JANESVILLE—It’s been said art is subjective: You know it when you see it. In many ways, that is true.
For some, art might be an old shop wall with a fresh coat of paint paying homage to cultural icons. For others, it might be the flavor of a fried chicken sandwich named after a Dolly Parton song.
Regardless, alternate interpretations such as those soon will converge in Janesville when restaurateurs Richard and Joan Neeno launch their latest food-related venture, Sandwich Bar, in mid- to late May.
The vision for the eatery, now under construction at 54 S. Main St., is as a laid-back complement to the couple’s nearby restaurant, Lark, 60 S. Main St., and its gourmet goods sister store, Lark Market, 56 S. Main St.
“It will be much more casual than Lark, so we wanted an entirely different feel for it,” Joan Neeno said of Sandwich Bar. “The tagline in the window will be ‘Damn fine sandwiches, OK beer.’”
Despite a planned deviation from the upscale, Sandwich Bar won’t be your standard sub shop. Straight from the mind of Lark executive chef Chase Williams, the eatery’s 10-sandwich menu will appeal to discerning gastronomes with ingredients such as sage aioli, bacon- onion jam, jackfruit al pastor and ajvar red pepper sauce.
“They will be very eclectic, original sandwiches ... none of which you’re going to find running around anywhere else,” Richard said.
Equally important to the cuisine will be the ambiance, which the Neenos describe as a sort of East Village metro chill.
“It’s not just about what you put in your mouth. It’s also about the visual representation,” Joan said. “We’re trying to create an experience by not being super cookie-cutter. We don’t want to look like every other corporate restaurant.”
To emphasize the neighborhood hangout vibe they’re aiming for, the Neenos referenced aspects of Mars Bar, the iconic former dive bar in New York’s East Village neighborhood, and Turkey and the Wolf, a quirky spot in New Orleans known for inventive sandwiches and cocktails.
“I was spending a lot of time on Pinterest boards searching for inspiration, and that’s where I saw a picture of Mars Bar,” Joan said. “The bar was covered in graffiti, and that really appealed to me.”
With a vision in mind, the Neenos reached out to New York artist Jeff Henriquez. Locals likely recognize the Brooklyn-based mural master as the force behind large-scale images downtown that honor Black Hawk and women’s empowerment.
The couple first met Henriquez in 2019 while he was working on the Black Hawk visage. They reconnected with him in 2020 when he returned as part of a mural festival in the city.
With Henriquez’s popularity on the rise and demands for his time increasing, the couple were less than optimistic about his potential interest in the project.
“He has a couple of collectors internationally who are very, very high on what he does,” Richard said. “There are projections that he’s going to be selling canvases for six figures in the next year, so what we have over here is going to be really, really special.
“To be honest, I didn’t think we would be able to afford him. I didn’t think he would do it,” Joan added. “But he jumped on it because it was the first restaurant he could design, and that was exciting for him.”
Actually, Henriquez was happy to make a return trip to Janesville. In two previous visits, he said he found interactions with residents both pleasant and artistically encouraging.
“When I come out here, people are very kind, and they remember who I am,” he said. “When the murals are happening, they’re like, ‘Hey man, good job.’ It’s just like what they say about the Midwest—the people are friendly. It’s kind of like the South but with a different accent.”
In developing a decorative concept for Sandwich Bar’s walls, the Neenos had only one directive—that Henriquez somehow immortalize culinary titans Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child.
“Anthony Bourdain has just been a huge influence on us,” Joan explained. “He didn’t really become successful until he was in his 40s, and we didn’t get a start with Lark until we were in our 50s and 60s, so that whole kind of midlife transformation was really inspirational to us.
“With Julia Child, it was important to us that there was a woman represented, and she’s kind of the mack daddy of food culture,” Joan added. “She might not have started it (food culture), but she popularized it as the first celebrity chef. She took the pretense out of food and showed that trying new things was fun and wonderful. She’s just a badass.”
Armed with images he chose collaboratively with the Neenos, Henriquez has been toiling meticulously to make Bourdain and Child powerful presences. From opposing sides of the dining and bar area, the pair eventually will gaze down on hungry diners who are munching contently on sandwiches with such names as “Jolene,” “Balboa” and “Tommy Salami.”
“(The Neenos) are good people who like my work, and I’m very fortunate that they would give me an opportunity to do with it basically what I want to ... and to be sweet on top of that,” Henriquez said.
Among Henriquez’s own personal touches are a special “selfie wall” featuring bokeh, a photographic style of blurred light that is recognizable to those familiar with his artwork. The wall featuring Bourdain also goes heavy on this theme.
“It creates an atmospheric perspective where you know what it is, but the wall kind of disappears in the background,” Henriquez explained.
As an artist, Henriquez understands the difference between his previous work in Janesville and what he’s creating inside Sandwich Bar. The constant between them is his desire to produce art that speaks to people and does so for a long time.
“These (referencing Black Hawk and women’s empowerment) are statement pieces for the city and the community at large, whereas this (Sandwich Bar) is a commercial piece for the purpose of helping them (the Neenos) have a successful business,” he said.
“Either way, people understand what you’re doing translates when you have strong concepts, and I’m always looking for that forever aesthetic, that forever look.”