Downtown Milwaukee's newest fine dining spot Lupi & Iris has opened its doors on North Van Buren Street.
Located on the ground floor of the 7Seventy7 building, at 777 N. Van Buren St., the Mediterranean restaurant had its first public dinner service Tuesday night. Its opening comes almost a year after co-owners chef Adam Siegel and local real estate developer Michael DeMichele announced plans for the restaurant.
"Michael and I are beyond excited to share our creation with Milwaukee," said Siegel, former corporate executive chef at The Bartolotta Restaurants and a James Beard Award winner. "It’s truly a labor of love that we’ve both poured our hearts and souls into for nearly a year."
The 10,500-square-foot restaurant features an 18-seat horseshoe-shaped front bar and elevated lounge; an 84-seat dining room with a chef's counter facing the expansive open-concept kitchen; a central walk-in wine vault that holds 2,000 bottles; and two private dining areas. All told, there's space to seat 290 people inside, with an additional 56 seats on the outdoor patio, which is expected to open next month initially for cocktail service only.
Lupi & Iris had a series of soft opening parties last week, serving 115 people on Thursday and ramping up to 175 on Saturday. The response from those nights was positive, but the restaurant is taking a conservative approach to its public debut. In its opening weeks, dining room capacity will be limited, as are reservations - at least for week one - in order to accommodate as many walk-ins as possible.
"We're not seating the entire restaurant right away because it wouldn't be fair to our employees without enough time under their belts, but it also wouldn't be fair to the guests because they're going to pay for an experience level that they expect, and if we overload ourselves, we won't be able to give that to them until we're fully trained," said Siegel.
Like most service-sector employers today, staffing up hasn't been easy, especially for a large restaurant, he said. The current team of nearly 75 employees is sufficient for dinner service, but about 25 more hires are needed before Lupi & Iris can introduce lunch and brunch. The goal is to have lunch available by mid-June and brunch by the end of that month.
As professionals gradually return to downtown offices buildings, including the nearby Northwestern Mutual Tower, upscale lunch spots are seeing increased demand, DeMichele said. Many downtown restaurants that were popular business lunch spots pre-pandemic have not resumed mid-day service.
"They're dying for it," said DeMichele. "Everybody keeps asking me if we're doing lunch."
While the dining room area was designed to feel more formal - for both special occasions and the impromptu weeknight bite - the front bar and lounge area is meant to be approachable and lively.
"We want to have a hoppin' bar," said DeMichele, who is president of DeMichele Co. and principal at WillowTree Development LLC, both based in Milwaukee.
Between the zinc bar counter and surrounding high-tops and booth seating, the bar-lounge area seat 82 people.
"We wanted to be able to accommodate not just people who want to dine in a bar, but people who want to come in, have a drink and maybe a small appetizer before they go to a show, or even after work," said Siegel. "You feel like you're in a different part of the restaurant."
Lupi & Iris' menu was inspired by Siegel's experience working under Italian, French and Spanish chefs in France and the Italian Riviera. It incorporates fresh ingredients sourced locally, regionally and from overseas.
On the lighter side, diners will find appetizers ranging from marinated olives to Pissaladiere - grilled flatbread topped with tomato, roasted red onions, Nicoise olive tapenade, white anchovy and herbs - as well as the Soupe au Pistou, which is Provencal vegetable soup with lentils and classic Provencal herb puree, and Asparagus Salad with a fried egg, mushrooms, sherry vinaigrette and garlic toast.
Pasta is a mainstay with dishes such as Trofie al Pesto - twisted pasta quills with Genovese pesto, string beans, potato and fresh Parmigiano - and Daube de Ravioli - Provencal-style braised beef-filled ravioli with wine, chard and tomato. Entrees include Italian seafood stew, grilled lamb chops, grilled chicken, and New York strip steak.
With a wide range of items, the hope is Lupi & Iris will appeal to diners of varying tastes and occasions.
"We want business people, we want friends and family, we want to see a good mix of people," said Siegel.
In developing the menu, Siegel opted for a longer menu than what most restaurants are offering these days, but one that incorporates like products that can be used in a variety of different ways.
The development of the restaurant space itself was a greater challenge due to ongoing supply chain disruption for certain products and raw materials. When the restaurant opened Tuesday, it was missing a key design element: fully upholstered teal leather chairs imported from Italy. The order is expected to arrive Friday, but in the meantime, banquet rentals will have to do.
"There wasn't a (shipping) container to put them in, so they literally missed the boat," said Seigel.
For some areas, the team had to select new materials all together. For example, the brown tiled kitchen floor was originally supposed to to be black.
"When we went to order it, it was six months away (from being available)," said DeMichele.
Siegel and DeMichele met years ago when both their children attended the same grade school. The pair connected over their passion for food. The name Lupi & Iris was inspired by family members who helped instill that passion. Lupi is the name of Siegel’s late father-in-law who would spend hours in the kitchen talking as Siegel cooked. Iris is the name of DeMichele’s Italian grandmother who emigrated to the U.S. from Campobasso and was a fantastic home cook.
"We wanted to create something that was unique and different from what Milwaukee has seen before," said Siegel. "What's cool about it is we both have our touches in here. Mine are more in the kitchen area and Michael's are more outside of it."
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