The last four pages of the menu at Joey's Brickhouse, a Lakeview restaurant known for its kitschy decor and all-you-can-drink Tuesday-night pizza special, have nothing to do with food. They're a series of angry e-mails between a woman from Deerfield named Diane and the restaurant's owners, brothers Greg and Joey Morelli.
Diane writes that a November night out at the restaurant, at 1258 W. Belmont, was ruined when her car was towed from the parking lot next door. She accuses the Morellis of being in cahoots with the towing company and selling out their patrons for kickbacks. Otherwise, she asks, why wouldn't they try to do something to protect their customers? Greg Morelli says the brothers are horrified by the charge. "Trust me, we were raised to be menschy," he says. "It's a terrible, terrible accusation."
It's not hard to see why a Joey's customer would park in the lot. It stretches between the east side of the restaurant and the west side of a Chase bank branch, both of which have doors facing the lot. The strip mall between them houses a bagel shop, a computer store, and a wine seller, all of which close by 7 PM. Customers of the bank and the strip mall, which share a landlord, are allowed to park on the lot. Patrons of Joey's, which has its own landlord, aren't. And even though the lot sits empty at night and the restaurant has offered to rent it, the owner, real estate developer Fred Latsko, won't make a deal: he says the Morellis blew their chance at that a long time ago.
The restaurant's tagline ("We're Italian Jews. Which means besides bickering, we're into food") notwithstanding, Greg Morelli says, "This has been a nightmare on our heads since the day we opened. It's become my own personal albatross, you have no idea."
Actually the feud between Latsko and the Morellis started before Joey's was open, almost three years ago. The Morellis, who grew up in Highland Park but moved away after high school, had returned to Chicago when Joey hatched the scheme to open the restaurant. Their father, Frank, a retired developer, would supervise the construction of the space. Greg, who'd been working in advertising in New York, would manage, and Joey, who'd been a chef, would cook. Their mother, Barbara, would design the room. Greg says the strain of opening the restaurant ended both his brother's marriage and his own long-term relationship, but "when your family calls you, you pick up and go."
Latsko, who owns about 70 properties in the city and made news in 2004 when he bought Oprah Winfrey's Indiana farm for $8.5 million, says he first got wind of the brothers when a couple of his tenants in the strip mall complained that construction on the restaurant was disrupting their business. "All morning long their trucks were pulling in and out of the lot. It was really hurting the bagel shop's business," he says. Howard Silverman, the owner of Howard's Wine Cellar, a couple doors down from the Great American Bagel, remembers it the same way—his customers had a hard time parking in the lot while Joey's Brickhouse was being built.
Greg Morelli says his own landlord, Matt Wilbur, told him Latsko had given them permission to use the lot during the build-out. Latsko says he never did, and Wilbur says he remembers telling the Morellis that he'd proposed such an arrangement to Latsko but Latsko never responded. Meanwhile, the Morellis assumed they could use the lot. Latsko says he drove up to the restaurant just a few days before it opened in May 2004 to talk to the Morellis about the problem. "When I finally confronted them about it, they tried to intimidate me," Latsko says. "The younger one started coming at me, and I got behind the door of my car. The older one, I think he's from New York, was making personal threats. They were threatening to cause bodily harm!"
Both Latsko and the Morellis recall that somebody shoved somebody that day, but they disagree about who was on the receiving end. "Latsko shoved my brother in the parking lot," Greg says firmly. He's in his late 30s, skinny and wire-haired, with a habit of putting his palms to his cheeks and shaking his head in dismayed amazement, which he does frequently when talking about the parking lot. "He came in here with zero interest in having a businesslike conversation. He thinks we're just kids that he can push around. … He would just love for us to fail so he can buy out the property and turn this whole block into condos."
"Yeah, he shoved me, but I didn't call the cops or anything," says Joey. While Greg is all business, Joey's known for being smooth and charming, coming out from the kitchen to schmooze the guests. "I didn't want it to go any further than that. He's very confrontational. Scary … He used to come in here yelling and screaming all the time. He's like that little guy—what's-his-name from GoodFellas—a little guy but with a real 'Don't mess with me' kind of attitude."
As soon the restaurant opened, Greg Morelli says, customers started getting towed. "That summer it was like 15 cars a week. Some nights we'd have five or six of our cars towed." He points to the Lincoln Towing sign all the way across the parking lot from Joey's on the side of the bank. It doesn't disclose who is or isn't authorized to park there. "It's almost like they're purposely being confusing," Morelli says, doing the palms-on-cheeks gesture. He points to an alley across the street: "That's where the towing guys hover all night, like modern-day pirates, watching to see who goes where."
They tried to enlist the staff's help. "We used to tell our servers, 'If you don't warn your table about the lot and they get towed, we're docking your pay,'" says Morelli. "But you can't really hold them responsible. We used to pay people's fines and give out hundred-dollar gift certificates, but it was killing us."
Greg Morelli appealed to 44th Ward alderman Tom Tunney for help in persuading Latsko to give Joey's access to the lot. At Tunney's suggestion, Morelli came up with a proposal to rent it in the evening, with Joey's and the two theaters across the street, the Theater Building and Bailiwick, each paying $300 a month. Morelli got the theaters on board, lined up a valet service, and worked out the amount for the rent. He sent Tunney the proposal in March 2005, and Tunney passed it on to Latsko. Latsko replied that he'd let the theaters' customers park for free, but only if Joey's would still be blocked.
"It's unfortunate because it would be good for the community for the lot to be opened up. At night, when the other businesses are closed, the lot pretty much sits empty," says Bennett Lawson, community outreach director at Tunney's office. "There's nowhere else in this neighborhood where parking goes wasted like that. Greg has been very proactive about this, but it's Latsko's parking lot. He can do whatever he wants with it as long as it's clean and maintained."
The Morellis gave up and decided to put up some signs of their own. They posted one just outside the restaurant's side door, painted to look like a roadblock. It says "Don't park here. Lincoln Towing will get you!" Another one, atop the pay phone out front, reads "Tow Phone." Inside, taped to the hostess's stand, a third one says "No parking in the parking lot. If you think that's an oxymoron, you should meet the guy who owns the parking lot … oy!"
"Really all we can do is hope the signs work, but the problem is people aren't going out to read signs all night. They're busy noticing the cute girl across the street in the sexy jeans, or the guy with the nice car, or the beautiful mural on our wall," says Morelli. "Every now and then you get a guy who reads the e-mails [in the menu] and jumps up to go repark his car."
"I'm so heartbroken by this whole thing," he continues. "I've personally driven customers to Lincoln Towing to get their cars back. When I see a car getting towed, I run screaming into the theaters across the street, if it's not one of ours, so they can tell their patrons and hopefully stop it before it's too late. Late at night I'm up thinking about parking, parking, parking! But Fred Latsko just won't budge."
Latsko has an unhurried way of speaking and a habit of asking pointed rhetorical questions. When I tell him the Morellis say the parking problem is hurting their business, he asks, "It couldn't be the food?" He says he hasn't eaten at Joey's himself. "Are you kidding me? I'd be afraid to go in there," he says. "They wouldn't poison my food?" He denies Greg Morelli's assertion that he wants to see Joey's Brickhouse fail so he can buy out the property and convert the entire block into condos. "I'm a developer, not a builder. This isn't even the neighborhood I'm usually interested in. Most of my properties are in Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast," he says. "Going into business for yourself is one of the hardest things you can do. I hate to see any good business fail. My good neighbors, I would go out of my way to help them out. I'm not in it for the money. But I'm not gonna help a bad neighbor's success, not on my dime."
Latsko says his first responsibility is to his tenants. He says he'd need permission from the majority of them to make a deal with Joey's Brickhouse, which is impossible to obtain with all the bad blood created during construction. "My biggest tenant there is the Bank One [now Chase]," he says, "and they told me they absolutely don't want an outside tenant using the lot."
But Greg Morelli says he and Joey have good relationships with most of the tenants in the strip mall. "The branch manager at the bank told me he's completely behind us," he says. In fact, Drew Projansky, the branch manager, signed the proposal the Morellis sent to Tunney's office. Projansky says he worked as a parking valet in college and finds the idea of a lot sitting empty at night when someone is willing to pay to use it "asinine." Looking out at the lot from his office, he estimates that a seasoned valet could fit an extra 30 cars over the number of "traditional" spaces in the lot at night, even if a few spaces were reserved by the bank for its ATM customers. "Joey's is a client of ours, and I would love to see them have access to the lot if it would help their business," he says.
Latsko didn't return my call when I left a message to clear up this contradiction, but earlier, when I asked him if he could envision a resolution, any way the Morellis would be allowed to use the lot, he said, "Tell you what—if they make a $25,000 donation to a charity of my choice, that will take care of the past. The Sid Luckman Memorial Fund at the Mayo Clinic." Luckman, the son of German-Jewish immigrants, played for the Bears in the 1940s. "He was a close family friend," says Latsko, "almost like a grandfather to me."
"Oh sure," says Greg Morelli, "I know who Sid Luckman is. He was a friend of the family. His son played football with Joey in high school. To Italian Jews, Sid Luckman is like a mitzvah—a famous football player named Sid. So Fred knows Sid Luckman, huh? Tell you the truth, it makes me like him more. I'll have to talk to the family about it, but I think we would be happy to donate $25,000 over the course of a few years to that charity if that opened up the lot. I wouldn't be doing it for Fred Latsko, I'd be doing it for Sid."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.