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DINING

Gene Simmons pays a visit to Wisconsin's northwoods to celebrate grand opening of newest Rock & Brews (and again stops for ice cream)

Portrait of Kendra Meinert Kendra Meinert
Green Bay Press-Gazette

WABENO - Gene Simmons is becoming something of a Wisconsin northwoods regular, and even in the leather pants and rock star cowboy boots, he fits right in.

The KISS legend was back at  on Tuesday to open the newest and 25th in the franchise he co-founded with bandmate Paul Stanley.

He hammed it up with local media, swiping microphones and flipping up the collars of his interviewers, and sat down with Green Bay's WIXX-FM morning show co-hosts Huggie, Natalie & Corey for a chat minus the usual radio questions.

He posed for photos with the kitchen staff, members of the Forest County Potawatomi Community color guard, kids in KISS makeup and T-shirts, elders with walkers and "every person on the planet" at the invite-only ceremony. He signed KISS memorabilia, did the honors of the ribbon-cutting with a pair of giant scissors and impromptu danced to Prince’s “1999” in between meet and greets like only he can.

It was the third or fourth time Simmons has been to Forest County. He’s lost track, but he knows why he keeps coming back, and it’s about more than the fresh air, scenery and escaping the hubbub of big-city life.

Need a break?

“The people,” he said. “... Why would you go some place where people are a--holes? You wouldn’t do that. It really always comes down to people. How people treat you.”

KISS bassist and co-lead singer Gene Simmons speaks to media during the grand opening of Rock & Brews on Tuesday at Potawatomi Casino Hotel Carter.

Simmons said he and Stanley felt like family the first time they met the Potawatomi people.

"The entire tribe, it really is a nation, a culture. It's a point of view, and the point of view is you're not just coming here as guests, you're coming here as part of a family, which is why when you come in through these doors, you're going to be treated like you're going over to somebody's house for dinner," Simmons said from the stage.

When Simmons and Stanley were at the casino in September, they helped with the groundbreaking for the Rock & Brews by day and then played a stop on the KISS End of the Road World Tour at Crandon International Raceway by night.

In the 10 months in between, the space — 2,995 square feet with room for 128 diners — has been transformed into a classic rock showpiece, from the platinum records embedded in the floor to the lighted panels touting Def Leppard and The Steve Miller Band on the ceiling. The backdrop of the stage made of drums, tambourines, records, drumsticks and a guitar in the shape of an eagle is a nod to both the music and the Potawatomi culture.

An eagle sculpture made with drums, drumsticks and a guitar hangs over the stage at Rock & Brews during the grand opening on Tuesday at Potawatomi Casino Hotel Carter.

There are tall boy tables in the shape of guitar picks and booth tables that pay homage to Pat Benatar in 1982, Metallica in 1985, and oh yeah, KISS in 1976. Etta James, Sonny & Cher, Motorhead, Poison, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty are among the names represented in the decor. Around the corner from the video board with the seasonal tap list (Titletown Brewing Co.'s Green 19 and Hinterland's Packerland Pilsner made the cut), there's a Johnny Cash skateboard. Even the ketchup bottles are rockin' the Rock & Brews logo.

He took an ice cream break at Northern D' Lites in Lakewood

Grab a menu made to look like an album cover and you’ll find Simmons’ namesake Demon Chicken, a chicken breast sandwich that brings the heat with a hot mess of pepper cheese spread, chipotle slaw, marinated red onions, hot sauce, fresh jalapenos and chipotle ranch.

“I like a good punch in the mouth when I taste something good,” Simmons said. “It’s not for the weak-hearted, but it was created for me. I like hot stuff. I like hot food. I like hot everything.”

He also has an apparent sweet tooth when it comes to visits to America's Dairyland. He dropped by Northern D’ Lites in Lakewood on Tuesday. The restaurant shared photos on its Facebook page of him with ice cream in hand and the caption: “LegenDAIRY! Check out who stopped in today! You’re HIRED Gene Simmons.”

In September, Simmons and Stanley found time to make a pit stop at in Crandon for ice cream.

Gene Simmons Band plays Wednesday at Rock & Brews in Milwaukee

Rock & Brews’ open design is meant to bring people together, Simmons said, and the first impression begins well before the bartender makes your “rocktail” or the server brings your Hotel California Cobb Salad. It starts with the person who greets you when you walk in.

“If you misrepresent who and what we are and people have a bad time, you’re gone. We live and die by who’s on our team,” he said. (Yes, he’s technically the boss.)

“The first impression (visitors) are going to get is ‘I wanna go back, I just made a new friend. Or I wanna go back, there’s this hot chick I wanna blah blah blah blah.' It’s about people.”

Craft burger samples are passed out to guests during Rock & Brews' grand opening on Tuesday at Potawatomi Casino Hotel Carter.

Dominic Ortiz, CEO of Potawatomi Casino Hotel, hopes that Rock & Brews becomes a destination for the many Wisconsinites who travel up north for camping, snowmobiling, races and other outdoor activities. With 15 TV screens, including one that’s 24-feet wide, he thinks it will also draw in sports fans.

There are plans for live music on select weekend nights, brunch and perhaps a battle of the bands that would include Simmons being personally involved in choosing the winner, Ortiz said.

KISS wrapped what it has said is its final tour in December, but it hasn't kept the 74-year-old Simmons from hitting the stage. He's headed to the Rock & Brews that opened last summer at  for a Wednesday night gig with his Gene Simmons Band. He hinted at some Van Halen tunes and a couple of surprises.

“We have more fun than the pope,” he said of the band.

Kendra Meinert is an entertainment and feature writer at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact her at 920-431-8347 or kmeinert@greenbay.gannett.com. Follow her on X.