The wait for the once-closed Launching Pad Drive-In in Wilmington, Illinois, to become a full-service restaurant again won’t be much longer.
When I asked the new owners, Tully Garrett and Holly Barker, by text when the Route 66 restaurant next to the famed Gemini Giant statue would be fully open, they replied: “Sometime in March no later than April so within the next month or two full grand opening!”
Technically, the Launching Pad has been open since April, but only as a Route 66 Welcome Center and gift shop, with Route 66 sodas, Starved Rock coffee and specialty ice cream. People continued to flock there, even when it was closed indefinitely, because of its landmark Gemini Giant fiberglass statue.
But in recent weeks, the owners had made test-kitchen runs of various prospective foods, including Chicago-style hot dogs, Carolina dogs, meatball subs, barbecue sandwiches, stews, pizza burger cones, banana milkshakes and dirtworm sundaes (look it up before being grossed out).
And the restaurant has been “slammed” with customers wanting to try these items. Apparently locals are champing at the bit to eat at the Launching Pad open again.
The couple wrote on Facebook on Feb. 11:
Originally I thought it would only take two or three people in the kitchen but yesterday we had seven and we know that during tourist season we may be up to 10 to 12 people. This is going to be a much bigger operation than I could’ve ever conceived. […]
After working 14 long months and thousands of hours we don’t want to take our pride and joy and crash and burn it by just opening.
The test kitchen days are very important because it helps us adjust to what we’re going to need to make this work the right way.
Our heart and soul has been into this from day one and the thousands of people that have reached out to us with their kind words means the world to us.
They’ll probably welcome anyone who wants to come try their offerings in the next few weeks. But the lines might be long, and customers should realize some of the food items might change or be eliminated by the time the Launching Pad officially opens. You can see what they’re serving almost every day on their Facebook page.
Garrett and Barker bought the restaurant in the fall 2017 after it had been closed for about seven years. The building had deteriorated pretty badly in the interim. The fact the Launching Pad’s reopening appears imminent is a minor miracle.
John and Betty Korelc originally opened a Dairy Delite at the site in 1960. It was renamed the Launching Pad after an expansion in 1965. The Gemini Giant landed there in 1965 after John Korelc saw a Muffler Man during a restaurant convention. Most Muffler Men were cowboys or lumberjacks. Korelc had his specially made so it looked liked an astronaut. John Korelc retired in 1986.
The Launching Pad and Gemini Giant were inducted into the Illinois Route 66 Hall of Fame in 2000. It long has been one of the biggest photo opportunities for Route 66 travelers.
(Image of the Launching Pad Drive-In by John Larson via Facebook)