Gibsons Confidential: Inside tales from the famous restaurant are in a book you can’t yet read

Nuts, I missed it when Jack Nicholson asked, “Do you make a good Bloody Mary?” And I was not there the night Billy Joel sat at the piano in the bar and played for more than an hour to help celebrate house pianist Joe Hurt’s 21st birthday.

I was not around when Frank Sinatra walked into Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse at 1028 N. Rush St. and told a waiter, “OK, you can call me Frank, but make sure this glass is full (of Jack Daniel’s) every time you see me.”

These are among the many celebrity-studded stories contained in a manuscript that may become a book titled “An Oral History of the Gibsons Restaurant Group.” It’s currently 90-some pages, compiled from interviews with members of the business family, roughly timed for the company’s 30th anniversary next year.

The night Mary J. Blige and Ice Cube sat together at the bar?

I missed that too.

But I was there earlier this week when Steve Lombardo said, “No, I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet but I look forward to that. I know a lot of the stories.”

You bet he does, for he and partner Hugo Ralli started this wildly successful business in 1989 and have since expanded it into something of a culinary kingdom. Gibsons Restaurant Group now includes Hugo’s Frog Bar & Fish House next door, Luxbar across the street, a few more places sprinkled around town, The Boathouse in Florida, Gibsons in Rosemont and Oak Brook, and a private party space here called the Montgomery Club and a catering outfit (more at www.grgmc.com).

Ralli has stepped away from the day-to-day operations, saying in the book, “After 47 years of slinging hash, that was enough. I’ve got other stuff to do.”

Both he and Lombardo ran other places before Gibsons, most famously Sweetwater, where Gibsons now sits and where Mister Kelly’s sat before that, at the corner of Rush Street and Bellevue Place at the vigorous heart of what has long been known as the Viagra Triangle.

They made quite a pair, these two. In the book, Peg Lombardo, Steve’s wife since 1973, says, “Hugo’s not a glad-hander, slap-‘em-on-the-back type of guy.” Kathy O’Malley, the indispensable maitre d’ and managing partner since the place opened, puts it like this: “Hugo is Steve’s total opposite … (They are) business partners only. They don’t go to each other’s weddings. They kept it business. They don’t have that emotional tie. It’s rare.”

This book was compiled by local freelance journalist Bill Healy, who came to the project through Sonari Glinton, a former radio colleague at WBEZ and a friend who once parked cars for Gibsons and is now an NPR Business Desk correspondent.

Healy interviewed 26 people, all current or former members of the Gibsons family. The book has 14 chapters that chart the colorful past and capture some of the things that have defined its success. Four chapters concern Gibson’s “core values,” defined as hospitality, quality, value and family.

“Those sections make for something that we might use to introduce new employees to our business philosophy,” said Liz Lombardo Stark, Steve and Peg’s daughter, who spent 15 years as a special education teacher before being lured into the family business five years ago as its director of marketing and public relations. “We are just not sure what form the final book might take. We may need to do more interviews.

“I have to tell you that I love what we have so far. I was only 12 when Gibsons opened, and there is a lot I didn’t know. My father didn’t come home after work and tell a little girl, for instance, what happened when a woman found her husband having a cozy dinner with his mistress.”

Only a few people have read the manuscript, and its future is in flux. Though it would seem to have serious commercial appeal, it could also wind up in the hands of a select few.

The idea for whatever it will be was planted a couple of years ago by Liz’s older brother, Steve Lombardo III, chairman and general counsel of the Gibsons Restaurant Group. (Their bother Michael Lombardo is the company’s chief systems officer and sister Christa Lombardo is its webmaster).

“We all know our dad is an amazing storyteller and we have so many people who have been with him here for decades,” Stark said. “We thought, with the 30th anniversary coming up and with some people at least thinking about retiring, it would be a good idea to record some of the stories and capture some of ways we work, make a record before it’s too late.”

So far, what they have is the working manuscript that provides an intimate look at Gibsons, naturally filled with celebrity stories but also with many business details, though at this point it lacks the sort of dirty secrets that peppered the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” that 2000 book that was popular then and a posthumous hit now.

Here’s about the best you’ll find on that score, from waiter Greg White: “If you tell me you want a cabernet, and I brought out a $15 glass of wine, and Steve found out I automatically brought you a $15 glass of wine instead of a $7 glass of wine, I would be suspended for three days.”

The restaurant business is not an easy business. Only a handful are able to survive more than a few years, and Lombardo was talking fondly of some that have vanished and more warmly of the big personalities who ran them: Arnie Morton of Arnie’s, Eli Schulman of Eli’s the Place for Steak, Don Roth of the Blackhawk.

He reminded me that for all of Gibsons’ success and longevity, the early days were tough. After opening parties filled the place with fanciers of free food and drinks, there was nobody. “We really scrapped by,” O’Malley told Healy. “We didn’t have money to buy matches. We didn’t have napkins. … We couldn’t afford anything.”

And here they are, with Gibsons ranked by Restaurant Business magazine as 2017’s 10th-top grossing independent restaurant in the country with nearly $25 million in sales. (The GRG’s The Boathouse in Florida came in at No. 6 with some $30 million).

It takes more than celebrities to make those kind of numbers. Yes, Gibsons has been a magnet for boldfaced names: Michael Jordan was a regular and visited hundreds of times when he lived and worked here. But Lombardo likes to think of the restaurant, without pretension, “as a neighborhood place.”

He then starts to tell the lively story of how the place got its name (it’s complicated, but the name Gibson kept coming up at the time it was founded) and how, in the beginning, his dad helped clean up the place and once caught a raccoon that had come in to visit.

His daughter sits quietly next to him, listening. Then she says, “We have just touched the surface with this book. There are so many more stories.”

As if on cue, her dad starts talking about the night they stayed open during a blizzard, and she says, “He’s still so passionate about it. Sure he’s changed a bit over the years. Sometimes he gets home at ten at night instead of two in the morning.”

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