See photos from Visit Milwaukee’s annual meeting

Almost 700 tourism and hospitality industry leaders attended

Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee

Last updated on June 27th, 2019 at 11:36 am

The legacy of the late Joe Bartolotta, the upcoming 2020 Democratic National Convention and excitement surrounding the Milwaukee Bucks’ historic playoff run were the highlights of discussion at VISIT Milwaukee’s annual meeting on Tuesday.

The event, which was held at the Italian Community Center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward, attracted about 700 local business professionals, community leaders, hospitality industry executives and elected officials to celebrate recent strides in regional tourism.

Omar Shaikh, chair of VISIT Milwaukee’s board of directors, kicked off the meeting with a tribute and toast to local restaurant industry icon Joe Bartolotta, who died in April. It was the first of several Bartolotta nods made by speakers during the program. 

Bartolotta was co-owner and president of Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC a longtime VISIT Milwaukee board member. 

“He was an absolute titan for hospitality, a staunch advocate for tourism, he was a friend, a mentor and an incredible person,” said Shaikh, who is also co-owner and president of SURG Restaurant Group LLC.

He recognized the impact Joe, with co-owner and brother Paul Bartolotta, had on the city, saying “they literally changed the landscape of dining culture for all of Milwaukee, paved the way for so many restauranteurs to follow after.”

Paul Upchurch, president and CEO of VISIT Milwaukee, shared notable tourism data and highlights from 2018, including a 5.2 percent year-over-year increase in business sales in Milwaukee County and booking 442 meetings and conventions through 2024.

But the organization’s greatest effort over the past year, he said, was helping Milwaukee land the Democratic National Convention, taking place July 13 to 16, 2020.

He said the July 2020 convention is a “big win” for the city and, with the Ryder Cup taking place near Sheboygan in September the same year, is just part of what will be “Milwaukee’s biggest year ever.”

The event featured two speakers from the Democratic National Committee: Jess O’Connell, who is the site selection chair for the DNC, and Joe Solmonese, a longtime political activist, who in March was named CEO of the 2020 DNC chief executive. 

As CEO, Solmonese heads the day-to-operations of planning and executing the convention.

“I’ve seen first(-hand) how these things can sometimes go sideways– a bunch of outsiders come to town, they throw a big mess of a party, they pull up their tents and they leave,” he said. “Well I promise you that this convention is not going to be run this way. Everything that we are going to do will be transparent, inclusive and respectful of this city and everyone in it.”

Solmonese plans to move to Milwaukee later this month, he said.

Additional speakers and presenters during the program included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, Wisconsin Center District president and CEO Marty Brooks, Wisconsin State Fair CEO Kathleen O’Leary and Milwaukee Bucks president Peter Feigin, who opened with a loud “Go Bucks!”

After the program, the event continued with a reception featuring food and drinks from local vendors such as Milwaukee Pretzel Company, Cafe Benelux, Blue Bat Kitchen, Central Standard Distillery, Miller Brewing Co. and Smoke Shack.

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Maredithe Meyer
Maredithe Meyer started as an intern reporter at BizTimes in summer 2015. She currently covers entertainment, sports, tourism and restaurants. In May 2017, she graduated with a journalism degree from Marquette University where she worked as an in-depth projects reporter for the Marquette Wire and Marquette Tribune.