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A Chicago steak institution turns 31 Monday.

Frank Sinatra's one-time hangout is handing out free mini-cheeseburgers to celebrate, but let's backtrack a little.

Chicagoan Arnie Morton's brainstorm was better than his timing. His high-end Morton's Steakhouse was a first-day bust when it opened Dec. 21, 1978. A blizzard hit the Windy City, burying his namesake eatery in the basement of a Gold Coast high-rise.

Sister restaurant Arnie's didn't fare much better. "We had only a handful, maybe 18 to 20 people, in the restaurant that night," general manager Raki Mehra recalled. "Two people came on skis for dinner."

Yet business picked up in January. A manager phoned one day, asking then-waiter Mehra to report to Morton's, 1050 N. State St. Ring-a-ding, Sinatra had stopped in for dinner. Word spread, and patrons were swarming the joint.

"The first time he came in, he ordered a Porterhouse," Mehra said. "The waitress who was serving that night took the bone home and kept it in the freezer for almost six months. She was a big fan."

Ol' Blue Eyes became a regular, with local developer/pal Jack McHugh always picking up the tab and Sinatra over-tipping. Once the crooner, who routinely ordered the Porterhouse, asked a waiter about his best tip.

"The server said $500, so Frank Sinatra gave him $600 that night," Mehra said. "Then he asked the server, `Who gave you $500?' And he said, 'You did, last year!'"

Other celebs followed Sinatra's lead. VIP patrons would include Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Jackie Gleason and Richard Burton.

Sinatra - whose other local hangouts included Jilly's, Twin Anchors and Gibson's -- died in 1998. But his legacy lives on at Morton's aka Morton's The Steakhouse (The Original) these days. Patrons nosh on steak and jumbo baked potatoes to Sinatra recordings.

Now a chain with 77 restaurants worldwide, Morton's is giving away free mini-cheeseburgers from 5 to 6 p.m. in its bars on Monday. Morton's has six eateries in Greater Chicago. Visit mortons.com for locations. And thanks, Frank!

Gleeful news

Brava to local girl Jane Lynch for her Golden Globe nod for TV's "Glee." Lynch, who grew up in Dolton, is up for best supporting actress bid for her role as a scheming cheerleader coach. Fact: The Second City alum, who plays the Glee Club-loathing Sue, was a fixture in choirs at Thornridge High School.

Yo!

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has accepted a three-year creative consultant post with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Pass the cigars

The Shedd Aquarium is celebrating the birth of a bouncing boy beluga. Mom Puiji (poo-EE-jee) successfully delivered the unnamed calf -- the fifth whale born at the Shedd -- at 6:36 a.m. Monday. Despite a breech birth -- the calf was born head first instead of tail (fluke) first -- the little guy took his first breath and promptly began swimming with Mom.

The dark-gray baby is "adorable," Shedd spokesman Roger Germann said. He's smart, too; he was diving and nursing within 24 hours. Puiji's maternal instincts have already kicked in. When the pair swims, she turns her head to make sure Junior is near and rolls over and "presents herself, like, 'Hey, this is where you nurse,'" Germann said.

A team of nearly 100 animal handlers, veterinarian and trainers assisted during Puiji's labor and delivery in an off-exhibit pool.

The father is Naluark, father of the calf's sister Bella (born to Puiji in 2006) and half-brother Miki (born to Mauyauk in 2007). The new baby weighs 162 pounds and measures 5 feet, 4 inches from snout to tail.

Naya, another of the Shedd's eight beluga whales, is pregnant and expected to deliver in six to eight weeks.

Puiji and son will be off-exhibit for several months so they can bond in peace and quiet.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. Reach her at molly.woulfe@nwi.com or at (219) 852-4329.

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