Milwaukee’s Biggest Cheese
After 25 years, Bartolotta Restaurants continue to flourish
In the 1980s, if you asked Joe Bartolotta if he thought he’d be sitting at the top of a restaurant empire, he’d likely have laughed. Bartolotta, who hadn’t gone to college and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, was content loading trucks for UPS and making decent money. But knowing his brother Paul, who was working as a chef in Italy, would eventually come home, Joe figured he should give the restaurant business a shot. And it’s a good thing he did.
More than 25 years after opening their first restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta, in their hometown of Wauwatosa, a suburb due west of Milwaukee, the Bartolotta brothers now claim 16 restaurants, catering and corporate dining.
The Bartolotta Restaurants group continues to groom young chefs and restaurant management, many of whom, like Dane Baldwin (The Diplomat) and Miles Borghgraef (Birch + Butcher), have gone on to open their own successful restaurants in Milwaukee.
“I’m proud of how the city has evolved,” says president and co-founder Joe Bartolotta. “We’re the farm team that graduates a lot of this talent and I’m super proud of that.”
Ristorante Bartolotta opened in 1993 and was an immediate hit and continues to be. The brothers followed that a few years later with Lake Park Bistro when a fairly rundown building overlooking Lake Michigan became available. Their authentic French cuisine didn’t at first win over locals, but after a year and some tweaks, it went on to become a hit. They continued that success with a series of restaurants, including a steakhouse, supper club, pizzeria and even a custard stand. Not everything the company opened was a hit, but that doesn’t mean they flopped.
“Nothing has ever failed in my brain,” Bartolotta says. “We’ve closed some restaurants and sometimes we don’t know why it didn’t work. It’s a gnawing feeling when you can’t figure out why one isn’t performing.”
Case in point: Bacchus, one of the group’s earliest restaurants, will reconcept in August, but not because it hasn’t done well. The restaurant, which touches a bit on Italian and French, but also steaks and seafood, has waned in popularity and will undergo a refresh after 15 years.
While the brothers started the business together, Joe continues to run it with executive chef and managing partner, Adam Siegel. Paul, who has won two James Beard Foundation Awards and gained international acclaim while serving as executive chef/managing partner of Chicago’s Spiaggia in the ‘90s (while also overseeing the Bartolotta restaurants), consults on projects around the country, appears on food shows and sits on the board of the Bocuse d’Or, the biennial Olympics of the food world. According to Joe, they’re working on getting Paul into another family restaurant and look toward the future.
“I’m 60 and I wonder what the company looks like in 10, 20 years,” Joe says. “You think about family, legacy, transitioning. You want to keep it running and we’re planning for the future. It’s not just an independent restaurant. It’s a family of restaurants and people all moving in the same direction at the same time. You become really powerful when you do that.”