The last time change was a serious player at Spiaggia was back in 1999. The four-star Italian Chicago restaurant touched up some paint and purchased new furniture. Believe it or not, that was a big deal for famed chef/partner Tony Mantuano’s institution on the Windy City’s Magnificent Mile. The winner of the 2005 James Beard Best Chef: Midwest, who was also one of 20 semifinalists for this year’s Outstanding Chef award, admits he was initially restrained by “what we’ve been doing all these years,” when it came to really reworking the script—understandable when you consider the restaurant’s successful hold in one of the nation’s most competitive markets.
As the 30th anniversary approached, however, Mantuano began to change his tone. Instead of just rearranging details, he was ready to remove the bolts and begin anew. In February, Spiaggia’s private events space completed a one-month renovation that capped a three-part, two-year project. The journey began with the dining room’s dramatic makeover in 2014 and the sister venue, Café Spiaggia’s freshened look in 2015.
“You have to reinvent yourself every 30 years or so,” Mantuano says lightly. “It’s just a matter of staying fresh. The energy is there in the kitchen and you just have to sort of match the energy in the way the room looks as well.”
The main room’s renovation was about more than just superficial workings. The restaurant ditched its sports coat requirement and literally left white tablecloth dining behind. Servers donned new uniforms, complete with buckles, leather, designed aprons, and checkered shirts.
“We have a lot of energy to keep moving forward,” says Mantuano, who was the restaurant’s founding chef and has been there for 25 of the 32 years. “We don’t really like the view in the rearview mirror. We want to keep changing and moving forward, and we want to keep up with what’s going on around us. We’re less afraid to make a change now. Before we were more set in our ways.”
The renovated space lets the iconic location shine through. The three-story windows overlooking Lake Michigan are visible from each seat in the restaurant. The dark brown oak tables were baked in oil at nearly 400 degrees to provide a timeless, modern look. A 30-seat lounge space was added to offer a laid-back area, and the bar was moved to overlook the dining room and provide sightlines through the 40-foot windows. “Spiaggia now has different uses for different people, where in the past it was more of dining room and dining-only place,” Mantuano explains. “I think being in an office building and a residential building, we’re now a place for people to come down and use Spiaggia in different ways.”
Part of that transformation involved curating the first bar-specific menu in three decades. There, Mantuano says guests can find items inspired by the staff’s travels in Italy. Dishes like a Porchetta Sandwich, served with olive, shallot, garlic aïoli, brioche, and chips, or the popular Lasagne— beef sausage, ricotta, and tomato, can be found. A new cocktail menu also had to be brainstormed. Features such as the Liombruno—Wansas silver tequila, chicory syrup, grapefruit and orange bitters, St. George 'NOLA' coffee liqueur, are currently available.
Like the design, the bar and lounge changes were meant to include all walks of diners. “Just something for everybody and every taste and every dining moment,” Mantuano says.
The menu, formerly presented in formal script, also embraced a new, more approachable appearance. Chef de cuisine Joe Flamm and beverage director Rachel Lowe are behind much of the execution. Lowe’s wine list, which takes a heavy Italian focus, was a driving force for the restaurant’s decision to line a section of the space with temperature-controlled glass to showcase the labels. “It’s become a great conversation starter and people are always looking at the wines and are fascinated with some of the older vintages that we have,” Mantuano adds. “So it has really helped increase our beverage sales as well.”
The remodeled events space, located directly above the dining room on the third floor of 980 N. Michagan Ave., can serve parties ranging from 10 to 300 guests. Mirroring the classic restaurant downstairs and taking advantage of the views were the key goals.
Throughout this experience, Mantuano says he understood the value of keeping the timeless fabric in place. “For me, if you want to be considered a great Italian restaurant, your pasta better be something that people crave and come back for. And you have to do it right. If you don’t do it right you’re not a serious Italian restaurant. So we never lost that focus and we even kept some of the popular items, like our gnocchi for example,” he notes. “We kept that and we serve that in booth rooms. And it’s one of those untouchable dishes. It may be the only dish in either room that will never, ever go away. So there’s always that comfort food for people.
Mantuano has assumed more of a proprietary role at this point in his career, greeting guests and guiding the direction of his group’s concepts, which also include the nearby Bar Toma, River Roast, and Terzo Piano. “You’re guaranteed to see me in one of the three restaurants on any given night,” he says.
“It’s been an exhausting two years,” he continues, referring back to the Spiaggia renovation, “and now we’re set to roll into the next 30 years.”
By Danny Klein