Milwaukee restaurant industry icon Joe Bartolotta dies

The Bartolotta Restaurants co-owner was 60

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Joe Bartolotta

Joe Bartolotta, president and co-owner of The Bartolotta Restaurants, died Monday night at the age of 60, the company announced today.

“Joe is beloved by the Milwaukee community for his hospitality heart, generosity and love of all,” according to the announcement. “The family asks for privacy at this time.” 

Bartolotta “passed away peacefully in his sleep with a smile on his face,” the company said.

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The company announced that the funeral service for Bartolotta will be held on Saturday, April 27, at 10 a.m. at The Riverside Theater in downtown Milwaukee. The service is open to the public.

“In homage to Joe’s bright disposition that he brought every day, it is requested that no black attire be worn to the service,” the company said on Twitter. In lieu of flowers, the Bartolotta family asks that donations be made to The Italian Community Center, Discovery World or the Wisconsin Humane Society.

“Joe Bartolotta changed Milwaukee’s restaurant scene forever, and played a leading role in elevating us to the culinary destination we are today,” Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele said in a statement. “He will be remembered for his heart and hospitality, abiding commitment to the Milwaukee area and generous philanthropy. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bartolotta family, friends, fans and all who are mourning his loss.”

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Over the course of 25 years, Joe and Paul Bartolotta grew their business presence from one restaurant to 16 restaurants and catering facilities in the Milwaukee market, building a reputation as one of the premier restaurant groups in the Midwest. Their achievements have earned them national recognition as well, with a nomination by the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Restaurateur three years in a row – 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Joe and Paul Bartolotta opened their first restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta, in 1993 in their hometown of Wauwatosa. The authentic Italian restaurant has received numerous awards and accolades, both locally and nationally. To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Ristorante last year upgraded its menu and renovated its space.  

Joe followed the success of Ristorante Bartolotta with the openings of Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in 1995, Mr. B’s Steakhouse in 1999 in Brookfield, Pizzeria Piccola in 2003 in Wauwatosa, Bacchus in 2004 in downtown Milwaukee and Northpoint Custard at Bradford Beach in 2009, before partnering with local entrepreneur Michael Cudahy to open Harbor House in 2010 at the former Pieces of Eight site downtown at the lakefront.

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BizTimes Milwaukee caught up with Bartolotta as he prepared to open that waterfront concept.

In 2012, Bartolotta participated in the Q&A interview with then BizTimes Milwaukee executive editor Steve Jagler at the annual BizExpo conference. Click here to see a portion of that interview.

During the following years, Bartolotta opened The Rumpus Room in downtown Milwaukee, Joey Gerard’s – A Bartolotta Supper Club in Greendale and Mequon, Miss Beverly’s Deluxe Barbeque in Greendale, and Downtown Kitchen in the U.S. Bank Center in downtown Milwaukee.

In 2016, Bartolotta and his team also renovated and began managing the cafeteria at Kohl’s Corporate in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

Following the success of Joe’s diverse restaurants, The Bartolotta Restaurants in 2004 launched another successful venture, Bartolotta Catering & Events. The division is currently the exclusive caterer for three of Milwaukee’s premier event spaces: Discovery World on Milwaukee’s lakefront, The Grain Exchange in Downtown Milwaukee, and the Italian Community Center in the Historic Third Ward.

Bartolotta was an active member of the Milwaukee community. In addition to playing a key role with The Bartolotta Restaurants’ philanthropic arm, Care-a-lotta, he sat on the boards of many local organizations, including the MATC Advisory Board for Culinary Arts and VISIT Milwaukee. In 2014, Bartolotta was elected to the board of directors for the WRA – the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.

“It is with heavy hearts that we mourn the passing of longtime VISIT Milwaukee board member and tourism advocate Joe Bartolotta,” VISIT Milwaukee said in a statement released Tuesday. “He was an active community member who gave tremendous support to Milwaukee’s hospitality industry. He was a wonderful human being who will be sorely missed. Our deepest sympathies go out to the entire Bartolotta family.”

Joe also actively supported the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and organ donation awareness. He and his wife Jennifer together supported Schools That Can, Meta House, Milwaukee Public Schools’ ProStart Program, and the Wisconsin Humane Society.

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