Mixing a cocktail of music, food, service


Candice Zhou

Rosemary Ferrara shares her history working in restaurants and the ups and downs that came with it leading up to her current position as a bartender for the Rose Bowl Tavern.

By Gwyn Skiles, Staff Writer

Forty years ago in Paxton, Ill., a young girl sat in a chair at the back of her dad’s Italian restaurant, Mama Ferrara’s, and watched as her mom taught her how to roll silverware.

Rosemary Ferrara, known around Champaign-Urbana as the bartender at the Rose Bowl Tavern with a hearty laugh and an appetite for conversation, has worked in restaurants ever since she was a little girl.

“My first bartending shift was for my mom’s 40th birthday,” Ferrara said. “She built a stage in the parking lot of our restaurant. I was 10 (years old) at the time … from the very beginning, I’ve loved everything about it.”

Ferrara said her parents gave her everything she needed to be successful.

Her dad, an immigrant from Corato, Italy, gave her his business mindset, and her mother gave her a passion for getting to know others.

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    “My brother got none of that,” Ferrara said with laughter. “Like, he’s a police officer.”

    However, Ferrara wasn’t always a natural. When she was 21 years old, she said she was fired three times from her first job as a manager at The Great Impasta, which is now closed.

    “I was very young and just was a hot mess,” Ferrara said. “A year later, (they) would be like, ‘Are you ready to come back?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yes, thank you.’”

    Ferrara began to consult for different restaurants like Black Dog Smoke & Ale House and Watson’s Shack & Rail in the Champaign-Urbana area. She said she would be a steady force for owners looking to make business in a difficult industry.

    But it was tiring work, and Ferrara said she started to get burnt out.

    “I remember opening Watson’s, and I climbed into bed one night, (and) my ex-husband was like, ‘Did you eat today?’ and I said, ‘I think I had a hush puppy,’” Ferrara said. “He was like, ‘That’s not enough.’ So he brought me a bagel, and I sat up in bed and ate it with my eyes closed the whole time.”

    Ferrara was hired at the Rose Bowl Tavern right before the pandemic began, and her first training shift was scheduled on the same night Gov. Pritzker announced the shutdown.

    “I just saw my beloved industry take a hit like it had never done before,” Ferrara said. “We lost a lot of our favorite home bars and music venues … So being at Rose Bowl, and being a part of bringing back the scene in Champaign-Urbana has just been phenomenal.”

    Music has always been a big part of her life, and Ferrara said that being a part of preserving live music in the community is a huge honor. She said she majored in journalism at Columbia College Chicago and used to dream of working for Rolling Stone Magazine.

    Now, she helps create content for the Rose Bowl, combining her two passions.

    “I just wanted to be surrounded by musicians and write about them,” Ferrara said. “I get to do that while also bartending.”

    Ferrara said she has too many favorite events and performances to choose from, but she particularly loves seeing the jazz students grow throughout their time in the program.

    “I joke that I’m their den mother and that they’re my jazz babies,” Ferrara said. “I love to bring shy people out of their shell.”

    Whether it be students or locals, Ferrara said it’s one of the greatest pleasures to witness people grow.

    “There are people who I waited on for their first date that I see get engaged, and then I get a baby announcement,” Ferrara said. “Champaign-Urbana is a transitional city. It’s a stepping stone for so many people. The best part of working in this industry, whether it be in a restaurant or a bar, is I get to be a part of people’s milestones in their lives.”

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