STODDARD — Rocky’s Supper Club may be best known for its fried battered cheese curds and onion rings, popular items at the food stands at Riverfest each summer in downtown La Crosse.
But to those who make the 10-minute drive from La Crosse to this Vernon County village (population 774, according to the 2010 census), the longtime supper club also is known for its homemade bleu cheese dressing and entrees such as bleu cheese fish, creamy bacon zinger steak, salmon supreme, pressure-fried chicken, barbecue ribs and half-pound burgers.
Rocky’s sells about a ton of cheese curds at each Riverfest, said its manager, Jaynne Lepke. Her mother, Janet Stearns, owns the business, which has been in the family since 1972.
For each order of onion rings it sells at Riverfest, it sells 10 orders of cheese curds, Lepke said. Rocky’s has been a concessionaire there ever since the second year of Riverfest.
Participating in the annual summer event in La Crosse helps publicize the Stoddard supper club.
It also has benefited from a four-page spread on the business in the 2013 book “Wisconsin Supper Clubs” by Ron Faiola; and from a feature story in the February/March 2015 issue of “Our Wisconsin” magazine.
Most of the supper club’s customers live in the La Crosse area. But Rocky’s also is patronized by many fishermen, hunters, boaters, tourists and fall leaf-watchers from other places. As a result, the summer and October are the busiest times of the year, Stearns said.
Rocky’s even has a boat slip at the Waters Edge Marina in Stoddard for use by customers.
The supper club opens each day at 5 p.m. except for Mondays, when it’s only open for parties and other private events.
A small stage can be set up for live entertainment, such as the annual murder mystery event that will be held at 8 p.m. Feb. 20.
Stearns and Lepke said Rocky’s is known for using fresh ingredients and homemade family recipes, such as those for its bleu cheese and coleslaw dressings, tartar sauce, potato salad, pea salad and vegetable salad. It has a salad bar each night except for Friday, when Rocky’s has its popular fish fry.
“We get the best cod that we can buy,” Lepke said, and the fish fry attracts as many as 300 customers on Friday nights during the busiest months.
Rocky’s gourmet bleu cheese dressing is used to make the supper club’s bleu cheese fish entrée, and can be purchased by the print at the supper club. Some customers like to eat it on fish, hamburgers, shrimp and wings, as well as on the pizzas that are available on Sundays during the NFL season.
One of Rocky’s more unique entrees is its creamy bacon zinger steak, which is large slices of marinated pepper steak that are stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeno peppers before being wrapped in bacon and broiled. Another is its salmon supreme, which is a salmon filet with garlic butter, crab and lobster topping.
The supper club has about 20 employees.
“We have wonderful employees; they’ve been a big part of Rocky’s success,” Lepke said. Mark Peterson has been head chef for the past 40 years, and Chris Trelle has been bar manager for 22 years.
Rocky’s was started by the late Earl “Rocky” Pennel and his wife, the late Ione “Toots” Pennel. The place was a bar and hotel when the Pennels bought it, Stearns said. In 1959, the Pennels remodeled, added a kitchen and converted it into a supper club, she said.
Stearns, who spent most of her youth in Stoddard, was living in Racine when she and her family heard the Pennels wanted to retire and sell Rocky’s. She had worked there as a waitress for a few years and liked the idea of owning the supper club.
Her family bought the business in April 1972.
Lepke will eventually become Rocky’s owner. Besides managing the supper club, she has been a real estate with Cindy Gerke & Associates for the past seven years.
Lepke hopes the supper club will remain in the family for a third generation. “My son and his wife-to-be have talked about taking over the business someday,” she said.
Stearns and Lepke aren’t sure how old the building was. But Stearns mounted a huge photo on a wall in the supper club’s bar showing it was Wodzynsky’s Hotel in 1895.