By: Sally Ho, Chicago Tribune
After a discouraging winter, customers and business owners alike are welcoming the first-ever restaurant week in the suburbs.

“It definitely has been rough. You tend to see the larger snow falls coming on the weekend,” said Paula Morales, general manager of the Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant in Arlington Heights. “The more people we can offer our food and services, the more people we can expose, the better.”

An increase in sales and traffic at the restaurant is due to the inaugural Chicago Northwest Restaurant Week, which began on Feb 20. Morales said as many as 75 percent of lunch-goers are ordering off the restaurant week menu and about 40 percent are eating it at dinner.

Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest, the tourism group formerly known as the Woodfield Chicago Northwest Convention Bureau, said the inspiration for the event was the hugely popular Chicago Restaurant Week. He said his group covers an area with about 400 restaurants.

“We didn’t want to try to run a conflicting program against Chicago Restaurant Week. We wanted something to turn the spotlight on our region,” Parulo said.

The city version expanded to two weeks this year and had a record 306 eateries, said Meghan Risch, spokeswoman for the Chicago tourism group, Choose Chicago. The number of suburban restaurants participating in Chicago’s event has grown in recent years.

“Our members say participating in restaurant week is critical for this time of year,” she said.

For the suburban event, a total of 33 businesses — from Arlington Heights, Roselle, Schaumburg, South Barrington, Itasca, Elk Grove Village, Wood Dale — signed up to offer special pre-fixe deals, Parulo said. The deals vary in price from $15 to $35 for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and run through March 2.

During a $15 lunch at Circa 57 in Arlington Heights, Jen Lombardi, 21, of Algonquin, enjoyed a hand-dipped milkshake with a smokehouse pulled pork sandwich with her grandmother on Monday.

“It’s cool in here,” Lombardi said. “It’s a good deal. You get a drink, a meal and a dessert.”

The 1950s-themed diner opened in the fall, but sales have fallen victim to the polar vortex and mounds of snow — and at a time when business is already typically slow, said owner Anthony Priola. But since the first day of restaurant week, customers have been coming in looking to eat off the special menu.

“We’ve had a huge increase in dessert sales,” he said.

Priola said his restaurant saw a 15 percent bump in business over the first five days. Of the 30 percent of customers ordering restaurant week deals, about half are new customers.

“As a new business, we don’t necessarily have the marketing dollars set aside to market something like this. It’s a huge benefit for a new restaurant, especially an independent restaurant,” he said.