At Lenny's Tap, it's been Old Style beer and behind-the-bar banter for 43 years
Between the rows of Wisconsin sports bobbleheads and endless flavors of Crown Royal that line the back bar at Lenny’s Tap, there’s a sign that reads: “Be Nice or Leave.”
It’s a simple request that has worked its magic for decades at the Green Bay bar that has been in Marty Leonhard’s family since he was a 14-year-old kid who grew up a mile down the street.
It was a neighborhood tavern then. It’s a neighborhood tavern now. Still open every day of the year. Still serving plenty of cold Old Style. Patrons still just as likely to get some friendly ribbing from behind the bar as when Marty’s dad, Bob Leonhard, first christened it Lenny’s Tap in 1975.
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“If I wasn’t giving them a hard time, they would think something’s wrong with me,” owner Marty Leonhard said of his many regulars, some of whom have been stopping in at 431 N. Broadway since before he was born. “Everybody is fair game.”
He points to a group of retired firefighters down at the end of bar at noon on a recent Thursday. Lenny’s is such a a part of their weekday routine they have assigned stools. One of them has brought along a couple of sleeves of crackers and copious amounts of sliced sausage. Leonhard offers up some cheese to go with it.
“Most of them wouldn’t take it from me, because they don’t trust me,” he said, with the kind of grin that tells you why. “Now if you went down there and offered it to them, they’d say, ‘Sure, I’ll try it.’”
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The back-and-forth bull is a long-running sport that runs the gamut from seeing who can eat what with the homemade horseradish sold at Smugglers Lounge in Eagle River (so hot “you think it’s going to take the top of your head off,” Leonhard says), to that time a couple of them thought it would be funny to put a classified ad in the paper that their buddy was selling his new Ford F-150 pickup for $2,500. His phone rang for days.
All that talking smart is all in good fun — just like the sign says.
“If it’s your turn in the barrel, you suck it up, shut your mouth and tomorrow it will be your turn,” said Tim Madden, a retired firefighter of 30 years who has been coming in since 1964, back when the place was elbow-to-elbow with truck drivers, postal workers, firefighters, police officers and railroad workers.
He hates to say it, especially with Leonhard within earshot, but the personality behind the bar is a big part of Lenny’s well-worn charm.
“He never gives anybody a break. He’ll insult your a-- off. Excuse me, can I say that? He’ll insult your butt off,” Madden said. “But he’s part of the deal. That’s why this place is attractive. He can dish it out, but he can also take it. He’s just a good guy. He’s a lot of fun.”
“Good or bad, a lot of people know me,” Marty admits and then laughs.
'Everybody knows everybody'
Lenny’s Tap is carrying on a tradition that dates to 1905. That’s how long the building has been a bar (and a speakeasy during Prohibition). It was Mike Tilkens’ Tavern from roughly 1910 to 1975, run first by Mike, and then by his brother, Pinky. Leonhard remembers coming in as child after church and his dad telling him to sit down at a table and be quiet.
Bob Leonhard had worked as an engineer with the railroad for 40 years and bartended part time at Tilkens’ for a couple of years before he bought the business in 1975. Marty Leonhard didn’t know it at the time, but he got his first lesson in future ownership of the business when his dad woke him up at 3 a.m. one morning as a teen.
“Come on,” he said. “I’m going to show you how to clean the bar, in case you ever need to know.”
The bar was full of working men back then. Chicago & Northwestern Railroad was downtown, Schneider had a yard nearby, and Larsen Canning Co. was across the street. Now it’s just Lenny’s Tap, standing alone on the north end of Broadway.
“If you walked in the door (back then), the average person had a little short glass in front of them and a shot, because it was a shot-and-a-beer bar,” Leonhard said. “We’ve always been a neighborhood bar. The neighborhood has gotten a little bit different over the years. The older people that were long-timers and their kids who came in here all moved out, but the kids are still coming back down. There’s so many people that are second, third and fourth generation here.”
Leonhard and his wife Treena bought Lenny’s in 1997 and serve a clientele that runs 21 to 89 — everybody from customers old enough to remember coming in with their dad or grandpa as kids to millennials looking to change things up from the Washington Street club scene. There's also a robust golf crowd in summer.
A 90-year-old man came in one day and told Leonhard he hadn’t been in the place in 60 years, but perhaps he knew the man’s dad.
Leonhard's response: “’You’re 90. How am I going to know your dad?’
“... And of course, I did.”
There aren’t many people he doesn’t know at the 43-year-old bar, where you might find a cribbage tournament one night, fantasy football leagues another and even the occasional funeral gathering in the extra room added in 1980. Come in five Fridays in a row, Leonhard says, and you’ll find most of the same people every time.
“There’s very few I don’t know, and if I don’t know them, most chances, I’m going to find out,” he said. “It’s funny, we have people come in and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never been in here before,’ and then pretty soon there’s five people that say, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ They know them from someplace else.”
It’s easy to spot the first-timers. They’re the ones who tend to look puzzled by the handwritten “NOWifihere” sign behind the bar. Turns out that’s actually the password for the Wi-Fi.
“There’s a touch of sarcasm around here,” Leonhard said.
They also tend to have difficulties getting themselves out the old wooden front door — but not for reasons you might be thinking.
“That door is the greatest door in the world. People can’t get out,” he said, offering a quick demonstration of how rookies easily get flustered. “There’s a button there you’re supposed to push and then the door opens up. It’s Green Bay’s mystery. ... You can sit there for a week and just watch people who can’t get out.”
Go ahead, call it a ‘dive bar’
Lenny’s is unapologetically a tavern — not a nightclub or a lounge. That means it’s open 365 days a year, closing early only at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. It doesn’t matter if Leonhard opens at 10 a.m. on weekends or 11 a.m. on weekdays, there’s always somebody waiting in the parking lot.
The place still does a brisk beer-and-a-shot business, but a lot of the Crown Royal shots these days are flavored. You can bet Bob Leonhard never poured a shot of Salted Caramel Crown.
You’ll find a sampling of craft beers, like Ahnapee Brewery’s Coffee-Infused Blonde, but the Lenny’s crowd is there for Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Old Style. The latter is a signature of the joint, and something of a rarity to still find on tap. Back when his dad had the bar, before you could buy six- and 12-packs at gas stations, Leonhard remembers Dean Distributing delivering 14-by-14-foot pallets stacked as high as you could reach with Old Style.
“And they’d do the same thing the next week,” he said. “Old Style was huge.”
He has to laugh when customers in their 20s come in now and say, almost in a whisper, “’Give me one of those Old Styles.’ Like it’s something new.”
Food is limited to frozen pizzas, beef jerky, spicy pork rinds and assorted chips, along with salted peanuts in the shell (shells go on the floor) and free popcorn. Nearby Glass Nickel Pizza Co. and Jake’s Pizza offer delivery for anybody looking for something more.
Decor is neon signs, a collection of bobbleheads customers make sure includes the latest Milwaukee Brewers offering and sports memorabilia that features Marty’s favorite, a photo of Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan with Chicago White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura in a headlock during their infamous 1993 brawl. It’s signed — by Nolan only.
“I don’t want the guy getting beat up. I want the guy doing the beating," Leonhard said.
Google Lenny’s Tap and a common description turns up in many of the customer reviews. “A nice little dive bar.” “One of the better dive bars in Green Bay.” “The epitome of a dive bar (and I mean that in the best way possible).”
Leonhard is good with the “dive bar” label. Whatever negative connotations the term once conjured up have since evolved into a term of endearment for an old-fashioned, no-frills, friendly place to hang.
“I don’t have a problem with that. We’re always going to be a tavern, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “Most cases, we’re probably way cheaper than anyone else. A lot of people come here before they go downtown. Or go downtown for a little while and then come back here.”
Leonhard can count on one hand how many times he’s had to call the police in the last 21 years. It’s a compliment, he said, when officers tell him they’ve never been in the place.
“It’s self-running. Everybody knows everybody. There’s all groups of people,” he said. “We don’t have that element that comes in and wants to start a fight. For some reason, we’ve never had that.”
It’s more like family at Lenny’s, where on the third Sunday of August for the last 42 years they go through about 70 dozen ears of corns and 50 pounds of hot dogs and brats for an annual corn roast. Once each winter, some of the Lenny’s crew hits the beach together. They’ve gone eight times to Mexico. There were as few as 18 one year. As many as 105 are headed next month for Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
They haven’t left anyone behind yet, he said.
Problem is, with Leonhard, you never know if he’s kidding or not.