Lettuce Entertain You founder Rich Melman has earned a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation.
Melman, 72, is the board chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the Chicago-based group that spans more than 100 restaurants across America. The late Jerry Orzoff and Melman founded LEYE in 1971 when RJ Grunt's opened in Lincoln Park.
Melman will receive the award on May 4 at the James Beard Awards dinner at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He's the first Chicagoan to receive the lifetime achievement award since it began in 2005, according to the Tribune. Melman called winning the award "very special."
"I'm a born and raised Chicagoan, and I grew up in Logan Square," Melman told Eater Chicago. "This is my town, I'm very proud of it. I'm so excited that James Beard is coming here."
This makes this year's Beards even more Chicago-centric, as city officials for the first time wrestled the prestigious event from New York, its home since 1990. The Lifetime Achievement is Melman's second Beard award; he won "outstanding restauranteur" in 2011 but wasn't present to receive the award in The Big Apple.
This time around, he won't have to stray too far from home. Melman promised he'd make it to the awards dinner in May, rearranging his vacation schedule as it is "too important to miss."
LEYE is credited with changing how American saw eating out, transforming it from dining at restaurants just because you were hungry to more of an entertainment experience. Next month, LEYE unveils Intro, headlined by Top Chef alum chef CJ Jacobson and the new Tock ticketing system.
Melman describes himself as part artist and part businessman. Trying new things, like Intro (which will feature a rotating chef), satisfies that artist's side. He also enjoys being a mentor, and compared it to being a coach for a sports team.
"There's nothing that makes me happier than coaching young people," Melman says. "I love it so that's why I do it. Intro is giving me a whole new way of doing this thing which I think is a whole lot of fun."
So how does a man with more than a 100 restaurants celebrate? He said he won't go too crazy, but he'll go out tonight for a nice dinner and a glass of wine with his wife.