Word-of-mouth builds Forest Park sandwich shop's catering business with regional reach

Starship Sub's expanding universe

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By Jonathan Salamanca

Contributing Reporter

Starship Subs, a multi-decade sandwich restaurant in Forest Park, is gaining a local reputation for a catering menu that is out of this world.

After many years selling submarine sandwiches and soups, Paul McKenna, 57, owner of Starship, is getting creative and flexible with what he has to offer customers.

"I would be considered a chef, but I don't have any formal training," said McKenna.

What he has is an eye for detail and creativity that is surprising and unexpected.

"Starships has catered several events for us from monthly luncheons to holiday events. They do special high-end dishes you wouldn't typically expect from a submarine restaurant," said Forest Park Chamber of Commerce Director Laurie Kokenes.

One of these high-end dishes is a beef wellington bite. It's a one-ounce miniature beef tenderloin covered in a round puff-pastry. Another inventive dish is asparagus pea dough. This appetizer blends asparagus, sautéed peas, and a tomato-based sauce top that is then spread on a warm bread crust and topped with crumbled goat cheese.

The restaurant operates out of a modest shop you just might miss at 7618 Madison Street between a Chinese foot bath business and a nail salon. With seating for about 15 customers, about a quarter of the shop's interior is covered with classic vintage sci-fi décor from glass cases filled with Star Wars and Star Trek figurines to wall mounted Godzilla movie posters.

But from this unlikely locale springs a new universe of exciting hors d'oeuvres like the bacon-wrapped figs, fruit plates and fresh cannoli that Starship served up at Grand Appliance's grand opening last October.

Last year McKenna catered an international menu for the Chamber. The event was centered on the Olympics. McKenna served up specialties representing the cuisine of 16 nations competing at the games. These included Canadian chocolate moose tracks, Thai satay, Jamaican jerk chicken kabobs, English trifles, Polish sausage nubs, Chinese pot stickers, Japanese rolls, German Brats, Cubano sandwiches, a French brie and cheese platter and from Ireland, Guinness lager, of course. These dishes all featured McKenna's sauces, seasonings, and attention-to-detail food display and presentation ideas as well.

"McKenna is very good about putting together a theme and making a suggested menu," Kokenes said. "You can always make suggestions—they work with you. They'll also work with your budget."

Even before he branched into catering, McKenna experimented with flavors over the years at Starship. He has created 120 different soups with unusual flavors such as Bacon Lettuce Tomato.

Even without formal training, customers appreciate McKenna's genuine home cooking.

Jack Wilk a 52-year-old resident of Riverside, has been dropping by the restaurant for the past seven years.

"I come by during my lunch break at work. I stop by at least once a month or so," Wilk said.

"The food is good, the service is good—sandwiches are fresh— it's their soups that really have it going for me," he added.

"We're meeting customer expectations," said McKenna, "that is why customers come back. We don't do advertising at all. We're not on TV, and we don't do coupons. Once in a while I'll email our regulars but we don't do any advertising."

McKenna said he enjoys being a hyper-local submarine shop. "What we do you can't really get anywhere else. It's different. We've got one place. Everywhere you go you see blocks of streets with corporate restaurants and franchises, but that's not how Starship operates."

"We're not tied to any ethnic group and we have no boundaries in terms of food and what we do for people," McKenna added.

Has he ever thought of spinning off a catering branch?

McKenna and his business partner Henry Laskowski, 55, had a failed attempt to open another store 34 years ago, after being in business one year, McKenna said. McKenna doesn't plan on expanding again anytime in the near future. McKenna said he will rely solely on the restaurant's reputation for many more years to come.

"We have customers whose parents brought them here. These customers grew up with our food and they want us. Some of them moved to places like Charleston, Ill.," he said.

"But when they come out to Chicago for a Cubs game they make it a point to stop by our restaurant. That's how we get our reputation and keep it going," McKenna said.

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Lori from Lombard from Lombard  

Posted: August 17th, 2013 2:57 PM

Yes, I come from Lombard to get Starship. Just picked up lunch for seven. Soups are fab. (Recommendation: if you need catering, include the white veggie lasagna on your menu - terrific!) Paul is a true "support your local community" kind of guy. Thanks for supporting Walther Lutheran High School's fine arts department and Concordia University Chicago's College of Business. I shall remain a loyal customer. :)

Starship Trooper from Forest Park  

Posted: July 18th, 2013 6:09 PM

My family loves Starship, and are blown away by their catering. Whenever we host a party at our house, we ALWAYS go with Starship. They know us when we call, arrive with everything within 5 minutes of the time we ask them to, and our guests always rave about the food. We have turned others on to Starship's catering. Keep up the great work and all your loyal customers will continue to come back.

Bill from Melrose Park South  

Posted: July 17th, 2013 11:47 PM

Glad to see that Paul and Company's foodie delights haven't stayed a Forest Park secret. Something this good has to be shared with as wide an audience as possible....... Kudos, Paul. Don't eat bacon that much anymore, but when I do, it's usually in a Crazy Club. Keep conquering the universe, dude!

Jeremy F from Riverside  

Posted: July 17th, 2013 10:46 PM

I've been coming to Starship since i was teenager and I have never been disappointed. Love the soups. So much so, call the hotline anytime I'm passing through to see if it's a stop in kinda of lunch. They did catering for my grandfathers' 75th couple years back and didn't have one negative thing said about the food. It's always a pleasure when I pop in and see Paul and Henry and get to catch up. Culinary choices in Forest Park over the years and I am glad Starship is thriving!

jerry from forest park  

Posted: July 17th, 2013 6:28 PM

I have had their soups, which are even better than their sandwhich's, hard to believe.

Forest Parker  

Posted: July 17th, 2013 8:51 AM

I have enjoyed Startship Subs since the 70's. So glad to see that they have changed/updated and kept it together all these years! Keep it going.

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