Materials making use of thin ionic liquid (IL) films as support-modifying functional layer open up a variety of new possibilities in heterogeneous catalysis, which range from the tailoring of gas-surface interactions to the immobilization of molecularly defined reactive sites. The present report reviews recent progress towards an understanding of “supported ionic liquid phase (SILP)” and “solid catalysts with ionic liquid layer (SCILL)” materials at the microscopic level, using a surface science and model catalysis type of approach. Thin film IL systems can be prepared not only ex-situ, but also in-situ under ultrahigh vacuum (UHV) conditions using atomically well-defined surfaces as substrates, for example by physical vapor deposition (PVD). Due to their low vapor pressure, these systems can be studied in UHV using the full spectrum of surface science techniques. We discuss general strategies and considerations of this approach and exemplify the information available from complementary methods, specifically photoelectron spectroscopy and surface vibrational spectroscopy.