One of the true characters of the Kankakee area died last week, and the void left by the passing of George Kotalik, owner of downtown Kankakee’s Johnny’s Pizza, will likely never be filled.
Kotalik died Monday after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 72.
Kotalik, who came to Kankakee in 1989 after a career on the Chicago Board Options Exchange, opened the pizza business at a time when it would be fair to say there was not much investment being made in the downtown.
“He was a guy who decided to take a chance,” said downtown businessman Dave Crawford, who was a longtime friend of Kotalik’s. “He will be sorely missed. He was not just a businessman, but someone with a big heart. He helped out so many people.”
Kotalik opened the pizzeria after noticing the downtown lunch crowd had few dining options. He opened Johnny’s and began selling not only thin crust and deep dish pizzas, but also pizza by the slice. He set the price for a basic slice of cheese, pepperoni or sausage at $2 per piece. That bargain price remains intact today.
In the early 1990s, Kotalik expanded the menu by including sandwiches and salads. Eventually ribs, hot dogs and other items were added.
Who was Johnny? That’s simple. George was Johnny.
His longtime friend, Kankakee area attorney Greg Morgan, said the name Johnny came about because when Kotalik was new to town, he called everyone Johnny because he couldn’t remember anybody’s name.
“He came to Kankakee because he wanted a fresh start in a slower paced community,” Morgan said. “He just wanted a fresh start, and he wanted to start his own business.”
So, after deciding it would be a pizza restaurant, he spent one day learning how to make pizza. He then set out to operate his own pizza parlor.
“Johnny’s experienced a lot of success and it was because of him,” Morgan said. “He was such a character. He was the personality for the place, and he made a good product.
“He was my friend, and I’m going to miss him.”
Kankakee County Circuit Court Judge Kathy Bradshaw-Elliott was nearly a daily visitor to the restaurant. The two formed a deep friendship.
“He really had a big heart, and he gave everyone a chance. He changed a lot of people by giving them a second chance at life,” said Bradshaw-Elliott, who estimated she had lunch there perhaps three times per week.
She noted Kotalik grew tomatoes outside the building and often gave her some because she was noted as not having a green thumb.
The businesses’ future has not been determined. Friends have expressed interest in the location with at least one stating they would like to keep it going as Johnny’s Pizza.
In addition to his mastery of pizza making, Kotalik was also one of the best golfers to ever walk a course in Kankakee County. Kotalik was a three-time Kankakee County Amateur golf champion. He won the Kankakee Country Club golf championship at least eight times.
He didn’t begin golfing until he was 31. He fell in love with the game. In a Daily Journal interview in August 1993, he said golf taught him patience.
“I play my best when I’m at peace with myself. Golf means a lot, but it’s still just a game,” he said.
Kankakee businessman Jerry Huot was a longtime friend and golf partner of Kotalik. He called Kotalik “Johnny Mozzarelli.”
“He was a legend. He was one strange, beautiful duck,” he said. Huot said he liked to put on a persona of being a bad guy, but he really had a heart of gold.
“I’m really going to miss him. He was one of a kind.” Huot said if Kotalik wasn’t the best golfer to ever come of Kankakee, he would certainly be in the top five.
“In his day, he could really play,” he said.
Crawford noted Kotalik shared his golf knowledge with anyone who wanted to learn.
“He was such a great teacher. When he was in his 40s, there was no one around here who could beat him. He worked at his game. But his golfing career was like his business: He was always willing to help someone.”
Bill Yohnka, the former executive director of the Kankakee Development Corporation, the organization which focuses on downtown Kankakee improvements, said Kotalik was a champion for the heart of the city although the two of them often didn’t agree on how to move the area forward.
“He hated me,” Yohnka noted. “We yelled at each other numerous times. But even though we had disagreements, we always made up.”
But Yohnka said there was no argument regarding his pizza.
“He showed that if you put out a product that people like, it will work for you and you will succeed. You can’t say anything bad about his pizza.”
Kotalik was proud of what he had accomplished in the city’s downtown.
In a July 20, 1997, business profile story published in the Daily Journal, Kotalik expressed his pleasure.
“I like just about all of it,” he said about running Johnny’s. “By far, this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
As someone who has consumed a mountain of Johnny’s Pizza over the years, I would certainly extend a compliment to him.
The Daily Journal’s Lee Provost writes about local business rumors, comings and goings and other notes of interest. Anyone with information to share should contact Provost at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-937-3364. A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.