo, but that’s just conjecture. No one knows for sure. Current owner Rich Decker says it adds to the diner’s mystique.
Rich and his wife Chris bought the Peru institution about 10 years ago from the family of its original owners, Louis “Louie” and Stephanie “Pat” Mazzorana. The Deckers have strived to preserve the quality of The Igloo’s fare as well as the family atmosphere known and loved by the community since the restaurant’s start during the Great Depression. Rich, in fact, grew up nine blocks away. “First, my parents took me [to The Igloo],” he explains. “Later, I walked or rode my bike. In high school, we would cruise The Igloo.” He and his wife were regular customers before deciding to carry on its tradition.
Both worked in restaurants and eventually decided it was time to do something for themselves. When they purchased the business, Rich says the previous owners helped them during the transition. “They knew we weren’t going to change everything or run it into the ground.” The Deckers haven’t removed any of the original items from the menu. “You walk a fine line between change and staying the same,” he says. “You take little bites at a time.” He laughs that it took two years for them to add a television to the counter for diners.
Rich says the building was a little dated, so they brightened it up with a traditional 1950s motif. “It just seemed to fit the place,” he says. The décor instantly indicates the establishment’s family atmosphere, which doesn’t offer alcohol or gaming. “It’s more than a restaurant,” he says. “It’s the banker sitting next to the auto repairman. It’s four generations of families eating together. It’s a unique place.”
While known for its longevity and atmosphere, the food stands out as well. Last year, Food Network named The Igloo the best diner in Illinois. It has repeatedly won favorite place for lunch and been recognized for their burgers in the News Tribune’s Readers’ Choice Awards, which he describes as humbling and “a little extra pressure.”
The top two sellers are their hand-trimmed, hand-cut, hand-pounded and hand-breaded pork tenderloin and their cheeseburgers. Other favorites include hand-cut fries and homemade chili, which are made fresh daily, and root beer floats. They make their own root beer and use ice cream from a local dairy.
Rich says the old staples remain great, but just to spice things up they began doing a sandwich of the month. “It’s basically reinventing food we already serve. Next up is our buffalo pork tenderloin—we’re adding some heat (buffalo sauce), bleu cheese and Monterey Jack, celery and ranch,” he says.
Another creation is his namesake—the Doubledecker, where he put his two best sellers together—the pork tenderloin and the cheeseburger. “I had an epiphany,” he says. “I always wanted to do a ‘Doubledecker’ because of my last name.”
In addition to the local patrons, a lot of previous residents come in when back for a visit. “People will often stop here first when they come back to grab a pork tenderloin, hand-cut fries and a root beer float,” Rich says. “They’ve all got their favorites.”
Typically, the staff at the diner numbers 22 to 25, and the Deckers hire a lot of local high school students for their first job. The restaurant’s capacity is normally 75. “Pre-COVID, we’d trim, cut, pound and bread 200 tenderloins a day.” Rich admits it’s a lot of work.
Currently, they only offer carryout service. “COVID has taken a bite out of us, no doubt. A year ago, we were at the top of our game,” he says, adding that they have a lot of community support, and they’re doing okay through the hardship. “[We’re] just taking it one day at a time … You grow where and how you can.”
The Deckers love their community. Rich describes Peru as a “small hub” between Rockford and Bloomington, the Quad Cities and Chicago. “It’s about 60 miles from anywhere,” he laughs. He says the “big” small town (along with sister city LaSalle) is relaxed and a great place to raise kids. “People are caring and thoughtful. It’s a nice, quiet, typical Midwest town.”
Rich believes The Igloo Diner is a big part of that. “The Igloo is the one restaurant every town should have. It’s a piece of home for a lot of people.”