Brian Mita, the chef behind Bucktown Japanese restaurant Izakaya Mita, died on Friday, December 3, surrounded by loved ones at Stroger Hospital after a two-and-a half-year battle with cancer. He was 43.
Mita, a native of the northern suburbs, ran the restaurant alongside his mother, Helen. It closed during the pandemic but reopened in October as Mita faced his own mortality. He badly wanted to see customers fill the space before his health declined further.
His late father, Shiyouji, worked at restaurants — including as a general manager at Ichiban Japanese Steakhouse — and Mita would eventually follow his father’s footsteps, although first he attended Washington University in St. Louis. He said he had career options outside the restaurant industry, but the sense of community drew him in.
Before opening Izakaya Mita in 2014, Mita worked at Tsukasa in Vernon Hills. At his own restaurant, Mita wanted to share different aspects of Japanese dining. He invested heavily in a sake program, saying that the selection rivaled that of any bar in America. In 2016, he unveiled a special menu focused on Buddhist temple food. It became his mission to show Chicagoans that Japanese food went beyond sushi, steak, and ramen. Izakaya Mita became a part of Bucktown’s fabric and that community, via GoFundMe, would raise $25,000 for Mita’s cancer fight.
Doctors diagnosed Mita with colon cancer in 2019. The various therapies led to drastic weight loss. Mita would prepare high-calorie smoothies and eat whole roasted chickens in an attempt to maintain weight.
But right after the pandemic hit in 2020, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to other parts of his body, and Mita began pondering his legacy even as his mother inched Izakaya Mita toward a permanent closure. The restaurant’s debut seven years ago was a tribute to his father, who had died in 2010. Mita believed he needed to prove that he could reopen: seeing a full dining room would serve as a testimony to his hard work.
During the year and a half Izakaya Mita was closed, Mita continued to experiment in the kitchen, hoping to add new menu items when the restaurant would reopen. He applied for small business loans and the government’s Payment Protection Plan (PPP) program in order to secure the funds for his restaurant’s return. He became even more proficient at applications and paperwork as he sorted through his own insurance coverage to determine if Medicaid would cover his cancer treatments.
When Izakaya Mita opened in 2014, the Mitas described the Japanese small plates served at izakayas — skewers, gyoza, black cod — to Chicagoans as “Japanese tapas.” Now, seven years later, with Chicagoans more familiar with Japanese bar food, in part thanks to Mita, the new version of the restaurant evolved to a new description: “Japanese soul food.” The phrase also reflected Mita’s attitude toward cancer: he said his “soul was ready” for whatever came next. This year, he traveled to New York City; Portland, Oregon; and Washington, D.C. to see friends and family.
Seeing the public’s support online raised Mita’s spirits. He constantly paid attention to social media and comments from diners who were pleased with their meals made him happy. He was especially elated in November when the Chicago Bears and the Sun-Times recognized him for the team’s Tackle Cancer campaign.
Mita’s cremation will be private, but the family — his mother, twin brother Steve, and sister Tina — are planning a memorial service on December 12 at the restaurant. Further details will be posted via social media.