When Rich Melman opened Intro a year ago, his goal was not only to bring some of the best chefs in the country to Chicago for three-months stints, but also teach them the ins-and-out of restaurant ownership. It seems their plan has worked, as chef and partner C.J. Jacobson is staying in Chicago and announcing plans for Ēma, his first restaurant under the Lettuce Entertain You umbrella. It should open this summer on Illinois Street in River North.
The California-based chef was the first to take over the kitchen at Lettuce's chef-changing concept and is also the executive chef at Girasol in Los Angeles. When asked about his decision to stay in Chicago, Jacobson says, "I want to be a restaurateur, I want to be a entrepreneur, and with Rich Melman mentoring me it would be foolish not to." Together, along with partner Marc Jacobs, they will open Ēma in the Hyatt Place at 74 W. Illinois Street. The Mediterranean small plates restaurant is named after the Hebrew word for "mother" and sits adjacent to another mother-inspired concept: Beatrix, which is named after Melman's mom.
The 6-foot-8-inch chef lived in Israel during his time as a professional volleyball player, and that experience inspires the food at his restaurant. "I remember being blown away about how fresh everything was," he says. He will bring the same dedication to fresh ingredients to Ēma by sourcing vibrant greens and seasonal vegetables from both local farmers as well as farmers in California. Assorted small plates, or mezze, will feature unique spices and encourage sharing. In addition to the healthy stuff, a rotisserie will spit out roast chicken and legs of lamb served with housemade bread that Jacobson describes as a cross between naan and a pita that is brushed with butter.
The full-service restaurant will also have a full bar with beer, cocktails and a wine list that channels the Mediterranean. Guests will also have the option of selecting rotisserie meats, salads, and housemade frozen Greek yogurt from a grab-and-go counter. "I want to have a nice big, busy, bustling restaurant that people crave where I can serve delicious food," Jacobson says. "I'm with the right restaurant group to do that."