All in the Family: 3 Multi-Generational Chicago Restaurant Families

Gina and Karen Stefani

Is blood thicker than water? For these three multi-generational Chicago restaurant families, it’s all relative.

Growing up in the restaurant industry can be a grounding experience. While schoolmates may spend their weekends running around the neighborhood or meeting friends at the mall, restaurant kids are learning how to work the front and back of the house. For the progeny of the three families profiled here, those early weekend and summer days spent seating guests, wiping down menus and bussing tables were formative in many ways, instilling a lifelong love of and respect for the family business — and each other.

The Stefanis
Mom Karen and daughter Gina

When Karen and Phil Stefani opened their first restaurant, Stefani’s on Fullerton, in 1980, they didn’t realize it was the cornerstone of a future hospitality empire, Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants. Phil, then working in the travel business, wanted to open an authentic Northern Italian place where his father Luigi and uncle Lino could work together. Karen worked in the office batching credit cards, which she juggled with daughter Gina, born in 1984, and son Anthony, who came along in 1987.

Their restaurant business was soon booming, with Lino’s on Ontario and Stefani’s in Northbrook following the success of the original Stefani’s on Fullerton. Tuscany on Taylor opened in 1990, another strategic placement in a then-transitional neighborhood. Riva Crab House, Tavern on Rush, 437 Rush, Tuscany Oakbrook and Tuscany Wheeling, and seasonal North Street Beach favorite Castaways Bar and Grill all followed. Karen, who “wanted her own thing,” opened a clothing store with some partners, while Stefani family life at the Lincolnwood homestead was a happy tumble of school, work, friends and relatives.

Gina started working at Castaways at age 15, and every summer through college. During school breaks, she worked at Riva on Navy Pier. “It was important to our parents that we figure out our own passion,” she shares. So after graduating from DePaul in 2008, Gina interned on the events team of a Chicago-based public affairs company, then did freelance event work for a few years, overseeing site logistics and helping clients realize their vision while refining her own. By 2013, she was ready to come back and commit herself to the Stefani restaurant world.

Karen followed a different path back to the family business. In 2003, her mother was diagnosed with dementia, and Karen dropped everything to spend all the time with her she could. As a distraction, she started working with the catering arm part-time in 2006. At loose ends after losing her mother in 2008, Karen realized she truly loved people and planning parties. Soon, she was working full-time with the senior catering sales manager building up the Phil Stefani Signature Events catering division — and never looked back.
Gina returned in 2013 to partner full-time with Karen in what then became Inspired Catering & Events by Karen and Gina Stefani. Karen, as president of the company, is the networker, and Gina handles the operations. In 2016, Gina opened MAD Social, the first new Stefani restaurant in 14 years, where she works closely with her father. “People whose parents used to go to Stefani’s on Fullerton, their kids live in the West Loop and come into MAD Social,” says Gina. It’s the Chicago dining scene come full circle in more ways than one. The whole family talks every day, including Anthony, who works full-time for the Chicago Blackhawks in their sponsorship department, but also makes time to help out with the Stefani Restaurants’ social media and gives Gina “business ideas.” Says Karen, “As a mother, I’m in the middle of the whole mixture, so it’s hard, but it’s working.” Building a family business together means finding the right balance of family and work. “I love that my weaknesses are her strengths,” says Gina. “One thing my mom has always instilled in me is the importance of confidence. I keep this thought in mind whenever I am working on a new project/event or attending a function. Instead of getting intimidated or nervous, I remind myself that I am where I am today because I have put in the time and worked hard and strongly believe I am good at what I do.” When asked how her daughter inspires her, Karen’s answer is heartfelt. “Having a daughter taught me what unconditional love is all about. I was on the other side of it with my mom, but now I understand it from both perspectives. Since the moment Gina was born, no matter what life has sent our way, she has been my best friend and I’m so proud of the woman she has become.”

The Bannos Boys
Dad Jimmy and son Jimmy Jr.

Jimmy Banos & Jimmy Banos Jr.
Photo by Jed Photography.

Jimmy Bannos (Heaven on Seven) and Jimmy Bannos, Jr. (The Purple Pig) are third- and fourth-generation Chi- cago restaurateurs. Both Jimmy’s maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother owned restaurants — in what Jimmy calls “the twin cities, Berwyn and Cicero” — while his father, Gus, had the Corner Grill at 35th and Western. Jimmy started working in the family restaurant at age 9, later graduating from the Washburne program and working in kitchens around town before opening Heaven on Seven in the Garland Building in 1980. From the beginning, it was a family restaurant in every sense, with Jimmy and Gus in the kitchen, and brother George and mom working the front. Jimmy married Annamarie, and kids Jimmy Jr. and Anjelica soon followed.

Starting at age 4, Jimmy Jr. would spend Saturdays with his dad, stopping at the Randolph Street Market for produce, then head to Heaven on Seven, where he would go to “work” washing down table legs, sifting flour, and filling salt and pepper shakers, and then head to Toys R Us to be “paid.” All through their formative years, both Jimmy and Anjelica helped out at the restaurant. Even at that tender age, Jimmy Jr. wanted to pursue the kitchen life. “I watched my dad work and got to see all of the challenges that came with operating a restaurant,” he says. “I also got to see all of the happiness it brought him.”

Even so, Jimmy says, “I always knew I wouldn’t pressure my kids to come into the ‘family business,’ because if you don’t love, eat, breathe, drink this business, you won’t make it. It’s very unforgiving.”

When it was time for college, Jr. wanted to go to cooking school, ending up at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island. From there, he staged in Europe, and then headed to New York, where he worked at Mario Batali’s Esca and Del Posto restaurants. But he always intended to come back home to Chicago, and returned in 2009 to open The Purple Pig, a Mediterranean wine bar in the heart of the Mag Mile — and a massive hit from the word go.

At the 2014 James Beard Awards, when Jimmy Jr.’s name was announced as the Rising Star Chef, Jimmy was one proud papa. “It was amazing. I felt like I had won! It’s just all his hard work. I pointed him in the direction of things I wished I could have done — work in NYC, go cook in Italy. He doesn’t want anything handed to him; he’s got a tremendous work ethic. But he’s also humble and low-key.”

These days, Junior is married to Marianna, who works in the Purple Pig office a few days a week and does most of their social media. They have two kids — Gianna, 3; and Olivia, 1 — and a thriving restaurant that pulls people like a magnet from the hustle and bustle of Michigan Avenue. “My dad really inspired me, personally and professionally,” says Jimmy Jr. “He taught me to be mentally tough, every single day.”

Grandpa Jimmy has no intention of slowing down. After closing his Rush Street location a few years ago, he took a hard look at the original Heaven on Seven and decided to reinvigorate the restaurant — and the brand. In an effort to bring in more millennials, he taught himself the art of social media, especially Instagram, on which he posts daily. Anjelica, now a makeup artist, still works in the restaurant a few days a week; Annamarie still runs the register. Brother George continues as a partner in Heaven on Seven, and his son has joined in as well.

“If you can do better than your father, you’re in a good place,” says Jimmy. “My dad gave me opportunities, and I took it to a new level. I gave Junior opportunities, and he took it beyond me to new levels. We enjoy spending time together, working together. It gives me energy. He teaches me new techniques, and I share my expertise and knowledge of the industry. I love it more now than I ever did.”

THE MORTONS
Siblings Amy and David

Amy & David Morton
Photo by Ruby Rae Levin.

The late, great Chicago restaurateur Arnie Morton left a big imprint on the city he loved. Of course, there is his signature restaurant chain, Morton’s The Steakhouse (now grown to 74 locations worldwide), and Taste of Chicago, the mega- event he first brainstormed and long championed. But his most enduring legacy? His seven children, many grandkids, and the work ethic, creative spirit and gift for hospitality that many of them have inherited.

Peter Morton, the son of his first marriage, is best known as the man behind the Hard Rock Café chain, while Michael Morton, the middle son of Arnie’s second marriage, operates the Morton Group (CRUSH, La Cave Wine & Food Hideaway and La Comida) in Las Vegas. Closer to home, Amy Morton (Found Kitchen & Social House, The Barn) is the oldest and David Morton (DMK Restaurants, which include DMK Burger Bar, Fish Bar, Ada St., Henry’s, and the newly opened Werewolf Coffee) the youngest child of Arnie and his second wife, Zorine.

Both Amy and David have strong recollections of going to work with their father. “I spent countless hours in my father’s restaurants with him,” says David. “I have memories of every facet — from him pitching landlords on new concepts, to attending construction meetings, to joining him on table visits while he visited with regulars.”

Amy remembers heading downtown from their Highland Park home on Saturdays to visit the build-out of Arnie’s. “We would sweep out the space after the week of construction,” she remembers. “I loved the sound of gravel under his shoes.”

Their father, born in the 1920s, was of a different generation. “Everything about him was unworldly,” says David. “He always dressed like it was New Year’s Eve, always made people feel great, yet he was also very modest and shy.”

In terms of working for their father, David thinks that while he might have logged the least time working for his father (although his first restaurant job was at Taste of Chicago), extensive time was spent with Arnie while he was developing restaurants, attending concept development and design meetings. Conversely, Amy worked in the restaurants for years, from her first gig as “crêpe girl” at Arnie’s North in Highland Park to waiting tables and managing other properties. She was director of recruitment and training for six of her dad’s restaurants when she left in 1989 to open Mirador, her own place in Old Town. She closed it in 1993 and took 10 years off to raise her three daughters with husband Neal Levin before starting a new restaurant concept in Evanston.

David, a serial entrepreneur, started his first business while still studying economics at University of Wisconsin. His holdings now include DMK Restaurants, his restaurant business with partner Michael Kornick; 2 to 5 Design, an interior design firm where he partners with wife Jodi; and a real estate investment company. Amy owns Evanston’s popular Found Kitchen & Social House and The Barn, a “modern meaterie” that is an homage to her beloved father. A life-size black-and-white photo of young Arnie on a pony (circa 1930) adorns the wall of the bar.

“My dad was incredible. I learned so much from him,” she says. “No one could work a room like my dad. He had an idea a minute. I think I’m like him in those ways.” David remembers his father’s strong work ethic and tries to model that, along with Arnie’s “passion for creativity, structuring businesses the right way, giving back to your community and treating people as you would like to be treated.” Both Amy and David give back significantly to their Evanston and Chicago communities, both personally and professionally.

Looking toward the future of the Morton family, David is optimistic. “I hope I’ve taught [my kids] the value of a great work ethic, which I learned from my father,” says David. “They can follow those footsteps into any field and enjoy success. To me, it’s all about happiness and having the freedom to create.”