UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that the casino passed regulatory inspections and will open Saturday.
The century-old Medinah Temple that’s been home to a theater, a Bloomingdale’s and even a circus is expected to open its doors Saturday as Bally’s revamped temporary casino in River North.
State gaming board regulators put the casino’s operations to the test this week, and Bally’s announced Friday Chicago’s first temporary casino will finally open to the public after delays from its initial summertime opening date.
The 1912 Chicago landmark features three floors of more than 750 slot machines and table games, three dining options and even a sports-betting area for future use. Elements of the iconic landmarked building have been maintained with stained glass windows and the casino’s layout centered around the iconic domed rotunda.
The Moorish Revival style amphitheater has a max capacity of about 3,200 people, Bally’s executives told reporters during a tour Tuesday. But about 350 people got first dibs during practice gaming sessions Wednesday and Thursday that were evaluated by Illinois Gaming Board personnel and an outside auditing firm.
The practice gaming sessions were required before Bally’s could receive the temporary operating permit.
Ameet Patel, senior vice president and regional general manager for Bally’s Corporation, said he expects a huge turnout when the casino does open.
“Even if you stand in front of Medinah today, you will have every couple of minutes people coming in and asking us, ‘Are you open yet’ or ‘When are you opening?’” Patel said. “So we expect clearly pent up demand. We expect a lot of excitement in the city.”
What can I expect at the Medinah Temple location?
Bettors must be 21 years or old to enter, and they’ll be met with hundreds of slot machines and a half-moon bar when they walk in through the Medinah Temple’s doors on Wabash Avenue.
“Once you enter the building, you can expect to hear loud clanging slot machines sounds, some of your favorite game themes,” Patel said. “It’s almost like walking (into) a video arcade.”
Take the escalators – holdovers from the building’s era as a Bloomingdale’s home store – up to the second and third floors and in addition to slots players can place their bets at table games such as baccarat, black jack and roulette.
Patel said Bally’s hopes to offer sports betting in the future at Medinah Temple – and the permanent casino – once the operator is approved.
“We expect to start with sports betting sometime after we open, but not necessarily immediately,” Patel said. “What we are focused on is definitely by the time we open the permanent casino where we have the luxury of much larger space for sportsbook and much larger ambience to work with, we will have a full scale sportsbook operation there.”
The casino’s upper floors feature two restaurants – Medinah Bistro and an Asian-inspired Kitchen 888 – which both have seating options that allow diners to eat out on the floor near the gaming action. A Wabash Cafe on the first floor also offers coffee and snacks like a brie and apples box or a slice of strawberry shortcake.
Will it still look like the historic building inside?
Pretty much. Patel said Bally’s wanted to be sure not to modify the building’s historic elements. Stained glass windows dot the walls and are separated from patrons by glass partitions to preserve them, and the former Bloomingdale’s signs were updated to feature Bally’s logo to be “the least intrusive.”
“The best thing we can do is to make sure, number one, that we don’t add these flashy, glitzy neon signs outside the building that you typically associate with a normal casino operation around the country,” Patel said.
A lower level of the building, which will be used for administrative purposes, will feature a mural by Shawn Michael Warren, the Chicago-based artist who also painted the West Loop mural paying tribute to Oprah Winfrey. Once completed, the mural will pay homage to Medinah Temple’s storied history as a theater for the Shriners and home to a circus.
How much money is this casino expected to generate?
With the temporary casino at the Medinah Temple’s opening slightly delayed from its original target date, revenue before things like interests are accounted for is still expected to be between $15-25 million for 2023, according to an August quarterly earnings report.
Patel said the delay will not impact Bally’s revenue and hiring goals it made to the city.
“We expect ourselves to meet or exceed every commitment that we’ve given,” Patel said.
For fiscal year 2024, revenue is anticipated to increase to $50-60 million with the permanent facility on the Freedom Center’s grounds forecasted to bring in $250 million, according to the earnings report.
The money generated by the casino is expected to go toward the city’s pension payments, but will still be a drop in the bucket for what is owed, WBEZ has previously reported.
Patel said Bally’s has exceeded its hiring goals, with 80% of its employees being minorities, 53% women and 59% being Chicago residents. Out of the 700 employees hired for the Medinah Temple location, about 300 are table game dealers. A partnership with the City Colleges of Chicago to train new dealers will be ongoing, he said.
How long until the permanent casino opens?
An August Bally’s quarterly earnings report said the permanent River West location is still slated to open in 2026. Bally’s has given Tribune Publishing up to two years to relocate its printing plant, The Chicago Tribune reported in February, and the permanent site must still go through a similar approval process from state gaming regulators.
The construction of the Medinah Temple casino was done with the permanent location in mind. Bally’s executives said machines that were newly bought for the temporary site are expected to be moved for use at the permanent casino once it opens.
“Our obligation to our landlord at Medinah Temple is to return the building in its same shape as we took over, which will be a blank slate. So everything will be transferred in three years over to the permanent site,” Patel said. “Now, what happens to the location after we leave will clearly be up to the landlord.”
OK, I’ve never been to a casino before. Do I have to pay to get in?
No, there’s no admission fee, per se. The casino pays a so-called “admission tax” for people who attend, but that won’t come directly out of your pocket when you visit. But, per state regulations, there’s no free alcoholic drinks for gambling either, so don’t expect to high roll your way into free booze.
WBEZ’s Tessa Weinberg covers Chicago city government and politics.