Within 10 minutes of entering Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush’s re-opening party last night, I had a glass of vino and more food than I get at my grandma’s house. (I hope my grandma doesn’t read this.) The waiters came in unrelenting waves with trays of everything from bruschetta to tuna tartar. I had quickly amassed more plates than a circus performer, replete with my very own mini trident.
For the Stefani family, food is their life. This restaurant goes beyond being a mom-and-pop upscale steakhouse to being part of their empire, which includes Castaways, Chango Loco, Riva Crab House and Tuscany (4 locations throughout Chicagoland).
Gina and Anthony Stefani grew up with a restaurateur for a father and learned the family business from an early age.
“My dad had me working the pasta stand at 11,” Anthony recalled.
“And I was washing dishes at 15,” Gina added.
Phil, the patriarch, makes it back to Italy five times a year to sample the authentic flavors of the motherland. Their family vacations might sound a bit different than yours and mine.
“Whenever we took trips, it was always focused on the food,” Gina said. Instead of waiting in line for the teacups at Disney, they sampled sauces and breads in Italy.
“But the food in Italy is amazing. You’ll never have anything better.” Gina continued.
The brother/sister duo were entrusted with updating 437 Rush from the old-school Italian steakhouse vibe.
“Anthony is more of a foodie than I am,” admitted Gina. “He knows all the trends for new ingredients.”
Gina stepped away from her gig in PR and event planning with XA to lead the project management of the redesign.
“This has been my baby for the past two months and tomorrow will be its birthday. I told people we should’ve had a film crew in here,” Gina said of the remodel resembling those featured on HGTV. It came down to the final hours of pulling the plastic off light fixtures the day before the party.
The white tablecloths have been removed. With new floors, Edison lights (a requirement for any new bar), Chicago-themed art, dinnerware and flatware, the only thing that hasn’t changed is the focus on the diner. Their new menu retains classic staples like gnocchi, branzino and the montecarlo, a dish that was a non-negotiable for staying on the menu.
“We wanted to still serve the dishes our regulars come here for, but also offer some smaller plates and new cocktails,” Gina said. The aim is to attract the lunch and happy hour crowds looking for a place to unwind.
Like the Stefanis, executive chef Christian Fantoni also comes from a family involved in food. His father was the cook for an Italian prince in northern Italy. Gina and Anthony worked with the chef to adapt the menu to include more small, shareable plates. Some of the apps offered last night included wild boar pate, melazane (a pesto with eggplant) and risotto with buffalo mozzarella.
The redesign also includes a salumeria bar with sliced, melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto, mortadella and salamino nostrano. I fought the urge to request half a pound sliced thin to trump anyone else’s lunch at the office.
The next wave of waiters brought glasses of warm lobster bisque. He informed us that their process takes 12 hours to make their batch.
If that weren’t enough to satiate your appetite, martini glasses of limoncello and cosmos were the next round to wash down the food. Then came the barrage of cakes: vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and banana.
After the din of the 150+ guests started to wind down, I found the Stefani family gathered, like most families, near the kitchen to enjoy what matters most: good food and la famiglia.