By Michael Austin
No one in the Midwest could have predicted we’d one day dine outdoors in stocking caps and be grateful for the opportunity. If it seems otherworldly to you, imagine what it’s like for people running the restaurants.
Jesuit-educated restaurateurs across the region, including Gabriella Lenzi Littleton, Bill Whitley, Bridget Thibeault, and Steve Lombardo III, have relied on their Ignatian backgrounds to cope with the most difficult and unpredictable year of their careers.
“Dining out requires a lot of trust, and we work very hard to ensure that we are good stewards of that trust,” says Littleton, the general manager of EJ’s Place in Skokie, Illinois, and a graduate of nearby Loyola Academy (2004) and Regis University in Denver (2008). “I want every customer to walk away feeling like our family showed them love. I really feel like there’s so much Jesuit ideology wrapped up in that, I wouldn’t know where to start!”
Sharing that love has required some extra effort from Littleton and her father, EJ Lenzi, the restaurant’s owner and a fellow Loyola Academy alum. They installed a 2,400-square-foot carpeted, heated tent to allow for outside dining. They also ramped up their carryout program to meet demand. In the rare instance that a mistake has been made, Littleton has driven the missing item to the customer’s house herself. “I will do whatever it takes to make it right,” she says.
She’s most proud of having kept all of the restaurant’s employees working through the pandemic. “They are like family to me, and I’m so proud that they still have jobs and can support their families,” Littleton says.
Although Bill Whitley wasn’t a great student—his words—he considers his Creighton University experience key to his success today. As an undergraduate, surrounded by the high-achieving students Creighton attracts, he learned from others.
“I observed how they prepared and how they organized their time, and it was all invaluable down the road,” he says. “I learned more from being around those people than I ever could have learned from any textbook.”
He graduated in 1977 and soon began working in local restaurants, eventually becoming a manager and owner. In 1993 and 1994, Whitley and business partner Mike Frank, another Creighton alum, opened two locations of Vincenzo’s Italian Ristorante, in Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska.
Layoffs were unavoidable early in the shutdown, but Whitley and his staff did everything they could to help Vincenzo’s employees navigate the state’s unemployment system. As a result, only one of the 60 laid-off individuals took a pay cut. Whenever the Vincenzo’s locations were able, they provided food to homeless shelters. They also upheld their tradition of offering free meals to veterans on Veterans Day.
Although Whitley understands the importance of wearing masks, he regrets that they hide faces, since interacting with people is a big part of his job. “When I see a guest from across the room, they can’t see me smiling at them, acknowledging my appreciation that they have come to dine with us,” he says. “In any event, we will all get through this and come out stronger, with a deeper appreciation for each other.”
After Bridget Thibeault graduated from Marquette University in 1991, she worked for seven years in the Chicago advertising industry. She loved the work but needed a creative outlet. Cooking became that outlet, and it eventually inspired her to leave her advertising career and enroll full-time in culinary school. At age 38, her post-graduation side hustle making cakes and pastries led her to open Luna Bakery & Cafe in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. The business grew, and she opened a second location in 2018, in nearby Moreland Hills.
“The Jesuits teach finding God in all things and caring for the whole person,” says Thibeault, who has employed many John Carroll University students and alumni over the years. “I truly care about giving outstanding hospitality to our guests at Luna, and I think the Catholic and Jesuit teachings have given me the groundwork to know how to do that.”
The original location has stayed open throughout the pandemic, even as the newer location closed briefly but continued to provide fresh food for Cleveland Clinic front-line workers. The company has also been supporting local organizations and schools through gift cards and small donations. “My favorite part of having a restaurant is when people come up to me and thank me for what we have created in our community,” Thibeault says.
Steve Lombardo Jr. opened Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse in 1989, and today Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group owns 14 properties across four states.
Jesuit education is a family tradition. All four of Steve Jr.’s children graduated from Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago before going on to Georgetown University and Georgetown University Law Center (Steve III), Marquette University (Michael), Boston College (Elizabeth), and John Carroll University (Christina). Even Christina, who works outside the family business, designed the company website. The other three siblings work full-time with their father.
“The Jesuit education we received certainly prepared us for work and life in general, if not specifically for the restaurant business,” says Steve Lombardo III, the company’s chairman and general counsel. “Notably, it’s the Jesuit tradition of seeking facts and rigorous analysis in decision-making. I can’t say I do the Examen daily, but I do try to take time several times a week for self-reflection, prayer, and to think about others.”
Those practices surely helped the Lombardos endure the ups and downs of the past year. To compensate for occupancy limits and limited revenue, Gibsons created an online steak store, built outdoor structures, and made its HVAC system hospital-grade. For the company to survive, some workers had to be laid off. Still, Gibsons paid everyone for 10 weeks, prepared boxed meals for them, and maintained their health insurance.
“We treat our customers and employees as family, and all decisions we made during the past year took that into account,” Steve III says.
Over the past year, many of us have discovered how much we rely on restaurants as places to gather and commune with the people in our lives.
“Humans breaking bread is a fundamental part of our DNA,” Steve III says. “We share stories, thoughts, ideas, feelings, and love when we eat together. Just like talking is better than texting, and in-person meetings are better than talking on the phone, sharing a meal is more intimate than meeting someone without eating.”
In other words, everything is better with food.
“I believe a career in hospitality, in which we serve others to ultimately make them happy, is a noble calling,” Steve III says.