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Paula Deen’s Southern cooking comes to the south suburbs

Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante presented Paula Deen with a key to the city at Thursday's grand opening of  Paula Deen's Kitchen.

Joliet Mayor Tom Giarrante presented Paula Deen with a key to the city at Thursday's grand opening of Paula Deen's Kitchen.

With a “Howdy y’all,” Paula Deen brought her Southern cooking to the North.

Deen this month opened her latest restaurant – Paula Deen’s Kitchen – at Harrah’s Casino in downtown Joliet. The April 5 opening drew hundreds – from local fans to community leaders and even a Congresswoman.

“This is so exciting y’all,” the celebrity chef told the crowd at her grand opening. “This is our fourth restaurant with Harrah’s and this is the largest grand opening I think we’ve ever had.”

Deen’s fans showed up en masse to feast on her food for lunch.

“I thought it was fantastic,” said Jeanne Hess, who donned a Land O Lakes butter crown for the opening. “I was really impressed.”

Hess, a fan of Deen’s, traveled from Sugar Grove to Joliet for the opening. Harrah’s officials reported fans traveling to Joliet from throughout the Chicagoland area, Indiana, Ohio and as far away as Florida for the opening.

In its first hour of opening, the restaurant had seated 220 people. Reservations already had the restaurant booked full for the first day and into the weekend.

“This is absolutely phenomenal for Joliet,” said Mayor Tom Giarrante, who listed the meatloaf and jambalaya among his favorites. “To have a restaurant like this north of the border, so to speak, and to have it here in Joliet is phenomenal.”

The restaurant and accompanying gift shop represent a $2.5 million investment by Harrah’s in the city’s downtown.

The restaurant serves up a variety of Southern dishes including fried chicken, crab cakes, ribs, shrimp and grits and, of course, sweet tea.  At her opening, Deen said she was happy to bring her style of cooking out of the South. And though her food may fall into the “Southern” category, it’s not bound by geography.

“I belong to wherever people are who enjoy good food,” she said.

Several fans complimented Deen on her thinner look. Deen was recently diagnosed with diabetes and faced some criticism for her calorie-laden recipes. Despite her critics, Deen said she’s not changing her cooking style.

“Will I change? No,” Deen told fans. “I is what I is.”

She did tell fans she is relying on that “nasty m word – moderation” to help keep things in check.  While there are some lighter options for restaurant guests, she said people need to make their own food choices.

“We all have to be responsible for ourselves,” she said, adding that even light eaters won’t leave hungry from her restaurant.

In addition to Southern food, restaurant employees serve up a bit of Southern charm.  All employees went through a training class on Southern hospitality and Food Operations Manager Steven Farrahi spent a few weeks in Savannah, Ga., with Deen and her crew.

“It’s all about the guests,” Farrahi said, noting Deen’s advice was to treat restaurant guests as they were guests visiting your home.

Paula Deen’s Kitchen is open from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays and  7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.

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