Gene Kato built a loyal following at Sumi, his River North restaurant where he roasted veggies and meats over a robota grill. When Sumi closed in 2017, Alinea Group co-founder Nick Kokonas snapped the grill up for use at Michelin-starred Next Restaurant. Kato would eventually follow his grill to the area, finding a nearby home at Momotaro, where he serves as executive chef of Boka Group’s sprawling Japanese restaurant.
Sumi, at 2,000 square feet on each floor, was considerably smaller than the 11,000-square-foot Momotaro. The cavernous West Loop restaurant includes a basement izakaya that operates separate from the mothership. For a sushi restaurant, intimacy gives the chef a chance to offer different items. Kato could serve hand rolls which are meant to be eaten immediately without a server carrying them to a table. The temaki is wrapped in seaweed which degrades quickly and is meant to be enjoyed fresh. At Momotaro, hand rolls are only offered to diners seated directly at the sushi bar.
Kato will now have that opportunity to serve hand rolls to all — and be reunited with his grill — in Lakeview. Boka has finally revealed the third and final prong of its Southport Corridor project. Itoko, a Japanese project led by Kato, should open this winter and join Lee Wolen’s GG’s Chicken Shop, while arriving before Stephanie Izard’s Little Goat Diner debuts early next year at the former Southport Lanes, 3325 N. Southport Avenue.
“It’s kind of full circle,” says Kato, who will find himself in a more intimate environment reminiscent of his Sumi days.
“Itoko” means cousin in Japanese, and that refers to the connection with Momotaro. Boka founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz stress Itoko will have its own identity, but there will be a few signature items that overlap. Itoko will take up 2,750 square feet on the first floor with a 650-square-foot private dining room upstairs.
Katz and Boehm both lived in Lakeview and raised families. Itoko and their other two restaurants planned for the 119-year-old building at the corner of Southport and Henderson, will fill a niche: “There have been some Japanese restaurants here,” Katz says. “Kevin and I, we just felt maybe there’s one thing lacking in this neighborhood.”
Boehm is resolute that the Lakeview will have a unique edge and points to Boka’s track record. In LA, where they opened a West Coast location of Izard’s Girl & the Goat last year, Boehm says 75 percent of the menu is different.
Kato concurs: “At Momotaro, we follow a pretty traditional foundation when it comes to sushi,” he says. “At Itoko, we wanted to loosen up a little bit.”
It’s Lakeview, so there will be maki, but Kato promises some surprises, to give customers more than the ordinary rolls found at other restaurants in the neighborhood. They’ll also serve the aforementioned hand rolls, and omakase could be added eventually. The restaurant will take reservations, but they’ll save plenty of room for walk-ins. There’s a budding sake program, but Boka is still working on the grander beverage selections.
Boka goes big on design and the Itoko’s renderings show a blend of Japanese and Scandinavian elements. In keeping with the relationship with Momotaro, Boka has enlisted Brand Bureau. They’re a division of AvroKo, the firm that designed the West Loop restaurant. Itoko will also share sidewalk space with Little Goat, though Katz and Boehm say the patio design will be distinct.
Little Goat will take up 1,200 square feet and GG’s will take up 950 square feet, All three will offer takeout and delivery. But back to Kato’s grill, which the chef custom ordered from Japan years ago. He say it’s the perfect size for the new restaurant and he’s lucky Alinea’s Kokonas offered to sell it back in good condition. He wouldn’t dare think to sabotage the project?: “I went over there,” Kato says with a laugh. “And all the pieces were there.”
“It’s like having your favorite toy back in your arsenal again.”
Itoko, 3325 N. Southport Avenue, planned for a winter 2022 opening.