Stefani Signature Restaurants has been a fixture of the Chicago dining scene since 1980. Led by c.e.o. Phil Stefani, the group operates steakhouses, upscale Italian and seafood restaurants in high-profile locations including Chicago’s famed Navy Pier. Daughter Gina Stefani, 31, worked in the company’s events division until last year, when she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and open a restaurant. That venture, MAD Social in the city’s West Loop neighborhood, opened last fall with Maria Bolanos (formerly of Fabio Viviani’s Bar Siena) as the chef. Stefani took a few minutes to chat about family and business.
You grew up in restaurants, didn’t you?
My cousins and my brother and I used to play hide and seek around Stefani’s. I still see regular customers today who remember me as a kid.
What was your vision for your first concept?
I knew I wanted my first restaurant to feel comfortable and familiar, like Stefani’s. Being in the West Loop, I liked the warehouse feel of this space, the exposed brick and [distressed] floors. We used reclaimed woods wherever we could.
I wanted a diverse menu so people could come in a couple of times a week. I also wanted to base it on traveling and the places I’ve eaten, with a mix of shareable plates and entrée-sized portions. There’s everything from chicken and waffles to globally infused dishes [including Togarashi Spiced Chicken Lollipops, $12, and Duck Confit Bao Buns, $14].
Did you have to run a business plan by your father, or did you have a lot of freedom?
Dad is an on-the-go kind of person, which has worked for him for 30 years, but I come from the events world, so I’m more OCD and used to strategic planning. My dad is very supportive and definitely speaks his mind. This is the company’s first restaurant in 14 years, and most of our executives have been here from the beginning. Mad Social is a more relaxed format [than any of the previous restaurants], but they didn’t nix anything.
The Stefani name is well known in Chicago. Was it important to put your own stamp on this project?
Yes and no. I’m proud of the longevity and our reputation for service and quality, so I wanted to stay true to that with Mad Social. But I also wanted to do something modernized with a refreshed look and feel, and that’s where my personality comes out. It’s fun and relaxed, from the servers’ uniforms—they’re denim and black—to USB outlets. I knew I was coming into a great brand and I wanted to stay true to that, but the fact that this is my first place made me want to give it my personality and my own touches.
What do you like most about your job?
Seeing people walk around and take it all in. I like to listen to what they’re saying about the food. After all the time and effort you put into creating a restaurant, it’s rewarding to see people enjoying it.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
The Duck Confit Bao Bun and the Havarti Mac and Cheese, and we just rolled out brunch, so the Salmon Gravlax and Pancakes, too.
What do you do for fun?
Long, European-style meals with family and friends. And I soul cycle a couple of times a week to clear my head.