Celebrating 30 Years of The Bartolotta Restaurants

The party featured a touching tribute to Joe Bartolotta, who first had the idea to open Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993 in Wauwatosa.

There were plenty of smiles and even some tears as members of the Bartolotta family joined dozens of guests at Ristorante Bartolotta dal 1993, their restaurant in Wauwatosa’s bustling Village area, on Thursday to celebrate 30 years in business.

Brothers Joe and Paul Bartolotta opened the establishment three decades ago, which launched what would become a diverse collection of restaurants and catering venues that have become symbolic of the Milwaukee area dining scene. It became a true family affair, with their sister, Maria, serving as director of catering for The Bartolotta Restaurants, the umbrella under which all the restaurants and venues operate. The business has more than 600 employees.

Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants

“When the restaurant we are standing next to opened 30 years ago, Milwaukee’s dining scene consisted of taverns, supper clubs, German restaurants, the occasional red-sauce Italian restaurant and a few fine-dining establishments,” Visit Milwaukee President and CEO Peggy Williams-Smith said. “All of that was something, but it was nothing near the heights that Milwaukee’s dining scene has achieved today.”

Williams-Smith noted that earlier this month Midwest Living named Milwaukee the Best Culinary City in the publication’s annual “Best of the Midwest” list for 2023, the latest in a series of accolades.

“As someone who has worked in hospitality for over 30 years, I can say that a lot of the elevated reputation that our dining scene enjoys today is thanks to Paul, Joe, Maria and your family and the thousands of servers, bartenders, managers, dishwashers, chefs, sommeliers, busers and more who have put their best into these Bartolotta restaurants.”



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Tim Sheehy, long-time president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, lauded the Bartolottas for “making this city a better place to live.”

“Great cities are built on great cultures. Great cultures are built on great cuisine,” Sheehy said. “You’ve been so great in terms of lifting the city up with the cuisine you provide for us, but you’ve also been very engaged in the community.”

Williams-Smith, Sheehy and others spoke at a celebratory gathering at the Bartolotta’s Wauwatosa site that was emceed Keith Trafton, CEO and managing partner of The Bartolotta Restaurants for the past 15 years after starting his career as a manufacturing executive.

“Each and every day what we do in our restaurants, our catering venues and our food halls is we deliver the Bartolotta table to the world,” Trafton said. “It’s a pretty bold statement, but it’s something we believe in.”

After opening Ristorante Bartolotta, the brothers followed with the launch of Lake Park Bistro in 1995 and Bacchus in 2004, followed by many other establishments past and present, including Harbor House, another fine-dining site, as well as casual restaurant models, such as Downtown Kitchen.

Harbor House; Photo courtesy of Bartolotta Restaurants

Joe Bartolotta died in his sleep in April 2019 at age 60, leaving the family and the Milwaukee restaurant community shocked and saddened. 

Less than a year later, Bartolotta’s restaurant operations were forced to deal with an array of complicated challenges stemming from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatened the very existence of many establishments in Milwaukee’s dining community. 

“It was touch and go, for sure,” Paul Bartolotta said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever had the opportunity to grieve my brother’s loss because I went from that to COVID in a nanosecond, but the thing that sustained me was the support of the community and my family. Everybody pitched in.”

Bartolotta fought back tears as he spoke about his late brother while standing beneath a 30th anniversary banner that includes a corporate logo with an image of a fedora over the “B” in the Bartolotta name, signifying Joe Bartolotta’s signature headwear choice.

“Today is about remembering Joe, for sure,” Paul Bartolotta said. “My brother had this incredible gift of never seeing an obstacle. He was incapable of seeing a problem.”

Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants

He noted that it was his brother who first targeted the Wauwatosa location, which he described as “like a little castle.”

“I miss my brother every day,” Bartolotta said. “I’m humbled but I’m also very much touched and it’s very moving thinking about all that we went through.”

Bartolotta, an award-winning chef, insisted that he is highly motivated in his efforts to continue to grow the family’s restaurant business.

“There’s an old adage in the restaurant business that says restaurants don’t get tired, owners do,” he said. “I can assure you that I am not tired. We are excited about the future. We have not done our best work yet.”

Maria Bartolotta echoed her brother’s sentiment.

“We are so blessed because of the people who have blessed us in our lives and who work for this company,” she said. “That is truly a gift to my brother Paul and my brother Joe. They started it all.”

After a few emotional moments on stage, she turned to the those gathered in the crowd, including a few of the restaurant’s staff.

“We are going places,” she shouted.

Near the end of the ceremony, Juan Urbieta, executive chef and general manager at Ristorante Bartolotta and a 25-year employee of the company, was called to the stage.

“It’s been a great journey. I put my life into this restaurant,” Urbieta said. “I’m very proud to be a little part of what makes the city of Wauwatosa so great.”

Wauwatosa Mayor Dennis McBride said the Village area had little going for it until investments made by the Bartolotta and DeRosa families, the latter of which owned and operated the Chancery restaurant and its replacement, Jose’s Blue Sombrero.

“The Village was dead 30 years ago,” said McBride, who has known the Bartolotta family since childhood. “There were two families that revived it, the DeRosas and the Bartolottas. Now we have one of the premier restaurant destinations, not only in the region but across the country. Wauwatosa is a really hot spot for restaurants, and we’re proud of that.”

Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants

In a video message, Joe DeRosa, owner, chairman and CEO of The DeRosa Corp., told of his willingness to invest in the Bartolotta brothers’ concept for an Italian restaurant in the Village all those years ago.

“I was very excited to be part of something that I knew was going to be groundbreaking in the culinary scene in Milwaukee,” DeRosa said. “Milwaukee would never be the same.”

More Photos: 

Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants
Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.