Monday, May 11, 2020

The History of Rich Melman's "Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc." Chicagoland Restaurants.

When Richard Melman began to get famous because of his restaurant success, he told several interviewers that he used to work for his father, Maurie, at a delicatessen. Rich Melman was the guy at the cash register. He was the ''Ricky'' in Mr. Ricky's. ''Yeah, my dad named the place after me,'' he said. ''The funny thing was, I hated to be called 'Ricky.' My friends all called me 'Rich.' But the place was Mr. Ricky's."

Mr. Ricky's Restaurant was on Skokie Boulevard and Gross Point Road, in Skokie, Illinois, in a nondescript shopping strip mall on the north-west corner. 

For years Melman did not get along with his father. ''I would have worked somewhere else, but I didn't feel I had a lot going for me,'' he said. ''I flunked out of college — well, I would have flunked out if I hadn't quit first — so I worked for my dad, behind that cash register.''

He had one dream: He wanted to be a partner in Mr. Ricky's. ''That would have been it for me,'' Melman said. ''That's all I wanted out of life.''

He managed to save some money, and one day he asked his father and his father's partner if he could speak with them. He said that he would like to join them — if only in the most minor way — as a partner in Mr. Ricky's. He was, after all, Ricky.

''My father told me no,'' Melman said. ''He said that I was welcome to continue working there, but that I wasn't ready to help run the place.

''Come to think of it, even though I worked the cash register, my dad would never let me total it up at the end of the day. He just wouldn't let me do it.

''So Melman quit, and with his friend, Jerry A. Orzoff, he opened R.J. Grunts (Rich - Jerry Grunts), in 1971. Then Melman started the "Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Inc." (LEYE) with Orzoff. The success of R.J. Grunts marked the beginning, and things built on that. 
In 1973 new ideas and concepts were created, including the debut of Fritz That's It! 

Fritz That's It! was located at 1615 Chicago Avenue which was next door to the North Shore Hotel which was located at 1611 Chicago Avenue. There was no hotel access between Fritz That's It! and the North Shore Hotel, nor any affiliation. 
Click Menu Cover for a Full-Size Image
Click Lunch Menu for a Full-Size Image
Click Dinner Menu for a Full-Size Image
Fritz That's It! was followed by the Great Gritzbe's Flying Food Show in 1974; Jonathan Livingston Seafood in 1975; and Lawrence of Oregano in 1976. With each new restaurant, Melman's style evolved as he welcomed new challenges.
Having mastered the off-beat casual restaurant-style, Melman directed his attention and energy toward the world of fine cuisine when he reopened the famous Pump Room in the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago's Gold Coast in 1976 which originally opened in 1938.
The force behind the original Pump Room was Ernest Byfield, right, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The Bogarts were regulars of the Ambassador East Hotel and Booth One, even honeymooning in an upstairs suite.
In 1979, Melman decided to expand to the Chicago suburbs and opened Bones in Lincolnwood, Illinois. In 1980, LEYE took the popular R.J. Grunts, added a more contemporary look, and opened a second location in Glenview, Illinois.

In 1980, Melman with Chef Gabino Sotelino traveled together to France where they insisted on bringing contemporary French cuisine to Chicago. This lead to the opening of Ambria in the Belden-Stratford at 2300 North Lincoln Park West in Chicago. The success of Ambria inspired additional trips to Europe in order to study food and style. 
As a result of such visits, LEYE opened Un Grand Café, a French-styled bistro at 2300 N Lincoln Park West in Chicago, and the sophisticated Italian restaurant, Avanzare. In 1983 Melman opened Gino’s franchise unit in Rolling Meadows.

Then came the Shaw's Crab House/Blue Crab Lounge in 1984-85, the Spanish tapas and small plate restaurant Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in 1986 and upscale dining at Everest in 1986, the innovative Mexican creations at Hat Dance in1988, Tucci Benucch in 1988 and its cousin Tucci Milan in1989, and the southern Italian trattoria, Scoozi! in 1986.
In the 1990s LEYE opened Maggiano's Little Italy in Chicago in1991 and Oak Brook in 1992. Papagus Greek Taverna in Oak Brook in1991 featured Grecian delights and Mezedes amidst the friendly surroundings of a rustic taverna, and Big Bowl in Chicago's River North district in 1992 an Asian cafe featuring simple, fresh dishes under $10. Melman opened the Corner Bakery, a quick, casual restaurant chain geared towards downtown lunches and M Burger, a gourmet burger stand.
In the spring of l993, Melman introduced to the public two new innovative dining concepts with the opening of foodlife and MityNice Grill, located in Chicago’s Water Tower Place. foodlife, a revolutionary food hall, offering an abundant choice among 13 kiosks while MityNice Grill which was located at the east end of foodlife, was a comfortable, neighborhood grill that had the decor and feel of the 1940s, accompanied by a diverse yet simple menu.
At the end of 1995, LEYE opened two new distinctive restaurants. Brasserie Jo, at 59 West Hubbard Street, Chicago, was an authentic, lively French brasserie offering traditional French cuisine and an extensive selection of European cocktails, opened in September. 
Wildfire, which features quality steaks, chops, and seafood in a warm and stylish environment opened in December of 1995. 

In 1996 Melman opened its first Chinese restaurant in January, Ben Pao, which loosely translated means firecracker. In December of 1998, Wildfire opened in Oak Brook and a Wildfire in Lincolnshire in 1999.

In March of 1999, Bones Restaurant in Lincolnwood was reopened and rebranded as L. Woods Tap & Pine Lodge, a nostalgic Northwoods Supper Club with a log cabin feel. 
Several exciting new concepts opened in 1999 including a fine-dining restaurant, Tru, with Chef Partners Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand, and Vong with partner Jean-Georges Vongerichten. 

In April of 1999, Rich Melman and Gerard Centioli announced the formation of ICON, LLC, (ICON) which was formed to establish partnerships with established restaurant icons for the expressed purpose of multi-unit expansion and development. 

In 2000 LEYE opened Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab which was a Miami restaurant icon, in Chicago. Mon Ami Gabi opened its third location in the Oakbrook Mall. 
Shaw’s expanded to the Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg with Shaw’s Crab House and Red Shell. In early 2001, LEYE expanded into Chicago’s Loop area with a brand new restaurant concept called Petterino’s, located in the Goodman Theater building featuring prime steaks, fresh seafood, and classic specialties in a 1940s atmosphere. 
Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Vong-Chicago was revamped into Vong’s Thai Kitchen with a lower-priced menu and a vibrant atmosphere.
As the success of Wildfire continued, in June 2003 a new location was opened in Schaumburg, Illinois. Later that summer, LEYE developed a new fast, casual concept called Wow Bao, located in the entrance of Chicago’s Water Tower Place shopping center. Wow Bao, specialized in Asian influenced savory steamed buns, nourishing broths, crunchy salads, and specialty sodas, and teas. At the end of the year in December, Wildfire opened its sixth location in Glenview.
The second Wow Bao in the new Chicago Loop location started off 2007. In March, Wow Bao opened for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offering breakfast bao, entrée salads, dumplings, and potstickers. Frankie’s Fifth Floor Pizzeria opened in the 900 North Michigan Avenue Shops offering Sardinian and Tavern Pizzas to order.
In 2008, Frankie’s Scaloppine opened next to Frankie’s Fifth Floor Pizzeria, a neighborhood Italian restaurant with style featuring chicken, veal, and vegetable scaloppini.
In the summer of 2008, Rich Melman’s sons, R.J. and Jerrod, opened Hub 51, an American concept located in River North. Hub 51 duals as a restaurant/bar skewed to the young and hip with great food, drinks, and music. Hub 51 also opened in O'Hare Terminal 5.
Today, LEYE has 84 restaurants in Chicagoland. Current Restaurant names and locations. 
  • NOTE: This article does not include LEYE other U.S. or European restaurants. 
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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