Last updated on March 17th, 2020 at 01:33 pm
Milwaukee’s restaurant industry took a major hit earlier this year when beloved restaurateur and local business community icon Joe Bartolotta passed away.
The president and co-founder of Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC left behind a family-owned operation that started as one Italian eatery and grew to 16 top-tier restaurants and catering facilities, employing nearly 1,000 people.
Joe built the restaurant empire brick-by-brick alongside his brother, Paul Bartolotta, whose role as co-founder and chef has now taken on a new meaning.
“My job, which is not a small one because my brother was a person of enormous stature, is to continue to build upon his legacy and not live in the past, but to say, ‘OK, what’s the next 25 years of success look like for The Bartolotta Restaurants?’”
Paul intends to do that by doing what Joe did best as a leader: thinking and moving forward, he said.
He said Joe had always been the visionary of the two, initially convincing Paul in 1993 that there was, in fact, a market for fine dining in Milwaukee.
“To his great vision, he saw it,” Paul said.
Carrying the loss of his brother and business partner, Paul has now stepped into the lead role at a company adjusting to major change.
While the past nine months haven’t been easy, the company and family that owns it have carried out Joe’s legacy by continuing to prioritize two things Joe loved: the employees and community. For that, Bartolotta Restaurant Group has been named the BizTimes Best in Business 2019 Family-Owned Business of the Year.
Growing up in a close-knit Italian family with parents who constantly welcomed people into their Wauwatosa home, Joe and Paul naturally placed hospitality at the forefront of their business.
Celebrating Joe’s life has had a similar feel.
About 2,000 “FOJs” – friends of Joe – attended the public funeral service held at the Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee. The bar was open and coffee was served. More than 10 of his family members, friends and colleagues took the stage to share memories and stories of his life.
Soon after, Paul participated in panel discussions at local business events, including BizTimes Media’s annual Family & Closely Held Business Summit, where he candidly discussed the company’s transition.
Jennifer Bartolotta, Joe’s wife and director of the company’s philanthropic arm Care-a-lotta, gave the keynote address at MMAC’s Future 50 Awards luncheon in September, sharing humorous and emotional “Joe stories” and nuggets of his entrepreneurial wisdom.
Asked about his family’s decision to publicly process Joe’s death, Paul said, “It was just very natural, kind of whatever we felt was appropriate.”
For Paul, as the new public face of the company, memorializing Joe has meant speaking honestly and authentically from his heart, not worrying if it was the right or wrong thing to say, he said.
And as head of the company, he focused on uplifting his team and directing conversations toward how “we were going to live Joe’s legacy,” all while allowing employees to grieve on their own time, he said.
Known for a leadership philosophy that prioritized his employees first and profit last, Joe’s legacy is felt throughout the local restaurant industry. Many of Milwaukee’s chefs and restaurateurs who now own or manage their own concepts once worked at a Bartolotta restaurant, Paul said.
“Some people find long-term homes; other people learn and stay and help us get better, and then have the desire and the itch to go do something on their own, and it’s great to see because as more restaurants open, all that does is force everybody to get better,” he said.
In September, work was completed on what was Joe and Paul’s last joint endeavor. After closing for two months of renovations, Bacchus reopened with a new look and menu. The project was aimed at transforming the fine dining restaurant, which has operated for 15 years on the ground floor of Cudahy Tower in downtown Milwaukee, into an all-occasion eatery.
As part of Joe’s vision, the refurbished bar-restaurant is brighter and more vibrant with new flooring, lighting and furniture.
Major improvements were also made at Ristorante Bartolotta last year as the brothers’ flagship concept celebrated 25 years in business.