Friends Remember, Praise Joe Bartolotta
One of city's top restauranteurs passes away, remembered for his kindness and passion.
One of the city’s best-known restaurateurs has died: Joe Bartolotta, co-owner of the Bartolotta Restaurants, died in his sleep “with a smile on his face,” according to a statement from the Bartolotta Restaurants. Bartolotta was 60 years old. His family has asked for privacy, and a cause of death was not revealed.
“Joe is beloved by the Milwaukee community for his hospitality heart, generosity and love of all,” the statement continued.
Bartolotta co-owned The Bartolotta Restaurants with his brother Paul. Joe Bartolotta, who grew up in Wauwatosa, gained experience in the industry by working at numerous restaurants in New York City. Eventually he returned to Wauwatosa, and in 1993, he and his brother opened Restorante Bartolotta in that city.
Over the next 11 years, Bartolotta opened three more restaurants, including Bartolotta’s Lake Park Bistro and Bacchus, both in Milwaukee, and Mr. B’s in Brookfield. According to its website, the restaurant group launched Bartolotta Catering & Events “following the success of Joe’s diverse restaurants.” The Bartolotta Restaurants now operate 15 food and beverage outlets, including 10 restaurants, across Wauwatosa, Brookfield, Milwaukee, Mequon and Grendale. His restaurants and chefs won many awards, citations and enthusiastic reviews over the years.
While he made his name with high-end restaurants, Bartolotta also opened a wide range of more casual places, including a custard and burger stand on the shore of Lake Michigan, called Northpoint Custard in 2009, a pizza and pasta restaurant, Nonna’s, at Mitchell International Airport, a second Northpoint Custard stand and Pizzeria Piccola. The Rumpus Room, a European-inspired gastropub located on Water St, was another change of pace in pricing, atmosphere and approach to food.
Bartolotta was active in various organizations in the community. He was involved in the Bartolotta Restaurants’ charity, Care-a-lotta, and also served on the MATC Advisory Board for Culinary Arts, the VISIT Milwaukee board, the UW-Stout Hospitality board and the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Restaurant Association.
The Bartolotta Restaurants website highlights that Bartolotta “actively” supported the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and organ donation awareness. He previously told the Milwaukee Business Journal that he “had stayed quiet for decades about having juvenile diabetes.” In 2013, Bartolotta underwent surgery for a living-kidney-donor transplant, which he received from his brother-in-law, Jamie Shiparski. “Jamie’s my angel,” Joe said about the transplant. “He saved my life.”
His kidney transplant is at the heart of one memory from City of Milwaukee Municipal Court Judge Derek Mosley. In a post on Facebook, Mosley says that he also underwent a kidney transplant, and had his surgery three years after Bartolotta. Mosley called Bartolotta and his wife, Jennifer, for advice. “He told me one of the hardest things after transplant, was getting up from a seated position. He told me to go purchase a recliner that goes from a seated position to a standing position, thus making recovery easier. I told him, although it would be helpful, there was no way I would be able to purchase one before the surgery,” Mosley says in the post. “Two days later, a motorized recliner was delivered to my house, compliments of Joe Bartolotta. It truly made all the difference. He was the kindest man I have ever met.”
Friends and acquaintances of Bartolotta continued to share their stories of him online.
Joe was a friend and fixture in our community. I always enjoyed catching up with him whenever we saw each other at community events (which was often). Last time I saw him was the day DNC MKE was announced and he was amped. From the first time I met him to the last day I spoke to him, he always brought enthusiasm to everything he did.
Omar Shaikh, co-owner and president of SURG restaurant group, wrote his condolences on twitter. “He was an amazing human being who always took my call whenever I needed advice,” the tweet reads. “He also gave back in so many ways to this community. He will be missed tremendously.”
In a piece dedicated to his career, OnMilwaukee’s Lori Fredrich remembers how Bartolotta often invested in others with kindness:
As his success grew, so did his generosity…He gave to near strangers. He gave when no one was looking. He gave as he was blessed, and the world was better for it…
In thinking back on years of interviews with Joe Bartolotta, I recall numerous occasions when we talked about the art of training great service personnel. Bartolotta was insistent that, although things like timing and procedures could be taught, a good portion of the talent needed to come from something deep inside.
“We’re looking for people with a sparkle,” he said to me. “Being good in this business comes from within. You have to be good people.”
The funeral service for Joe Bartolotta will be held on Saturday, April 27 at 10 am at The Riverside Theater (116 W. Wisconsin Ave). The service will be open to the public.