Joe Bartolotta was a self-proclaimed “big deal.”
The Milwaukee restaurant industry icon and Bartolotta Restaurant Group LLC co-founder, who died on April 22 at the age of 60, was loved by many for his carefree sense of humor, larger-than-life personality and a way of making everyone he interacted with feel important – and for those who knew him well enough, the occasional witty reminder that he was a “big deal.”
Testaments to those lovable characteristics were shared during a memorial service that packed The Riverside Theater. For two hours, approximately 2,000 family members, friends, employees, patrons and community leaders, most wearing colorful attire, gathered to laugh, cry and celebrate the life and legacy of Bartolotta and the big deal that he truly was to Milwaukee.
“Bartolotta restaurants have always been about a dozen or so buildings,” said John Wise, The Bartolotta Restaurants’ director of operations, during his eulogy. “It’s always been about the people inside them – the staff, vendors, and the guests together. Within these buildings, though, there are wonderful restaurants. We worked on Joe’s vision: the best food and beverage, the best service, the best locations and environment. He created living, breathing entities where magical things can happen.”
Over the course of 25 years, Joe and his brother, Paul, grew their business presence from one restaurant to 16 restaurants and catering facilities in the Milwaukee area, 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 opened their first restaurant, Ristorante Bartolotta, in 1993 in their hometown, Wauwatosa. The authentic Italian restaurant has received numerous awards and accolades, both locally and nationally, and last year celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Following the success of Ristorante Bartolotta, Joe led the business to open some of the area’s top dining destinations: Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro in 1995 on Milwaukee’s East Side, 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.
In 2004, the company launched another successful venture, Bartolotta Catering & Events. The division is the exclusive caterer for Discovery World on Milwaukee’s lakefront, The Grain Exchange in downtown Milwaukee, and the Italian Community Center in the Historic Third Ward.
In 2010, Bartolotta partnered with iconic Milwaukee entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Cudahy to open Harbor House at the former Pieces of Eight site on the lakefront.
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.
“Personally, there are so many rewarding things about working in this industry, but there are so many things that take your energy,” said Omar Shaikh, co-owner and president of SURG Restaurant Group LLC.[caption id="attachment_381166" align="alignnone" width="770"] A memorial service for Joe Bartolotta was held at The Riverside Theater.[/caption]
A friend and peer of Bartolotta’s, Shaikh would often call him to ask for advice or talk through various concerns they had about business or the industry.
“We were always bouncing things off each other,” he said. “He was a great resource.”
Bartolotta’s 16 restaurants and catering facilities, which make up an empire of more than 1,000 employees, are perhaps the most obvious displays of his tremendous impact on the Milwaukee community.
But in addition to playing a key role with The Bartolotta Restaurants’ philanthropic arm, Care-a-lotta, he sat on the boards of many other 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 Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
He 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.
And what’s more, Bartolotta proudly helped champion Milwaukee’s bid to host the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
During Bartolotta’s funeral, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett shared a story about a site visit with Democratic Party officials.
“Joe was asked to talk about restaurants and about the city and I was standing behind him, and as he was talking, I was thinking ‘I wish we were videotaping this’ because he sold this city in an amazing way,” Barrett said.
It rained that day, Barrett said, and while the group later enjoyed a two-hour dinner at Lake Park Bistro, Bartolotta handed out steak dinners to the dozens of police officers who were serving as escorts as they were waiting outside.
“I’ve seen him do this over and over and over again where he’s kind to people and I think that is a legacy more than anything,” Barrett said.
“Everyone who met Joe felt like they were important to him,” said Paul Bartolotta during his eulogy. “I’ll let you in on a secret – you were. Everybody was important to Joe.”
He told attendees they are all “FOJs,” an abbreviation (and company inside joke) for “friend of Joe’s.”
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 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 daily 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.
And Milwaukee’s restaurant community is expected to do the same.
“We all – the Bartolottas, their group, the community – lost a leader, but it’s our job to step up and carry the torch and move the city forward like Joe was doing,” Shaikh said.