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Jim's ribs are a tasty family secret


Jim Overton, owner of Jim's Rib Haven, prepares a pile of ribs at the Rock Island restaurant which is a Quad-Cities favorite. His recipe for barbecue sauce is a closely guarded secret.

ROCK ISLAND -- A small nervous-acting woman jumped up from a Chicago Bulls bench in the corner of Jim's Rib Haven and approached the counter, saying she couldn't find her number.

``That was scary,'' she said. ``I'd be in trouble if I went home without those ribs.''

The woman at the counter laughed with the patron and explained she had taken her number. ``Look in your pocket,'' she suggested.

It was another weekend night at Jim's Rib Haven in Rock Island. At 5:30 p.m., the parking lot already was filling. Soon customers would be parking up and down 6th Avenue that runs along side the red metal building facing 24th Street.

Jim's Rib Haven is the taste of Rock Island and has become a member of Quad-Citian's food group. It's one of the first places former Quad-Citians head for when they return for a visit. It's one of the last places Quad-Citians head for a couple of pints of barbecue sauce before leaving Rock Island to visit out-of-town relatives hungry for the taste of Jim Overton's special sauce.

It's also a place that many first-time visitors to the Quad-Cities find by accident. On days when the ribs are being cooked, the heady aromatic blend of hickory and meat floats over Rock Island, and people follow their noses to the restaurant.

That smell hasn't always been an invited one. In 1984 Mr. Overton was told to add a 12-foot extension on to the smokestack when a few vocal neighbors complained about the smoke blowing into their yards. The taller chimney was a negotiated settlement that was in newspapers all over.

Who needs to advertise with that kind of press? It didn't hurt his business, it only helped.

The hickory-flavored ribs are only part of the coupling. The marriage isn't complete without Mr. Overton's recipe for spicy, tangy barbecue sauce. It's a closely guarded family secret, one he learned by helping his mother in the kitchen. There are no shortcuts, the sauce wouldn't be the same if any steps were missed.

Not too many have missed a taste of the ribs smoked slowly over hickory wood in a small white building along 5th Ave., the first home of Jim's Rib Haven.

It was a home the rib king didn't expect to have. Mr. Overton arrived in the Quad-Cities in late 1949 after a stint in the Army. He went to work for J I Case, then five years later ended up at International Harvestor's Farmall plant.

``Jim's Ribs'' got it's start in the back yard of his home. People raved and would stop by looking for the lip-smacking, finger-licking food. Soon he was cooking for churches and private organizations. Everyone who ever tasted Mr. Overton's barbecue said it needed to be shared with the public.

In 1967 he did, opening the first Jim's Rib Haven as a carry-out restaurant only. The popularity of the ribs grew so fast he soon opened a larger restaurant around the corner on 24th Street. The new facility included a dining room. Since, Mr. Overton also has opened a haven in East Moline.

For five years after opening his first eatery, Mr. Overton worked two jobs, the one at Farmall and cooking ribs. He finally retired from the factory and 18- and 19-hour days in 1972.

-- Pam Berenger (February 9, 1998)

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