The wait for a table at Centro Ristorante, the red-hot eatery in River North, has stretched past the hour mark, and those stupid or unlucky enough to have arrived hungry are cooling their heels at the long bar in the front room. Centro has been designed to look like an Italian backyard, with muted colors and big photos of food and food shops on the walls. But only the neophytes are looking at the walls. The regular clientele, sleek and monied, are looking at each other, and the staff are looking at the clientele. "We get serious women here on the weekend," explains manager Billy Arnott, "East Bank Club women in these little dresses, with everything toned just right."
A tanned white-haired gentleman, seated at a table with his wife and another couple, is stealing looks around the bar when he feels a hand on his shoulder. The silver fox turns to find Alex Dana, a bald, bearded man in a starched shirt, black slacks, and Italian oxfords. The silver fox grins, and Dana, Centro's proprietor, shares a little conversation with him and his companions.
Dana speaks in low tones, in sputtering bursts studded with profanities. ("I'm a swear mouth," he admits.) His small, edgy eyes crinkle and he chortles whenever he hears or says something funny or crude. He looks a little like Danny DeVito, and sounds a lot like him; but Dana's accent recalls the streets of Chicago rather than New York.
"'Bye, Alex," says the silver fox, and Dana drifts to the next table to schmooze with a new set of diners.
It's early yet, and there are no celebrities in the room. Centro and its better-known predecessor, the Rosebud Cafe on Taylor Street, are havens for celebrities. In fact, Chicago hasn't seen anything like Dana's establishments since the heyday of the late-lamented Fritzel's, the Loop hangout for Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Phyllis Diller, and Tony Bennett during the 50s and 60s. Now the newspaper columns are filled with the names of stars who dine with Dana: Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Lasorda, Carol Burnett, Linda MacLennan . . .
Dana stops to have a word with Sun-Times gossip columnist Michael Sneed, a regular customer. Sneed says that from her point of view there's nothing like a Dana joint. At the Rosebud, she says, "You'll find a cornucopia of different types--cops, politicians, celebrities, swarthy-looking guys that make you wonder who they are, and people having liaisons. When you do a column like mine, you can't spend a lot of time away from the computer, and if you go out to eat you want to work." For her, table-hopping at the Rosebud is time well spent. As for Centro, "the people I want to interview want to go there," says Sneed. "It's the place."
Dana, 45, is now off having a word with a well-manicured young woman and her date. Soon his focus turns to an aging dandy at another table--and on and on into the night he goes, the consummate host.
"He's the key to our hospitality," says Rosebud manager Benny Siddu. "People want to see the owner, to be recognized and impress their friends--and know that he will take care of them." That Dana does, whether at Centro or the Rosebud. He's all charm and attentiveness. He makes people laugh. He knows most of the regulars by name, and he falls all over himself to do them favors. You don't have to wait, he'll tell a cherished customer--let me get you a table. Let me make you something off the menu, a special dish from the kitchen just for you.
The son of Italian and Greek immigrants, Dana grew up in the restaurant business in Chicago and has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. His critically acclaimed eateries make loads of money. Many observers credit the Rosebud with revitalizing the old Italian neighborhood around the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Yet there is a dark side to this publicly cheery man. Though he readily spills anecdotes about the stars, he's more circumspect about less savory customers. He can be a martinet with his staff, and worse with business associates; over the last decade he has been sued many times. "The only people who like Alex Dana are those people who don't know him, like his customers," says one former associate.
Though Dana has built his business on an illusion of friendship and intimacy, he's careful to maintain a certain distance. He'd rather pop up as a bold-faced name trailing one of Sneed's ellipses than have people know much about him. "I just want to be left alone," he says. "I don't want exposure. Let me be a mystery."
The Rosebud looks out onto Taylor Street a couple blocks east of Ashland. The restaurant's sign is a neon rose on a stem, set against a black background. A valet takes your vehicle and stows it in the vacant lot next door--he works for Dana, not a valet service, because Dana owns the lot. The restaurateur rues the fact that he's had to sideline in the auto business, "but people get temperamental about their cars."
You enter the restaurant under a striped awning, through a vestibule and past a display of celebrity snapshots. There are pictures of Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar, Henry Kissinger, Don King, and Cardinal Bernardin (an odd quintet), all taken during visits to the Rosebud. Joe Ahern, the general manager of Channel Seven, is wearing a party hat. An impish Jonathon Brandmeier has his arm draped around Dana.
Across from the bar--an expanse of dark wood set with mirrors and garlands--are blown-up excerpts from Kup and Sneed columns dated 1987. The Sneed selection reads: "The Rat Pack: While restaurateur Arnie Morton was exiting from the Rosebud restaurant Wednesday eve, Frank Sinatra was entering. Sinatra, Jilly Rizzo and the rest of the crooner's clan dined on square noodles dished out by host Alex, although buddy Dean Martin was too tired from his flight to join them. 'Where have you been hiding this place?' Sinatra quipped."
There is some seating for dining in the bar, but most of the tables--with white and rose napery and chairs upholstered in rose fabric--are located in the main dining room. Prominent is a color painting of Frank Sinatra in concert, holding a drink in one hand. The place is littered with celebrity photos. At the north end is a section that looks like a library, complete with fireplace.
Waitresses in tuxedo shirts and bow ties scurry about--orders can push the 500 mark on a Saturday night, land-office business for a 125-seat place. The waitresses are uniformly good-looking, with bright but not sassy personalities. "I like people with bounce," Dana says of his wait staff. "If a waitress is brain-dead, would you want her waiting on you?"
The food is straight-shot Italian, priced on the high end of moderate. The offerings--veal, a garlicky chicken vesuvio, a square-shaped semolina noodle--are prepared in the Rosebud's serious kitchen: 18 gas burners on several stoves, a Vulcan convection oven, and an infrared broiler that reaches temperatures of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The space is divided into different sections for making pasta, sauteing, and broiling. Desserts are concocted in the back.
"We're making tiramisu," says Dana one morning while giving a tour, referring to a sweet Italian dessert composed of rum-soaked ladyfingers and whipped cheese. "It's what Madonna wants for a birthday party she's throwing for the publicist on the movie she's making here"--A League of Their Own. "Alec Baldwin recommended it to her highly."
While filming Prelude to a Kiss last spring, Baldwin started to frequent the Rosebud with girlfriend Kim Basinger. "They were kissy-face in a booth one night," says Dana. "He loved the tiramisu." In fact he loved it so much that even when he wasn't eating at the Rosebud (he dined there maybe 20 times) he'd call from other haunts, then swing by for the tiramisu on his way home. Dana says Madonna's party was delighted with the confection.
As for entrees, "Madonna is a pasta freak," says Dana. Oprah Winfrey fancies calamari or pasta and broccoli. The chicken vesuvio tickles the tastebuds of Alderman Edward Burke, who visits a couple times a month, often with his wife. "Joan Esposito is a vegetable eater," says Dana. "Joe Ahern eats everything on the table."
Likewise Sinatra. "Sinatra likes sausage, veal, wine, and hot bread," Dana relates. "The guy eats big." One day last July, Sinatra placed an order for a spread of pasta and antipasto for his flight out of town. He also asked for egg salad "Jewish-style," which puzzled Dana no end. "I didn't know what the fuck that was." Finally a friend told him to dice in green onions. Sinatra's private stewardess and two pilots stopped by to pick up the take-out spread.
Other notables are less flamboyant. Robert De Niro on a recent stop was "very, very ordinary," says Maryann McClure, a Rosebud waitress. Though friendly, he wanted to be in and out in 45 minutes. "One night about six months ago, I look down at the end of the bar and I see Ted Kennedy, having cocktails with some broad," Dana relates. "He said that his nephew, Chris Kennedy, who's a big customer, told him to try us. We sent him down some pizza bread."
The Rosebud's image as a celebrity hotbed matters a great deal to Dana. It rings his cash register. "This is a perception business," he says, convinced customers will flock to him if they believe they'll find Madonna parked at a nearby table. Sometimes parking's as far as it goes--Alec Baldwin, though courteous, refused to sign autographs or have his picture snapped with Dana. But it's delicious when a celebrity starts carrying on. Any visit by LA Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, for instance, is "a great asset," says Dana. "Lasorda sits with the old ladies. He gets real friendly. What could be better?"
Dana is usually handy with a celebrity tidbit ("Dolly Parton was in on Saturday night with a group of 12. She drank champagne"), and he keeps the columns stoked with star sightings by having Benny Siddu call in names to Sneed and Kup. "We don't call INC," says Siddu. "We don't get much play from them." Sneed is the favored recipient. She says restaurant mentions, which may seem like unadulterated PR, nonetheless interest her readers: "People want to know what celebrities are in town."
However much the Rosebud prizes stars, it also values regulars, whom manager Siddu estimates at 25 percent of those who pass through the door. The restaurant keeps six tables open all night, as much for the stalwarts as for the celebs. "We try to be accommodating, even if they have to wait a little bit," says Siddu.
The seating perks enjoyed by regulars and celebrities occasionally rankle the hoi polloi, however. "One Saturday night we were very busy, and Charles Keating, that guy from the savings and loan scandal, comes in," recalls Siddu. "We found him a small table for two, but then people start to scream at me, 'You're taking that jerk before us!'"
It seems that some regulars are even more unsavory than Keating. Jerry Gladden, chief investigator for the Chicago Crime Commission, says the Rosebud keeps a round table in the main dining room open until 7:30 every Wednesday evening for reputed mob figures. Seen occupying the table, Gladden says, have been Marco D'Amico, reputedly second-in-command to Chicago boss John DiFronzo, alleged bookmaker Joe "the Builder" Andriacci, and Donald F. Scalise, an alleged Cicero enforcer. "The Rosebud is very big with organized crime," Gladden says.
Dana denies that he so much as knows a member of the Mafia. "How would I?" he asks. "Would I tap someone on the shoulder and ask if he's a wise guy?" When faced with the names of his supposed Wednesday-night clientele he replies, "I might know them to see them in a restaurant, but I don't know their businesses. I don't relate to what they do when they leave here." Dana thinks the Rosebud is tagged a mob hangout "because this is Taylor Street, the old Italian neighborhood."
(On April 29, 1988, Roger Riccio was arrested in an office-apartment upstairs from the Rosebud and charged with running a sports betting operation, according to police. The cops had to break down three doors with sledgehammers to get inside, says Sergeant Don Herion, the gambling-unit officer who supervised the raid. A search showed the apartment to contain a desk, telephone, sports wager slips, a gun, and $800 in cash; Riccio had $3,700 in a pants pocket. That May, however, a judge threw out the charges against Riccio. Dana says he knows nothing about any raid conducted at the Rosebud building. "I rent out the apartments upstairs," he says. Of Riccio's arrest he says, "I don't recall it.")
Both Rosebud regulars (whoever they may be) and celebrities are offered certain privileges. The perks start with Dana selecting items for the party that are not on the menu; as he says, "We order some people a little bit of everything." For the anointed the kitchen rolls out a combination of appetizers, calamari, rolled stuffed eggplant, and a couple different kinds of pasta. For dessert, of course, tiramisu.
Then there are the complimentary offerings. Dr. Lawrence Ross, chief of urology at the University of Illinois Hospital, is a world traveler who frequents the Rosebud because he loves its pasta. He is often plied with complimentary desserts and bottles of wine. "Alex always takes special care of me," he says. Like others in the preferred class of diners, Ross seldom waits long for a table.
It's no wonder customers fall in love with the place, returning again and again, sometimes within a matter of days. On an August Sunday Tommy Lasorda had supper with some ball players at the Rosebud. On Monday Lasorda, the exuberant spokesman for the Ultra Slim Fast diet plan, lunched at Centro. For that night's game, he ordered pasta and sausage and peppers, sent to Wrigley Field. Lasorda returned to Centro late the same evening with an Italian diplomat, and lingered over drinks and espressos into the wee hours of the morning. Tuesday saw another carryout order to the ballpark. ("He didn't seem like a Slim Fast client to me," Dana observes.)
Jerry Seiff, a Pilsen furniture manufacturer, is in for lunch almost every day, often with his partner. "We feel like family," Seiff says. He praises almost everything about the Rosebud--the ambience, the food, Dana's geniality--and is so much a fixture that he tries to protect visiting celebrities. Last summer Seiff was hosting a meal with an out-of-town designer when who should they spy at a nearby table but Michael J. Fox, accompanied by his mother and aunt. The designer did get Fox's autograph, but then Seiff did his bit to maintain the star's privacy: "I told everyone he was 'Herman J. Goldberg' so he could be alone."
Though the regulars appreciate Alex Dana's bread and circuses, few if any are his intimates. "I really don't know that much about him personally," says Sneed. "I know he's married and has a couple kids. I don't know him all that well--like I know Arnie Morton, say." Dana says he enjoys "a friendship that's unbelievable" with Joe Ahern, but Ahern characterizes their relationship differently: "We've gone out together to a number of different events and charitable functions. I count him as a friend. I know him, but beyond that I can't say much."
Dana is married and has two kids, a girl aged 20 and a boy 16. He says he has a house in Oak Brook, though his phone number is neither listed nor unlisted with directory assistance. Between the Rosebud, Centro, and other ventures he works six days a week. He comes in at 8 or 9 AM, according to Siddu, and though he slips in and out during the day he's invariably at one of his restaurants during mealtimes. He stays past midnight.
Between three and five in the afternoon he takes an exercise break at the East Bank Club. "It's a quiet time, before the dance girls come in at six or seven," he says. "I do a little workout, whatever I can get into, and then people talk to me. The East Bank Club's the perfect place to mill around, to make contacts, which is important in the restaurant business. I take out my reservations book in the locker room."
Driving back to the Rosebud from the club in his large black Mercedes, Dana stops every day at Frank's Alterations and Tailoring on Roosevelt to get his pants pressed. He's terribly fastidious about his person. "I am in food," he explains. "It looks healthy when you are clean and put-together. I don't like anybody who is crinkled-up." His suits and sport coats are custom-made, as are the scores of dress shirts he orders from Montreal through a men's store in Elmwood Park, Robert Graselle & Company.
Bob Graselle, the proprietor, has known Dana since he was in high school, when he'd come in to buy sweaters and ties. Now Dana is an extraordinary customer by any measure. He and Graselle frequently fly together to Montreal on buying sprees. "We turn it into a little vacation," says Graselle. "Last time we went, he bought 24 shirts in one factory. He has so many shirts that I think I'm safe to say he changes them three times a day. I've made so many suits for him it's unbelievable. He has six or seven just in black."
As the dinner hour approaches, Dana says, he focuses on getting his staff in the right frame of mind. "I don't like to see anybody down," he says. "I tell my people, 'Leave your problems at the door and pick them up again when you go home.' Customers don't want excuses from you--they want food and service. If a waitress can't get with it, we send her home." His feelings apply to the kitchen help as well. "There's no horsing around in back," Dana says. "We don't want to know who did what to whom last night."
Dana is proud of Ramon Aguirre, the Mexican-born chef who directs the kitchens at both Centro and the Rosebud, and he takes pains to employ a professional wait staff. "We don't hire actors or students," says Centro manager Arnott. "Our first question is, 'Can you work three lunches or four dinners a week?' And by work we mean cranking for a couple hours straight. If your answer is no, we're just going through motions." In many ways Dana treats his workers well; he pays them generously, throws a big party every Christmas, and is liberal with time off and tolerant of tardiness.
Yet Dana principally deals with his workers through his managers, whom he encourages to keep their distance. Says Arnott: "Alex tells us, 'Fuck it. I don't want you to mix it up with the wait staff. They'll mistake kindness for weakness.' I don't go out with them after work. Now, I'm not Hitler, but there is no hugging and kissing around here."
When he is not discoursing pleasantly with customers, Dana keeps his eyes and ears open for screwups. "If I hear a dish break out in the kitchen, I'm back there in two seconds," he says. He insists that the cooks wash their hands between each and every task. "He'll come down the line and tell a cook to improve a certain item," says Siddu, "and he'll stay on the guy until it's done, even if it takes ten times."
With Dana's wait staff, cleanliness is above godliness. "I'm looking for crumbs underneath the bar stools right now," he interjects one morning while talking on another subject. "I like everything in my places to look like it's Sunday afternoon at your mother's and she's just invited people over. I'm a clean freak."
"A dirty ashtray on a table drives him nuts," says McClure, who's waitressed at the Rosebud for nearly eight years. And she drives Dana nuts. "Alex threatens to fire me every other week," she says--and sometimes, she admits, with cause. A couple years ago an inebriated McClure started tossing snowballs at customers, one of whom turned out to be a priest's mother. When she got home that night her answering machine contained a profane message from Dana; she got her job back only because a regular beseeched Dana to give her another chance.
"Maryann's like a bad penny," says Dana. "You throw her out, and she keeps coming back." McClure seems devoted to Dana, characterizing him as a basically self-effacing man with a good sense of humor. What kind of humor? Two years ago McClure had an accident with a a cigarette that necessitated plastic surgery. When she returned to work Dana quipped, "Instead of doing something about your ears, why don't you do something about that big ass of yours?"
Waitresses frequently weather fierce temper tantrums. Though over the last four years Dana has sacked five waitresses at the Rosebud, says Siddu, his principal means of control is suspension. "He doesn't get rid of people," Siddu says. "Instead he suspends them for a week or two. He punishes them, so everybody is afraid, because they have families and have to make a living."
"I want performance out of everyone," says Dana. "I'm not the easiest guy to get along with, but I'm the one who has to deal with the insurance payments, the mechanicals--I've got the investment. The people who work for me can just go home at night."
This attitude earns the respect of Dana's managers. "He's an unbelievable businessman," says Arnott. Arnott has worked in lots of places--Nick's Fishmarket, Doro's, Yvette's, the Miami Playboy Club--but he now maintains he can't imagine working for anyone but Alex: "He's a tough, tough guy. At times he's real mean. If something goes wrong, he'll get on someone to make it right. But all he's doing is caring about the guest."
Born in the area around the Rosebud, Dana grew up in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood with his Italian mother, Greek father, and older brother. He says the family name was really Diakakis, although both his parents signed their names "Diakaki" on the deed to the bungalow they bought at 2835 N. Menard in 1957. His father's first name on the deed was William, and Dana's brother-in-law says Dana's father went by the name of Bill Diakakis. But Dana claims his father, dead now, went by his real first name: Franko, or Frank.
While discussing these discrepancies, Dana allows that his family encountered "the dark side of the moon" during his childhood. There was trouble, he hints. "There are dark circles you don't want to go into, things that upset you," he says. "A lot of people think they know me, but they don't know me."
The senior Diakakis ran a coffee shop at the corner of Central and Belmont. He also had a stake in the Cairo Supper Club, at Sheridan and Irving Park Road. The Cairo, known for its steaks and shish kebab, had entertainment and dancing every night. "Jimmy Durante and Danny Thomas played the joint," Dana says.
While attending Foreman High School, where he went from 1961 to 1965, Dana would work for his dad: "I was always doing prep work in the kitchen--peeling potatoes, cleaning equipment, trimming meat, cleaning fish." His father was a cold man who swore a lot and worked hard. Born in Greece, he talked very little about his origins--or anything else, for that matter. "Everything was business to him," says Dana. Alex's labors in the restaurant business enabled him to breeze through math, but otherwise his high school record was undistinguished.
After he graduated and had gone to work, Dana hung out with a group of guys at the 24-hour Colony restaurant, then at Grand and Harlem. Pete Schivarelli, the 43rd Ward superintendent, was part of the Colony gang, and he remembers Dana as "a great guy, a lot of fun. He had a tremendous recall for details. He was the same guy he is now, except now he wears a suit and tie." Back then Dana drove a green Mustang, which Schivarelli says he drag raced on occasion; his Colony friends dubbed him "the Greek Steve McQueen."
Dana also palled around with a group of toughs at nearby Riis Park. Asked whether he had run-ins with the law, Dana first answers no, but adds, "I don't know what you'd call trouble." Says Schivarelli, "Look, we were in an exceptionally tough neighborhood. Fighting was with your hands, but there was no hesitancy about defending yourself. The guys [Alex] hung with at Riis Park were always having their little vendettas, but it was never anything of consequence."
Dana says he worked a variety of jobs in the years after high school. He was a waiter at the Drake Hotel, a foreman with the city Department of Streets and Sanitation, and a food and beverage director at a Las Vegas hotel. Eventually, with some partners, he purchased a hot dog stand on Harlem Avenue. When he was 22 a woman named Maria Maentanis started hanging around the stand. Dana says he knew Maria's family; her father sold Jiffy Spuds, a variety of precut french fry. "They started talking, and got married a year or so later," says Chris Maentanis, Maria's brother.
Victory Spuds Service, the company that made Jiffy Spuds, was partly owned by Maria's father, George, head of City Wide Produce, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler at the South Water Market. Soon Dana was out selling precut diced and sliced potatoes. George Maentanis, a large, warmhearted man, took an interest in his son-in-law--Dana says he was grief-stricken when George passed away at age 59. Selling potatoes lost its appeal, and Dana decided to open his own restaurant.
By then his last name was Dana; he had changed it around 1970. "[Dana] is a better name for business," he maintains. "Somebody in my family had it, so I took it, too."
Dana trained his sights on the Piccadilly, a luncheon place at Washington and Wacker owned by Larry Schwamb, who had once owned the Black Forest restaurant on Clark. Schwamb was in his 70s and entering his dotage: "an old German guy," Dana recalls, "with a pencil mustache and rouge on his cheeks." Dana had saved $30,000. When he couldn't secure a bank loan for any more, he says, Schwamb bankrolled him for another $100,000, a leasehold that Dana was supposed to pay off over a number of years. Dana took over the restaurant in 1973, he says. He was 26.
"He was a likable kid, full of ideas, who didn't know anything about the restaurant business," says Manfred Mork, then food and beverage director of the Chicago Marriott O'Hare. "He had sold me potatoes. He had his hair then. I only knew him as Alex, but I gave him some pointers on figures. In time he did put some great dishes together. He improved what could have been skimpy sandwiches by piling the meat high."
Dana also capitalized on the Piccadilly's location across the street from the Civic Opera House. He cultivated the opera crowd. Carol Fox, the iron-willed general manager of the Lyric, would sometimes amble in. "She was a hard person to get along with," Dana says, "a mean woman with a cane, but she got to like me." Once Fox brought over Luciano Pavarotti for a big salami sandwich with onions. Dana catered meals backstage and in the green room, where opera subscribers sometimes dined. His luncheon trade picked up, too. From the time he took over, he says, he more than tripled the restaurant's daily grosses.
In 1978 John Maentanis, Dana's brother-in-law, converted an old Italian clubhouse on Taylor Street into the Rosebud Cafe. Dana invested in the venture and contributed the name, which has nothing to do with the sled in Citizen Kane. Dana was thinking of the flower grown in Termini, a city in Sicily.
The Rosebud foundered, however. Dana says that a management group then recast the establishment as a light-menu bar called Chicago Bootleggers, but that tack failed, too. So in 1984 Dana pushed aside his brother-in-law and took over the Rosebud, reborn as the New Rosebud. Dana faults Maentanis for mismanaging the original Rosebud ("He wasn't really good for this business"); John Maentanis refuses to discuss the situation. He now runs City Wide Produce with his younger brother Chris. He still holds a grudge, says Chris; John Maentanis and Dana barely speak at family functions.
Dana continued to operate the Piccadilly after taking over the Rosebud, but matters had gotten messy there as well. In 1975 Dana had brought in a partner, Nick Koutselas, an older man who had once been Dana's Sunday school teacher. Koutselas became the principal manager. "Alex was an absentee-type owner," says someone familiar with the latter-day Piccadilly. In time Koutselas and Dana were at each other's throats, and in 1985 Koutselas, who felt he was doing all the work but was being frozen out of the business side, left in anger.
Now the host at an off-Loop coffee shop, Koutselas refuses to discuss Dana, though he grumbles to friends that he was a 50-50 partner in the Piccadilly and lost everything in the breakup. "Nick was a good guy, one of the best restaurant men I ever knew," says Dana, "but he started drinking . . . his mother died, and he took a tumble. He wasn't keeping a steady hand on the business."
Within a year of Koutselas leaving, Dana was reportedly having trouble with Piccadilly creditors--with his landlord Harvey Walken and the Colonial Bank on West Belmont, which had financed a renovation of the Piccadilly. Anthony Cuda, Dana's lawyer, says no one took formal action. "Everything was resolved," Cuda says. "Everything was settled." In 1986, says a spokesman for Walken, a restaurateur named Pat Corbett bought out Dana's lease on the Piccadilly.
According to Dana, he was ready to leave the downtown lunch crowd behind anyway: "I was making a buck [with the Piccadilly], but I just didn't want a daytime restaurant anymore. It used to be a big business. Guys used to come in, order a big meal, and drink two martinis. But now there's fast food. Now everybody has a chicken sandwich hanging out of their back pocket, and they're running up and down the block in jogging clothes."
So he began to concentrate on the New Rosebud Cafe (later, the "New" was dropped). Dana paid off back sales taxes and employee withholding taxes. He installed oak paneling, updated the bar, added a bathroom, and enlarged the kitchen. Under the guidance of Tony Spavone, whose father owned the Seven Hills restaurant in West Rogers Park, the Rosebud menu was refined and made Italian only.
Still no one came. "It was pretty quiet at first," says McClure. "We had two waitresses on the floor, and on Saturday we had three. There was one seating every night. There were two people in the kitchen, plus Alex, who liked to mix the salads in back. He was very, very shy." To Alex's mind much of the problem had to do with the neighborhood. "It was depressing, poverty-stricken," he says. "There were no walkways or trees. It was Little Italy, but it didn't have the color it needed."
In February 1985 Mark Knoblauch, a Chicago Public Library administrator and free-lance restaurant reviewer for the Tribune, was taken to the Rosebud by a friend. Knoblauch, who thought he was bound for a spot in Elmwood Park, was disappointed when his friend pulled up in front of the Rosebud. But soon he was thrilled: "I was knocked out by the food. The ingredients were incredibly fresh. The guy served--honest to God--tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes." Knoblauch returned four times before he wrote a review.
"The New Rosebud Cafe on old Taylor Street is moving away from the pack in the race to cook up the city's best Italian food," began Knoblauch's write-up in May 1985. "Rosebud has gone back to the basics for its success. This isn't chic, trendy Italian cooking of the sort that has produced smoked salmon spaghetti carbonara or multicolored tortellini salad. It's just good, fresh Italian cooking of a kind that's been too long in short supply in Chicago."
The night the review appeared, 300 people showed up for dinner, which was served by McClure and two other waitresses. "Let me tell you, we were hysterical," she says.
Other good reviews, word of mouth, and the recommendations of cabdrivers and downtown hotel concierges helped to sustain the Rosebud's overnight success. It became a "destination restaurant," a place it was suddenly cool to patronize tucked into an out-of-the-way neighborhood. Patients at nearby Rush Presbyterian Saint Luke's Medical Center--"waiting to check out their illnesses," as Dana says--would arrive for a last supper before hearing the bad news. People headed to White Sox or Bulls games started to trickle in.
It wasn't long before the stars turned out. "One night a chauffeur came in and said, 'Anthony Quinn's here,'" Dana recalls. "I had only seen him in the movies. I was knocked out. There were so many heavy-duty older stars that came." Stuart Whitman, Gene Hackman, Tony Bennett. Word spread among local publicists that their big-name clients could feel comfortable in Dana's place. Oprah started appearing. "She was new to the city, and we were it to her," says Dana, who remembers fondly the time Winfrey brought over Carol Burnett, who plugged the Rosebud on Oprah's show. Michael Jordan has come, and Mike Tyson. Chauffeur Harold Golub, who initiated Sinatra, now deposits all his special charges with Alex: Robert Conrad, Michael J. Fox, whoever he's got.
In Dana's opinion, however, no one compares with the actor Charles Durning. "You know, that fat guy," he says. "He called me up on New Year's Eve and wished me happy New Year. It made me feel like a young kid."
And then there are the local luminaries. Channel Seven's Joe Ahern, who grew up in Philadelphia and relishes Italian food, trooped over on the basis of the reviews, and now stops by frequently. The Rosebud is a favorite with performers at Channel Seven, although people from other stations also fill the tables. "Dick Kay comes in a lot," says Dana. "I never knew his real name is Snodgrass--I caught it on his credit card." Schools superintendent Ted Kimbrough is a recent aficionado.
The rise of the Rosebud has coincided with the revitalization of the old Taylor Street neighborhood--and had a lot to do with it, many say. "The Rosebud brought in a different clientele on a daily basis," says Catherine Mauro, executive director of the University Village Association, the area community group. "It's been a credit to our community, a symbol of quality." Joe Di Buono, proprietor of the Vernon Park Tap, touts the Rosebud for "the tremendous impact it's had on the neighborhood. People know about us here now."
A contrary note is sounded by Florence Scala, an activist who years ago fought against construction of the UIC campus and also ran a small restaurant in the Taylor Street neighborhood for a decade, ending in 1990. She faults the Rosebud for visiting the problems of traffic and other congestion on Taylor Street. "The Rosebud has become a place for people who want to see and be seen," she says. "Who the hell wants that in a neighborhood? When it happens, the interests of the neighbors recede and the aura of the restaurant takes precedence."
"Florence is from the old school," says Dana. "She's not ready for the BMWs coming in. She wants to sit back in her easy chair and watch the world go by. But you have to go with the flow. She's talking about the old days, and I'm a young guy, trying to make some money around here."
Like many restaurateurs, Dana has lately experienced a downturn in business. Fewer people are coming, and when they do they're more apt to use plastic, which requires him to pay a percentage to the credit-card companies and so shaves profits. Yet trade is still good enough--gross revenues from the Rosebud are well over $1 million a year--to have put Dana in the mood to expand. "When it's a little soft, it's time to buy, to grab, to do something," he says.
Centro opened on June 17 on the site of the old Blue Point Chowder House & Bar, at 710 N. Wells. Dana tore out the old kitchen and put in new equipment, notably an open grill and a special Italian pasta cooker. The food is served in steel-lined copper skillets made in Switzerland.
The reviews have been decent--the Trib weighed in with a two-star rating, and Crain's Chicago Business gave Centro a "good" evaluation--but the sight-seeing is the chief attraction. "It's jam-packed every night," says Dana. "This is for someone who wants to put on a nice loose shirt and have some nice pasta with a jumping crowd. We get people like Beverly Crown, who says all she wants to do is sit down and people-watch." Says Chris Maentanis, "It's like a fashion show. I was in on a Saturday night in July. Alan Dixon was there. So were Steve McMichael, and all these other folks. I got eyestrain."
Over the last eight years Dana has been hit with a number of lawsuits from suppliers that claim not to have been paid. Between 1983 and 1986, eight vendors, principally food wholesalers or linen firms, took action against Dana, either as the owner of the Piccadilly or as a consultant to the Park Place, a now-defunct Elmwood Park restaurant. The plaintiffs sought relatively small amounts, between $1,000 and $2,000, though one filing was for $14,500. "This happens all the time in the restaurant business," says Dana; his lawyer has been settling the suits for one-half the disputed amounts.
This year, two particularly bitter suits were initiated. On July 1, 1990, Dana signed a $1,000-a-month contract with Damon Industries, a firm owned by the nightclub singer Jimmy Damon, to rent the well-lit side of a building overlooking the Kennedy Expressway near the Ohio Street exit. Dana wanted to put a sign there advertising the Rosebud, and Damon Industries contracted on his behalf with a sign painter named Joe Balabuszko for a $6,200 sign. Dana did fork over $3,000 to Damon, but then ceased paying. He paid Balabuszko $3,100--nothing more--for a sign that's still up after more than a year.
"I gave him two to three months, and then I wrote a couple letters and started calling to see where my money was," says Balabuszko. He's documented 15 calls to Dana--"and those were just the ones I wrote down," he says. Dana neither took nor returned any of the calls. Balabuszko was affronted: "I do good work, bathe every day, and treat people decently. This guy kowtows to movie stars, but when it comes to a small thing like this, he's disappeared off the face of the earth. The guy is a scurvy pirate, a dog." Damon, who thought he was Dana's friend, was similarly indignant. Both men sued Dana in June.
Dana contends Damon and Balabuszko were ripping him off. After Dana had contracted with Balabuszko, a sign painter on Halsted Street priced the same job at only $1,000. So Dana paid Balabuszko a partial fee, "and then I let Joe Balabuszko go fuck himself." But why not talk to Balabuszko on the phone? "I let my lawyer handle that," Dana says. In Damon's case, Dana says he discovered by chance that the singer was enjoying a $600-a-month profit on renting out the building wall, including $200 a month in freebie dinners Dana agreed to give him as part of the $1,000-a-month rent. "It finally dawned on me, this guy is goofing with me," Dana says. "I hate to get flimflammed by a friend."
Damon disputes Dana's estimate of his profit margin, but won't get specific. Anyway, argues Damon, "Alex wanted a sign. I told him what it would cost, and we made a deal. That's it." Both Damon and Balabuszko at first resisted offers of half-price settlement from Cuda, though in October Balabuszko settled for more than half of the amount outstanding. Damon has not settled, preferring to continue what has turned into a blood feud in small-claims court.
Dana has been in at least one other scuffle recently. Two years ago he started negotiating with Facet Financial Inc., owners of an old mansion at Rush and Superior, to open a new restaurant there. Though several restaurants had already failed in the spot, the location made sense to Dana given the arrival of Neiman Marcus and the Chicago Place mall only blocks away, along Michigan Avenue. Besides, says Dana, Facet Financial president Ted Netzky "drove me nuts" to do the deal. The deal, according to Dana, was this: Netzky agreed to finance the $300,000 needed to rehabilitate the space, and Dana agreed to $15,000 a month in rent.
Dana arranged for construction on the restaurant, which began last November; but Netzky failed to come up with the money for any of the build-out expenses. When the rent came due last January, Dana balked at paying. There were difficulties that complicated the construction effort, too--Dana's drywall subcontractor went on strike briefly, and it proved harder than expected to secure permits to extend the building onto the sidewalk. Last summer Facet Financial posted a sign on the building, which remains unfinished, saying it was trying to evict Dana for nonpayment of $153,000 (Dana says this figure consists of back rent plus legal fees).
"[Netzky] did that to intimidate me," says Dana about the eviction notice. "He didn't give me $300,000--he stopped me on the job." Recently the two agreed to a settlement, Dana says; Netzky will fulfill his commitment on the build-out and Dana will start paying rent plus $5,000 a month in back rent. Dana expects the two-story, 5,000-square-foot restaurant, called Bocciolo d'Rosa ("bud of the rose"), to open in December.
Terry Netzky, Ted's twin brother and his attorney, calls Dana's side of the story "an interesting version." He says it's "incorrect, but I'm not going to comment further." Now that a new lease has been signed, "Everyone is kissing and hugging," says the lawyer.
That's not Dana's view. "Everybody hates them," he says of the Netzkys. "They squeeze people's balls."
Dana has high hopes for Bocciolo d'Rosa. He's also planning to open a pasta store across the street from the Rosebud, selling semolina noodles and cavatelli--"a little dumpling that's like a fucking kreplach," in his words.
Overall Dana evinces happiness at his lot in life. "I'm a survivor," he says. "I just keep going. I don't stop. I've been around every corner, but the depressing parts are over. Now it's a fun thing."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.