Iwan Ries, Chicago

For Chicago area cigar smokers, January 1, 2008, marked a dramatic change. When the smoking ban was enacted in Chicago, people scrambled for a habitat to savor their pastime among friends.

Excluded from public venues, for many the basement was their only viable option. Understanding a dire need, Iwan Ries manager Kevin Levi offered a solution.

"We talked about putting in a lounge [for a while]," said Levi. "When the ban came in, that's when we got it going. It went well from the start."

Businessmen who work in downtown Chicago discovered Iwan Ries' cigar lounge is an elegant suite that doubles as an ideal office or after-hours venue to unwind. It's hard for a cigar enthusiast to find a place with deeper, richer history.

Opening for business in 1857, Iwan Ries is the second oldest tobacconist in the country. Levi, who represents the fifth generation, runs the daily operation on the second floor at 19 S. Wabash Avenue, in the heart of Jewelers Row, where the shop has been since 1968. With over 100 brands and 1,000 varieties to choose in their 2,500 square feet room, cigar mavens won't have a problem securing premium quality smokes.

Renowned architect Louis Sullivan built the five story building in 1881; it's his oldest living structure. Frank Lloyd Wright, who apprenticed as a draftsman for Sullivan at the time, is believed to have worked on this project. The expansive windows facing west offer a panoramic view of the El subway, a short touchdown throw away and the bustling scene below. Two decorated steel columns, standing outside the window, lend aesthetic distinction. [The third one was sent to the Smithsonian in 1955].

Designed for the Millionaires Club in 1960, you notice the meticulously handcrafted original mahogany, oak and majestic cedar woodwork highlighted by brass and crystal chandeliers.

Flat-screen televisions are at both ends of the room. A refrigerator, sink and coffee machine are available in the front. A small humidor with approximately 25 unique frontmarks sits in the room, and 83 varieties are available in the shop proper located down the hall.

Last July, the lounge underwent an expansion that doubled the size. Double doors now open to a second room where half of the 54 members have private humidor lockers. A conference space with fax machine and copier can be reserved for meetings. The area is equipped with WiFi.

A few people come in during the morning, but late afternoon is when the regulars recline. While the adjoining chambers can hold 50 comfortably, Iwan Ries prefers an intimate contingent instead of a crowd.

"We have an eclectic membership base," said Richard Bley, ambassador for the lounge. "We'd like to keep it word of mouth."

Colder weather brings in more traffic than the summer months.

Bob Miller, president of Earthwise Environmental Inc. in suburban Bensenville, travels into Chicago frequently and says business works well over a cigar. "I've met [prospective] clients to discuss a proposal in the conference room a few times," said Miller. "We bought sandwiches and had lunch and meeting for an hour and a half. It's a perfect setup."

At age five, Lou Conforti got his introduction to Iwan Ries when his uncle brought him along on a shopping trip. "This is a respite from the rest of the world," he says. "I like to come in after the market closes or on the weekend. Occasionally I'll have a business meeting here. It's inclusive, everyone is kindred spirit. It's nice to have an intellectual conversation and a good smoke. When you come in it forces you to decompress and relax."

Bankruptcy lawyer Mike Benz is one of the morning patrons. "I concentrate better; I think it has something to do with cigars," said Benz, whose office is three blocks away. "I write briefs here. It's great to be able to smoke and work."

George Souri manages Atria Capital, an investment company. "We've lost the sublime appreciation for fine things," said Souri. "This is a gentlemen's club. The room is beautiful; the leather chairs are comfortable. It's a place that fosters camaraderie and friendship. The business contacts are a nice benefit. The mix of people gives a center to expand a tradition. You're with company you enjoy."

Annual membership in the lounge is $750. Day passes are available for $15.

Iwan Ries
19 S. Wabash Ave., 2nd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603

Store Hours
Monday to Friday: 9:00 to 5:30
Saturday: 9:00 to 5:00
Sunday: Closed

Lounge Hours
Monday to Saturday: 9:00 to 10:00
Sunday: 11:00 to 6:00

"I disagree with M M of Naperville. For a suburban, glitzy franchise with no windows, Casa de Montecristo is fine. But if you want to view an entire block of vintage downtown architecture as the El goes by, Iwan's is it. If your style is more new-school, the boys at Tesa have a great new spot among the galleries and packing house operations in the West Loop. " —June 14, 2011 00:48 AM
"Iwan Ries is a good spot but the best spot, bar none, to have a cigar in the Chicago area is Casa Monte Cristo in Countryside. The Casa might be the finest cigar establishment I have ever been to in the world. The VIP lounge is primo and anyone that is in the area should stop in and experience it." —December 21, 2010 16:30 PM
"Don't know how I missed this place back when I was working in the Loop in the 90s. Will have to check it out. Thanks for the heads-up Seth." —December 4, 2010 23:47 PM
"An urbane refuge; most welcome. I'm a big fan of Iwan Ries, they have impeccable mail order/e-order service too. Highly recommended." —December 1, 2010 22:51 PM