Chicago has some of the best Caribbean food spots and the choices are growing. For a while, in order to get some great Island cooking—most had to travel to the South Side of Chicago where places such as Maxine’s and Daddy O’s dominated the category.
Since then, there have been similar restaurants that have entered the playing field catering to the taste buds of folks looking for more great Jamaican food.
And now there’s yet another great choice.
Jamaica Jerk Villa Bar and Grill has been opened since June in the South Loop business district. After a fire ripped through the last location in 2015 destroying the restaurant along with two other small businesses under the newly built Green Line Cermak Rd. stop—it has taken two years to rebuild in the new spot.
The owner, Peter McKnight and his family, have been in the restaurant business for the past 15 years. Along with his wife, Unique, McKnight has worked hard to bring back the popular eatery beyond its carryout crowd. Located at 2216 S. Michigan Ave. in the heart of the real estate boom of high cranes, with the Wintrust Arena and a Marriott Marquis hotel two blocks South—the space is much bigger with a broader menu.
“We had …a lot of stress…a lot of ups and downs, but we finally got it opened,” McKnight says. “We heard about this location here and it was going to be an entertainment district–we decided to do a little bit something different. We applied for the liquor license so you can have jerk chicken and island cocktails.
A native of Port Moore, Jamaica, a suburb outside of Kingston—McKnight arrived here with his family nearly 25 years ago. Cooking has always come naturally to his family, and he learned his way around the kitchen as a child.
With the original location on 79th Street in the Auburn Gresham community, Jerk Villa’s reputation for having some of the best jerk chicken and freshly prepared sides—keep people traveling from far and near, usually waiting in line and being greeted by a thick Jamaican Patois accent.
McKnight says outside of their signature Jerk chicken dishes, it’s his mother’s island cooking that has trained his most loyal cooks.
“All of the people in the kitchen have been with us for a while, and some have been with us since we started. My cook has been with us for the last 15 years. She was trained by mom on 79th St,” McKnight said. “When we decided to open another location, she was the obvious choice for her to come to this restaurant and my mom stayed on 79th. Everybody under her, was trained by her.”
At the Michigan Ave. location, the menu is a great selection of full entrees from the oxtails slowly cooked and marinated in their special gravy; the curry chicken falls off the bone and is seasoned right without the heavy curry after taste. Other great menu options include a Jerk lobster tail; sautéed prawns with carrots and green peppers, and Red Snapper for the non-meat eaters. If seafood is not an option, there are Vegan dish options that feature string beans, spinach, corn and sweet plantains.
Most entrees include a choice of sides, such as a good-sized portion of rice and peas, stewed cabbage, and macaroni and cheese.
With a full bartender, wait staff and cooking team, Unique McKnight shares co-management responsibilities with her husband Peter.
“We pride ourselves on the variety of cocktails, which includes our house rum punch, strawberry margarita, Mai Tai and flavored Jamaican sodas,” she says.
Jamaican Jerk Villa Bar & Grill is opened seven days a week, closing at Midnight on Sundays-Thursdays. To cater to the late diners on Fridays and Saturdays, they close at 2 a.m.
Peter McKnight is a man on a mission who is determined to bring the best of his native country to those who can’t always travel there in person.
“I want them [customers] to experience a piece of the island. I want you to feel like you’re on vacation. Relaxed atmosphere, nice Reggae music and nice vibes. It’s just a feel. We want them to have a good feeling.”