After Joe Carlucci closed his namesake restaurant in Downers Grove three years ago, almost immediately he began planning another Carlucci’s that would bring him back to the city.
Carlucci has been in the restaurant business for 36 years. “There’s always something in building a restaurant that you don’t realize is going to surprise you,” he says. “My designer and I were laying out our plan, our vision for the place, and we said, ‘What’s this punch in the nose going to be?’ We find out six months later it’s a pandemic. Not the punch we were expecting. It was more like a body blow.”
Longtime Chicagoans may know Carlucci from his original Lincoln Park restaurant that closed in 1997 or nearby Charlie’s Ale House. (Carlucci Rosemont has a different owner.) Former Tribune critic Phil Vettel called him “a major figure in Chicago’s restaurant scene.” And now he’s back.
Carlucci Chicago recently opened in Lakeshore East. The skyscraper-heavy residential and retail development (home of restaurants including Avli on the Park and MingHin Cuisine) is not what most people see when they picture a Chicago neighborhood, but it suits Carlucci the restaurateur fine: it’s densely populated, full of people who would stop by regularly to ask when the restaurant would open. “And when we opened,” Carlucci says, “they came. The angst of wondering where the core business was coming from was eliminated.”
The menu is full of dishes that previous customers of Carlucci’s might recognize, including meatballs, arancini, and bobonato that’s tossed in a parmesan wheel table side. Carlucci’s been spinning the pasta in the cheese wheel since 1995 and jokes customers would not allow him to open without it.
But there are new dishes, too. Chef Dana Heffernan spent a year touring southwestern coastal Italy (particularly around Sorrento) and his travels inspired some new dishes for the menu, including pappardelle with duck ragu, Carlucci’s personal favorite. Just like at Downers Grove, there will be be pizzas with eclectic toppings like rabbit sausage and pepperoni with Calabrian pepper oil and honey. Both the pizzas and pastas are available gluten free. The bar menu includes wine offered both by the glass and by the bottle, and a brief list of Italian and Italian-ish cocktails like negronis and martinis.
The design of the restaurant, which seats 110 in the dining room and another 60 at the bar, was, in a way, inspired by the pandemic. Carlucci’s customers have become much better traveled over the past 30 years, but he’s noticed that one of the first destinations for an American venturing abroad is usually Italy. So he imported the chairs and tables and floor tiles from Italy and hired an artist to paint pictures of Italian scenes, mostly Pompeii, to hang on the walls. But most importantly, there are 30 window panels around the dining room, each painted with the name of a different Italian city. It’s meant to evoke memories of past trips. And since Carlucci observed that Italians love their dogs, he eventually hopes to open the outdoor patio to the many neighborhood dogs and visitors to the nearby dog park.
The restaurant has a separate kitchen space that will be devoted to takeout and delivery orders, but that won’t be in operation until after the new year, once the restaurant is completely staffed. But Carlucci doesn’t mind waiting. Yes, he wants to feed his customers good food, but he also wants to give them a fun experience. “Even as nice as your house can be,” he says, “when you can’t go out of it, you want to go somewhere, be somewhere, feel somewhere. You’re more appreciative of what you could do before. And now you look forward to where you’re going to go to next.”