Boka Restaurant Group has announced an opening date for Alla Vita, its new West Loop Italian-American spot along Randolph Restaurant Row. Alla Vita replaces Bellemore (Boka’s previous restaurant that debuted in 2017 in the same space) and will open September 13 at the northeast corner of Randolph and Jefferson streets. Reservations are live via OpenTable.
Even before Bellemore closed last year, Boka was moving the restaurant toward more casual territory, away from its opening menu which featured decadent items like caviar pie. Alla Vita — with its pastas, pizzas, and other fare from a wood-burning oven — continues in that direction. Boka Executive Chef Lee Wolen says they’re trying to attract customers from all demographics.
“It’s for everybody — we want families, we want kids, and then we want people who go on dates at night as well,” Wolen says.
The former Embeya space has been remodeled adding a pergola loaded with greenery, with seating making it feel like customers are sitting under an arch. Guests will see sommelier Kimberlee Beeler’s selection of mainly Italian wines on display in the center of the restaurant. There’s also a new rock wall installed behind the bar to give the space character. Boka doesn’t want its 15th restaurant to be a quiet one.
“I don’t think Chicago likes sleepy restaurants,” Wolen says.
The ricotta dumplings have the potential to be a customer favorite, Wolen says. They’re also doing a traditional chicken parmigiana with buffalo mozzarella. The breast is brined, pounded, and pan fried with clarified butter and olive oil. Comfort foods like this were popular for carryout last year during the pandemic, and while they held up well to travel, Wolen agrees that diners probably forgot how much better these items taste served fresh at a restaurant.
Alla Vita is also serving a roasted half chicken, and it’s different than the popular stuffed version Wolen created for Boka Restaurant in Lincoln Park. This bird is again brined, roasted, and then glazed with a sweet onion agrodulche before being sent back into the oven to crisp.
Wolen says he loves cooking chicken and wants to ensure there’s always a great poultry option on his menu. At Alla Vita, he’s inspired by restaurants in New York and LA. Plenty of Chicago restaurants, from Testaccio to Etta to Flat & Point, utilize wood-burning ovens in their kitchens. But Wolen says outside of Chicago, more restaurants use them to cook whole portions of meat: “I kind of wanted to bring that same feeling out of our wood ovens,” he says.
The kitchen team is also very excited about the pizza coming out of the oven. Wolen wouldn’t commit to saying the pizza is represents a specific style, but he does describes the 14-inch round pies as “people-pleasing pizza” with a crispy and airy crust. There will be seasonal offerings including broccolini with fennel sausage, as well as standbys like margherita and mushroom with black truffle. The pies will also be available to go.
Wolen will have plenty of help with Boka veteran Darren Underway as chef de cuisine. Boka’s newly minted Executive Pastry Chef Kim Mok will supply desserts. Having that support is important, especially when dealing with the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“We play if very careful and safe,” Wolen says. “Life has to move on right now and we are following all guidelines and policies.”
After a scorching August, Wolen looks forward to the fall when customers can more comfortably enjoy the sidewalk patio. Beverage director Anna Thorn has concocted a drink menu that features spritzes. Spirit-free drinks are also available.
Boka is one of the more successful restaurant companies in Chicago, with hits like Stephanie Izard’s Girl & the Goat, Momotaro, and its namesake in Lincoln Park. While founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz have spent a good chunk of time in LA where Izard has opened a second location of Girl & the Goat, Alla Vita is the duo’s first Chicago opening since the pandemic. Wolen says there’s not much has changed in terms of preparing to swing the doors open for the first time. He even says Alla Vita hasn’t seen negative effects from the industry-wide labor shortage. The allure of working at a new restaurant has attracted employees.
“I think we never ever felt that restaurants would go away,” he says. “I think the restaurant industry has the hardest-fighting group of humans you’ll ever meet.”