A remarkable tribute to one of the country’s most beloved coaches thrives quietly in downtown Appleton, and his son will visit in early December.
Vince Lombardi’s Steakhouse, inside of the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, is a classy museum as well as a fining dining spot that has earned Wine Spectator awards. Covering walls and display cases are more than 400 artifacts from the life and career of the Green Bay Packer coach, who died in 1970.
The framed photographs, game plays, letters from U.S. presidents, player jerseys and coaching trophies have had a home here since 2000.
Why Appleton? No one else asked, says Vince Lombardi Jr., who lives in Washington but will be in the Fox Valley Dec. 2-3. He and buddy Paul Hornung, a running back during the Lombardi years, will sign books that they have written, “eat a good dinner together and catch the Packer game the next day.” (The Pro Football Hall of Fame halfback lives in Louisville.)
Paper Valley Hotel owner Dennis Langley took the initiative to approach Lombardi’s family in 1998. Vince Jr.’s concern was that “if you don’t do it right, it could detract from” his father’s reputation instead of reaffirming it.
“I had been at the hotel and restaurant many times,” Vince Jr. said, in a phone interview, “so when they called and said they’d rename the restaurant” he knew what the space was like. It was then a French restaurant called Christie’s.
As Jay Schumerth, the hotel’s senior general manager, tells the story, Langley soon was with Lombardi’s children in Washington and Florida, going through box after box of treasures stored in attics and garages.
“Better there than in my basement,” Vince Jr. eventually concluded, regarding the decision to bring of parts of his father’s estate to Appleton. The football halls of fame in Green Bay and Canton, Ohio have less Lombardi memorabilia than what is shown at the steakhouse in Appleton.
Game plays from coaching the New York Giants were discovered in a leather briefcase. A St. Cecilia (N.J.) High School yearbook shows Lombardi in his first coaching jobs, for the school’s football, basketball and baseball teams.
Sprinkled elsewhere is fan mail, from Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Ethel Kennedy and others. “It’s as much a museum as it is a restaurant,” Schumerth contends.
Photos capture Lombardi with his high school diploma, and golfing with Jack Nicklaus, as well as with his team at significant games.
“We have this mythical image of Vince Lombardi,” notes Schumerth. “Here, people can see that he was a dad, a grandfather – more than a football coach.”
In addition to its main dining rooms, two private areas each seat up to 10 people. Fall menu specials include Brazilian Lamb Chops, Twice Cooked Cranberry Pork Roulade, Pepper Crusted Ribeye with Mango Chutney, Tuscan Chicken, Grilled Halibut with Sweet Chile Ginger and Crab Stuffed Filet of Sirloin.
The signature dessert: Chocolate Super Bowl, a handmade chocolate shell filled with strawberries and cream.
The restaurant, which has its own bar, is only open for dinner. The menu is ala carte, with entrées ranging from $16 to $50-plus.
Another relevant tidbit, for football fans: This is the hotel where the Packers’ opponents stay overnight.
Vince Lombardi Jr. has written six books, and content tends to reinforce principles taught by his father. “What It Takes to Be No. 1,” about leadership qualities, is the most recent release, by McGraw-Hill.
A motivational speaker? “I can’t motivate anybody,” retorts Vince Jr., who is 64. “I’m in the reinforcement business.” His father’s biggest impact on him has been “great faith in God – that’s clearly a critical thing.”
The graduate of Green Bay’s Premontre High School gets back to Wisconsin occasionally, to visit a son and his family, in Green Bay, and for corporate/association speaking engagements.
Paul Hornung is in his mid 70s and his newest book is “Lombardi and Me: Players, Coaches and Colleagues Talk about the Man and the Myth,” written with Billy Reed and Jeremy Schapp, published by Triumph Books.
The two authors will sign books at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel, outside of Lombardi’s, from 5:30-8 p.m. Dec. 2. For more about the restaurant: www.vincelombardisteakhouse.com, 920-380-9390. Lombardi’s Steakhouse is at 333 W. College Ave.
The men also will be at Helmet Central from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 2. For more: www.foxrivermall.com, 920-739-4100. Helmet Central is inside the Fox River Mall, 4301 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Where else in Wisconsin should Green Bay Packer fans go, besides Lombardi’s Steakhouse and more obvious destinations: Lambeau Field, Curly’s Pub and the Packer Hall of Fame in Green Bay?
If you have inside advice to share, please do. Maybe it’s a business that is owned by a present or former player, the site of a historic Packer moment, a place frequented by team members, or a place that demonstrates exceptional devotion to the team and its fans. Relevant cemeteries, churches and memorials are fair game, too, as are taping sites for TV or radio shows about the team.
Send your thoughts on a quick note (to firstname.lastname@example.org) before Dec. 8, so we can spread the word before the holidays.