Remembering Restaurateur Joe Bartolotta, a Year After His Passing

Joe Bartolotta’s legacy lives on in Milwaukee.

When the effects of the global pandemic were first felt here in our city and dining establishments were forced to close their dining rooms, several of the Bartolotta Restaurants tried to turn to curbside service only to discover that it wouldn’t be sustainable. The restaurants had their last dinner service on March 19. And every time I pass Lake Park Pavilion on my walks, it feels so strange and unnatural for the bistro to not be open. It also feels strange and unnatural for Joe Bartolotta, who passed away one year ago, to not be at the helm of the company he founded with his brother Paul in 1993.

There are so many local restaurants that I miss right now. Some of them were created by people who got their start in Bartolotta-run dining rooms and kitchens. It’s so hard to see the service-industry gutted like this. I can only imagine Joe would feel the same way. I only knew Joe through phone calls over the years, but he was a such a great storyteller who loved all kinds of food, although he mentioned two things he would not eat in this colorful 2014 story, “Brotherly Love.” It’s an engaging feature in which Joe and Paul talk about everything from the Bartolotta “culture” to the impact that the 2008 recession had on their businesses. 

In 2018, we also profiled Joe’s wife, Jennifer, who just announced by email a few initiatives she is part of to help us all weather the effects of the pandemic, which I think all of us can agree will require a lot of healing. One of them is her new partnership, in honor of Joe, with NEWaukee called The Beacon, which she calls a “hub for social innovation and entrepreneurship through connectivity.” The Beacon, located inside a historic building in Walker’s Point, will also house a center for learning, innovation, community-building and resource-sharing called The MKE Food School. Among of its raison d’etres is to work with people who “grow, harvest, sell, deliver, prepare, eat, write and talk about food, creating the space for an inspired and inclusive conversation around Milwaukee’s community table.”   

When I think of inspired, inclusive conversations, I can’t imagine someone I’d have rather had such an exchange with than Joe. While this is a time of distanced connections, I hope for a time, when it’s safe for everyone, to have those engagements and to eat and drink around restaurant tables. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Joe’s passing. The temporary closing of his restaurants make me miss him all the more. I will raise my wine glass here tonight at home to Joe and hope for that time when we can be together as a culture in restaurants our social lifeblood  – once again.   



Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.