The famous old bakeries of Illinois

Tradition and family passion keep these businesses sweet

click to enlarge The famous old bakeries of Illinois
Photo by Randy von Liski
Amy Stevens, owner of Underbrink’s Bakery in Quincy, continues a long tradition of offering sweet treats to customers.

When my family lived on South Lincoln Street in Springfield, we could turn the corner onto Governor and satisfy our sweet teeth with gooey butter cake from the Community Bakery. Once it closed, we followed the crowds to B & Z Bakery, a downtown institution for many years.

While those and other old-style bakeries are no more, such sweet spots as Incredibly Delicious, Three Twigs Bakery and the newly opened Hae's Bakery are local treasures. If you find yourself on a nearby road trip, however, you can indulge in nostalgia too. Head almost any direction from Springfield, and you can pick up some treats to go with your mug of coffee or hot chocolate this winter.

Tretzgers in Peoria Heights

Opened in 1861, Tretzgers claims to be the oldest continuing bakery in Illinois. After several moves, it settled in 2016 in a restored brick building, where customers can swoop up signature thumbprint cookies, macaroons, orange chiffon cakes and decorated white cakes.

Jeff and Martha Huebner bought the bakery from the Tretzger family in 1993 and continue the tradition of making almost everything from scratch. That includes breakfast pastries, cookies, cream pies, cakes and some gluten-free goodies.

Keeping the same name and recipes was important, Jeff says, because longtime customers like the traditions. "The bakeries that stay in business are ones where the families running them have a passion for it."

Tretzgers navigated the COVID crisis by stepping up its shipping business. That continues with hundreds of boxes of cookies shipped every week. Also available for shipping are chocolate and butterscotch coffee cakes and coconut macaroons.

The winter holidays are a particularly busy time as the bakers make more than 1,000 cookies daily in the weeks before Christmas, and triple-braided sweetbreads twisted into pretzel shapes for New Year's Eve.

click to enlarge The famous old bakeries of Illinois
Photo courtesy of Kruta’s Bakery
Paul Kruta, the fourth-generation baker in his family, displays a tray of cream horns at Kruta’s Bakery in Collinsville. Cream horns are among the bakery’s most popular items.

Underbrink's in Quincy

Named the top bakery in Illinois by Taste of Home in 2019, Underbrink's began in 1929 and displays the third oldest Hobart mixer in the United States. Owner Amy Stevens agrees with Tretzgers' Huebner that customers often long for nostalgia along with Underbrink's signature iced angel food cupcakes.

Generations of customers line up for the cupcakes, Danish pastries or drop cookies, the bakery's most popular items. "Our made-from-scratch tradition puts the extra deliciousness in the baked goods," Stevens says.

Those who have moved away from Quincy often make a stop at the bakery or order shipments, especially around the holidays. "The bakery brings back that feeling of being home for the holidays," she explains.

In addition to the usual assortment of cakes, pies, pastries and cookies, Underbrink's features such holiday specialties as fruitcake, chocolate walnut cookies and springerle, a type of German molded cookies usually with an anise flavor.

click to enlarge The famous old bakeries of Illinois
Photo courtesy of Roeser’s Bakery
Decorated Santa cupcakes are popular sellers at Roeser’s Bakery in Chicago around Christmas.

Jubelt's in Litchfield

Jubelt's, a staple in Litchfield that once had a store in Springfield, is marking its 100th birthday this year with ownership still in the family. Jean Jubelt attributes the bakery's longevity to customers' ability to depend on it for homemade goodness.

"They associate it with their childhoods and we stick to high quality," she says. "A lot of customers have been with us a long time."

The bakery also has adapted to changing times and tastes by adding a restaurant offering such favorites as breakfast sandwiches, homemade chicken salad and soups made 100 percent from scratch, Jubelt says. During the COVID pandemic, she found that "sugar has been a big comfort the past few years."

Tea cookies, cream horns and gooey butter cakes remain popular, and pies brimming with homemade fillings are a hit. For the winter holidays, the bakery adds pumpkin and pecan pies, cookies with Christmas colors and flavors and gingerbread cutouts.

Kruta's in Collinsville

Paul Kruta is the fourth-generation baker to work in his family's shop in Collinsville. It started in East St. Louis in 1919 after Paul's great grandfather arrived from Russia after learning the trade in Germany. Those roots remain strong, with German specialties such as stollens offered especially for the winter holidays and a "holiday bread" (a two-pound loaf with heavy yellow dough and raisins) sold around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Kruta says the regular top sellers are cream horns (a French pastry with buttery filling), "fudgy" chocolate cakes with chocolate fudge icing and a rich caramelized brown sugar spread, gooey butter cakes and donuts. The bakery tries to stay with its original recipes because "sometimes you just want tradition," he adds.

"Just like we are the fourth generation, we have fourth- and fifth-generation customers," Kruta says. "I think the groundwork laid by the early generations sowing the seeds of goodwill in the community" have led to its success and the success of other long-running bakeries.

"The small-town bakery was a cornerstone of the town. Everyone needs bread."

click to enlarge The famous old bakeries of Illinois
Photo courtesy of Roeser’s Bakery
Roeser’s Bakery in Chicago offers gingerbread people for the winter holidays.

Roeser's in Chicago

Residents of big cities also need baked goods, if the history of Roeser's is any indication. The bakery touts itself as the oldest family-owned bakery still in the same location in Chicago, near Humbolt Park.

John Roeser, also the fourth generation of his family to run the business, says he believes it has lasted because of consistency with many of the same ingredients in the baked goods. "Everybody wants to have that kind of nostalgia."

His most popular items are pumpkin and apple pies, cakes and a large variety of butter cookies. He says the hot milk sponge cake and the "Marianne" sponge cake with fresh strawberries are customers' favorite flavors. The most popular coffee cake is a streusel butter loaf.

Around the winter holidays, Roeser's sells lots of stollens, Parker House rolls, Yule logs and gingerbread men and women.

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Mary Bohlen, a Springfield travel writer, finds it hard to resist sweet treats when she encounters family-owned bakeries during her travels.

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