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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2005 08:31 pm

The sporting life

Photo by Nick Steinkamp

I must admit, when Tom Kelty Jr., owner of Sammy's Sports Bar and Grill, told me last summer that he was planning to serve food at his downtown bar, I didn't have high expectations. He described the menu as "typical bar food," which, to me, usually means various fried sticks and a hot wing or two.

So when I had lunch at Sammy's recently, I was surprised, for many reasons: the variety of menu offerings, the hearty portions, the quality of the food. The popular watering hole offers much more than just appetizers and sandwiches to scarf down while chugging a few beers and watching a ball game. Of course, some items on the menu are perfectly suited for that purpose: beer-battered cheese bites, jalapeño poppers, fried onion slivers, mushrooms, chili-cheese fries, and hot wings. The best of the bunch may be the unusual brat bites, large chunks of bratwurst that are hand-dipped in beer batter and deep-fried. They're tasty, and I imagine they're even better when accompanied by a malt beverage.

"Our food's not just hot wings, hamburgers, and chili," says Kelty, who praises chef Tim Hay for bringing a touch of sophistication and culinary expertise to the menu. The bar, which opened in May, began serving food three months later. "People have been pleasantly surprised at the quality and quantity," he says.

The menu consists of soup, chili, salads, and burgers. But the interesting sandwiches are what make Sammy's special. The credit for that goes to Kelty, who designed most of the menu (including some of his mother's recipes, such as the chicken salad), and Hay, who formerly worked at Augie's Front Burner and Tuscany. Offerings range from the basics -- walleye, grilled ham and cheese, Philly beefsteak, pork tenderloin -- to the more refined Monte Cristo, a deep-fried sandwich made with ham, smoked turkey, and Swiss cheese.

I chose the Chicken Bistro, consisting of a kaiser roll layered with a grilled chicken breast, sautéed mushrooms, ham, Swiss cheese, and the house bistro sauce. The layers of ingredients melded to yield a delicious and hearty sandwich. It was served with a mountain of thick french fries.

My dining companions ordered the chicken tortilla soup and the pot-roast sandwich. The cheese-based soup was thick and rich, with small chunks of chicken, and topped with a scattering of shredded tortilla chips. Peppers provided a nice lingering heat.

The pot-roast sandwich has become something of a signature sandwich for the pub, says manager Marianne Groeteke. The meat, which was amazingly tender, was piled high on grilled sourdough bread along with sautéed mushrooms and onions and melted Cheddar cheese and served with a side of creamy horseradish sauce. Kelty says the pot roast is simmered for several hours with mushrooms to ensure its tenderness, and the technique works. The side of coleslaw was creamy but oddly sweet.

Lunch specials, offered each day between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., include an all-you-can-eat walleye basket for $5.95 on Fridays. You never forget that Sammy's is a sports bar -- the red walls are covered with posters, signs, jerseys, and pictures (I could see 7 of the 15 televisions from the booth where I dined) -- but it gives the term "bar food" a good name.

Sammy's Sports Bar and Grill is located at 217 S. Fifth St.; 217-789-9803. Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-midnight Sun. Food is available 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Sat. and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun. Carryout available. Appetizers are half-price 5-6:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

Choosing to lose

A low-fat diet combined with daily aerobic exercise is the premise behind the Choose to Lose weight-loss program being offered at the Prairie Heart Institute at St. John's Hospital. Participants meet weekly for 10 weeks.

The cost of the program is $200, which includes $50 worth of materials. To register, call 217-527-5537.

Get fit and fed

Now you can eat a panini sandwich after doing your Pilates.

Caffe Panini, 231 S. Sixth St., has opened a second location at FitClub South, 3631 S. Sixth St.

The menu features Italian sandwiches, coffee drinks, smoothies, and salads.

Hours are 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, and 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday.

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