Wisconsin Foods Reign at Mars Cheese Castle
The landmark 80-foot Mars Cheese Castle sign, visible from I94 in Kenosha County, not only prompts road trip conversation, but it also serves as a symbol of all things great about Wisconsin foods. Originally opened in 1947 by Martha and Mario Ventura Sr., Mars Cheese Castle (2800 W. Frontage Road, Kenosha) is now a foodie destination, amassing over the decades some of the finest cheeses, sausages, bakery, condiments, wine, beer, a café and a bar all under one regal roof.
A fire demolished Mars Cheese Castle’s original location in 1957, and the Venturas reopened in a different building in 1958. Around 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation planned to widen I-94, and Mars Cheese Castle stood in the path of the project. Still owned and operated by the Ventura family, they rebuilt 50 yards behind the previous space and were able to move the famed Mars Cheese Castle sign with them (the extreme height would have violated ordinances), thanks to then-Wisconsin Assemblyperson James Kreuser, who pushed a bill though the legislature to keep the sign as is.
The current 25,000 square-foot store opened March 2011 and was constructed to look like a castle, featuring brick, castle turrets, a drawbridge entrance and a watchtower that houses the wine department. “My folks always wanted to see a real castle here,” said owner Mario Ventura Jr.
A visit to the castle proves the store lives up to its name, offering more than 300 cut and wrapped cheeses from Wisconsin, Europe and elsewhere. Ventura said they’re best known for sharp aged yellow and white cheddars, 10 to 12 years old. Mars Cheese Castle’s King of Clubs cheddar cheese spread is made in Northern Wisconsin. “My father developed that line during the 1950s,” Ventura said, adding that King of Clubs is unique because it’s natural and not processed like most cheese spreads.
Customers can find an assortment of sausages, and the in-house bakery crafts sweet and savory products including Mars’ renowned sharp cheddar cheese bread. Ventura’s brother-in-law developed the recipe, also available with jalapeño. Ventura noted they’ve sold more than 500 loaves during some weekends, and it’s a hit at Milwaukee area festivals.
Maple syrup, mustard and sauces line the aisles, as do candy, snacks and crackers. The Venturas try everything themselves before placing goods in the store. Wisconsin craft and microbrewers are represented, along with imported beers from Holland, Germany and Denmark. Door County wines are just some of the Wisconsin vinos available, along with drier wines from France, Italy and Germany.
The café boasts “the best Reuben sandwich in the United States,” according to Ventura. The corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut specialty weighs in at a half-pound when served. On the menu are Usinger’s brats made from a formula that originated with a Kenosha sausage maker during the 1930s and 1940s. The Venturas bought the formula when the sausage maker went out of business, and Usinger’s was able to replicate it. The café also serves beef sandwiches, grilled cheese, spicy sausages and more.
Customers can also enjoy a Bloody Mary or Wisconsin beers at the bar, and peruse the assortment of novelty Wisconsin knick-knacks, mugs and T-shirts.
Despite having a glorious castle, the Venturas need to expand the kingdom due to rapid business growth. An addition is underway that will double the size of the store to 50,000 square feet and will feature a larger lunch area. Additional parking is also planned. Ventura anticipates construction to be completed by April.
For more information, visit marscheese.com.