Milwaukee remembers, celebrates Joe Bartolotta

Nearly 2,000 family members, friends, employees packed The Riverside Theater

Fr. Tim Kitzke presided over the funeral service. Photo credit Mike Miller Images.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:21 pm

The Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee was ablaze with color on Saturday morning as approximately 2,000 people gathered for what was more a celebration of life than a funeral service for beloved restaurateur and local business community icon Joe Bartolotta.

Bartolotta, who was the president and co-owner of The Bartolotta Restaurants, died last week at the age of 60.

The funeral service, which was open to the public, began promptly at 10 a.m., but people arrived early to mingle, greet the Bartolotta family and find a good seat inside the theater while upbeat music played. In the lobby, the bar was open, coffee was being served and large portraits of Bartolotta were on display.

Setting the tone for the event, the company had requested days earlier that no black attire be worn to the service “in homage to Joe’s bright disposition that he brought every day.” 

Fr. Tim Kitzke, pastor at Old St. Mary Catholic Parish in downtown Milwaukee presided over the service, starting with prayers and a scripture reading. Kitzke also shared a personal story about a time when Bartolotta asked him to be “his priest.”

During the second half of the two-hour service, over 10 of Bartolotta’s family members, friends and colleagues took the stage to share memories and stories of his life.

Bartolotta’s daughter, Anna, reminisced about her father’s love for others and light sense of humor, even about death.

“He would imagine this day with an almost dark amusement. I used to not like how he did that,” she said. “He always lived with a little wink at his own mortality, but now I appreciate it. He never left any ‘I love you’s’ on the table and he never hesitated to tell Mary and I that he was proud of us and he never second guessed a big hug. He left everything out on the court.”

Bartolotta’s second daughter, Mary, joined The Bartolotta Restaurants last year as assistant marketing manager.

Eulogies continued with Paul Bartolotta, Joe’s brother and the company’s co-owner. Bartolotta’s sisters, Fecilia and Maria, stood next to him. He told attendees they are all “FOJs,” an abbreviation (and company inside joke) for friend of Joe’s.

“Everyone who met Joe felt like they were important to him,” he said. “I’ll let you in on a secret– you were. Everybody was important to Joe.”

During his speech, Paul recognized Jamie Shiparski, Joe’s brother-in-law who donated a kidney so Joe could undergo a living-donor kidney transplant in 2013.

Shiparski later gave his own eulogy, saying he’s never defined himself as Joe’s kidney donor because “Joe would have done the same thing for me, as he would have done for so many people if he had that opportunity.”

The transplant added a few years to his life, but Bartolotta had also suffered from other health issues, including Type 1 diabetes since he was a child. Jennifer Bartolotta, Joe’s wife and director of the company’s philanthropic arm Care-a-lotta, elaborated on the day-to-day health challenges Joe kept private, or what she called “the daily grind that he never showed you.”

“He sustained the blows of three heart attacks, had seven stents placed in his heart and six years ago, my beloved brother donated a kidney to Joe,” she said.

Toward the end of his life, she said, he was taking 38 pills a day and “the neuropathy in his feet had become debilitating.”

Jennifer continued her speech with words of assurance and certainty about the future of the company.

“If you’re wondering about your jobs, please don’t. If you’re wondering about our leadership team, please don’t. If you’re wondering about the quality of our food deteriorating, please don’t. If you’re wondering if we can deliver on his promise to passionately serve you, please don’t. If you’re wondering if we’ll continue our heartfelt service to the community, please don’t. We can and will survive this journey of ambiguity because we will walk in his footsteps,” she said.

The service concluded with a final speech from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. He spoke about Bartolotta’s moral character as a family man and a business owner and about his longtime impact on the city and greater Milwaukee community.

“I feel blessed to have had him as a friend in my life, and I think every person in this room should feel blessed that you got to know Joe Bartolotta,” Barrett said.

A full recording of the funeral service is below. Video by Epic Creative.


Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

Maredithe has covered retail, restaurants, entertainment and tourism since 2018. Her duties as associate editor include copy editing, page proofing and managing work flow. Meyer earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University and still enjoys attending men’s basketball games to cheer on the Golden Eagles. Also in her free time, Meyer coaches high school field hockey and loves trying out new restaurants in Milwaukee.

No posts to display