In a shocking Friday morning announcement, Spiaggia — the standard for Italian dining in Chicago over the last 37 years — won’t reopen, a ownership says they’re permanently closed. Spiaggia, and its more affordable sibling, Cafe Spiaggia, had been closed since last year on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Oak Street. The restaurant is a Chicago icon overlooking the Mag Mile with views from the second floor overlooking Oak Street Beach.
Spiaggia falls under the umbrella of Levy Restaurants, the company that also owns River Roast along the Chicago River. Ownership says they had the intention of reopening, but blamed the decision to close on the inability to strike an agreement with their landlord to restructure their lease “which was necessary to reflect the realities of operating a restaurant in an office building post-pandemic.”
Setting the standard for fine Italian dining has been our honor.
Celebrating it with you has been our joy.
— Spiaggia Restaurant (@SpiaggiaChicago) July 9, 2021
The restaurant was a critical success, earning four stars from former Tribune critic Phil Vettel. He described Spiaggia as “Chicago’s finest Italian restaurant.” The review came in 2014 after a major renovation. The famed and luxurious venue featured marble columns and gorgeous views of the city that helped earn Michelin stars for 12-straight years. The tire guide rarely recognizes Italian restaurants in America, making the honor unique. Tony Mantuano, the beloved Chicago chef who founded Spiaggia in 1984, left the restaurant and Chicago in 2019. Mantuano, born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, also has Italian citizenship. He showed his love for the culture and his family’s roots at the restaurant. After leaving Chicago, he opened a restaurant last year in Nashville.
Mantuano sent over a statement Friday afternoon that mentioned the restaurant’s important to him and his wife: “Spiaggia allowed Cathy and me to bring our beloved Italian culture and hospitality to Chicago, and we will always be grateful for the guests and community who supported the restaurant. Many of the talented chefs and staff have gone on to make meaningful impacts on the culinary industry, and we know they will always have a piece of Spiaggia with them.”
Mantuano was part of a wave of famous Chicago chefs, including Rick Bayless and Charlie Trotter, that all started around the same time. He spoke to Fooditor two years ago and said that Spiaggia will be defined by its fresh pastas and cooking over wood and charcoal. The chef mused that these traditional methods long used at Spiaggia were once again gaining favor among younger chefs.
Spiaggia was a training ground for many. Joe Flamm worked for years with Mantuano before departing in 2019 to eventually open Rose Mary in Fulton Market. Monteverde chef and owner Sarah Grueneberg spent eight years at the restaurant before departing in 2013. Both chefs were Top Chef contestants, and that exposure brought in new diners that helped grow Spiaggia’s customer base.
Flamm, who celebrated the birth of a daughter earlier this week, spoke with Mantuano on Friday. He mentioned how the restaurant introduced him to talents like Spiaggia alum and star New York chef Missy Robbins. He says he spent Friday texting with old colleagues and having a virtual Irish wake in sharing stories. “We used to joke with Tony, we might not be the best Michelin-starred restaurant, but we had the most fun,” Flamm says.
Nearly four decades is an eternity for a restaurant, and Flamm compared to a Broadway show where 10 years is considered wildly successful: “Time comes for us all, restaurants even more than most things. It doesn’t make it hurt less.”
One of the restaurant’s secrets to success with Mantuano’s trust in his stuff. While a certain things couldn’t change — “a carbonara was a carbonara” — Flamm says Mantuano was willing to listen to new ideas, emboldening staff to share their ideas. That helped Spiaggia shine.
Throughout the pandemic, restaurant owners have made bargains with landlords, knowing that the suspension of indoor dining would not allow them to pay their rents. A lack of tourism and office workers in posed more challenges to downtown restaurants. There are also business vacancies. For instance, Water Tower Place — the shopping center located just south of the 57-floor office building that housed Spiaggia — has been struggling finding an anchor tenant to replace Macy’s. On Friday morning, news broke that Target had pulled out of the running.
Flamm doesn’t think the industry can go back into time and copy what made Spiaggia great. In many ways it was “a glimpse of old-world dining.”
“They had a piano in the ceiling,” Flamm says, referring to what Spiaggia looked like in the early ‘80s. “How many restaurants had that?”
Flamm adds: “It’s such a cherished piece of history, you just can’t replace history, it never works.”
This story has been updated since Friday morning with comment from Tony Mantuano and Joe Flamm.