Lessons Learned from Joe Bartolotta

 The Village of Greendale pays tribute to Joe Bartolotta with the statue of Norman Rockwell painting the iconic restaurant operator. Joe Bartolotta started Joey Gerard’s - A Bartolotta Supper Club in the historic downtown Village of Greendale.
The Village of Greendale pays tribute to Joe Bartolotta with the statue of Norman Rockwell painting the iconic restaurant operator. Joe Bartolotta started Joey Gerard’s – A Bartolotta Supper Club in the historic downtown Village of Greendale.

Joe Bartolotta’s impact on the Milwaukee community is clear, but his legacy is becoming even more evident as the tributes are spoken by those mourning him.

I frequently update our tour scripts so that our tour guides have the most updated information to share with tour attendees. This week I had to make an update that I hoped to never make: Joe Bartolotta, who we saw so frequently while stopping into his many restaurants with tour groups, died in his sleep at age 60. I did not know Joe well but interacted with him often. By observing his values in action and seeing how he treated each of his 1,000+ employees as if they were family, I’ve learned lessons along the way that I realize now helped lay the groundwork for all that we have created at Milwaukee Food & City Tours.

Although I’ll never have the chance again to thank Joe personally, I did want to take a moment to share 4 lessons that I’ve learned from him.


Never. Say. No.

Prior to starting my company, I was a professional fundraiser in Milwaukee for 15 years. Every fundraiser has an informal list of business owners that always say no and there is the list of business owners that will always say yes. It was no secret in town – Joe Bartolotta was firmly at the top of the giving list. Joe donated to every single non-profit that made a request to his organization. As his organization grew, so did his charity efforts including the creation of Care-a-lotta which continues to make an impact in the community today. Joe’s philosophy of “never say no” has fundamentally shaped our own company. From being willing to implement unique tours to responding to every non-profit request from our community members, his value of never saying no has guided me in deciding what list I want to be on. 


Make a Difference.

Joe also gave so much of his time to Milwaukee’s non-profit community. I first met him when he was a volunteer at the American Diabetes Association, where he and Jennifer were willing to roll up their sleeves to do anything asked of them. He served on the board of directors of numerous non-profits, he took an active role in volunteering for local events, he enjoyed teaching students how to work in a kitchen, and how to interview to secure their first job in a restaurant. I was recently asked to serve on an advisory board for James Madison Academic Academy, the same school in which Joe started the ProStart culinary program for students. I regularly have seen the long-lasting impact of the program on participants and their families as students are graduating and then securing their first jobs within the hospitality industry.

He also gave to many, quietly, in their times of need and pain. In a Facebook post released earlier this week we were touched by what Derek Mosley shared. This is just one of many small but meaningful touches by Joe that we are learning of this week: 

“When I was preparing for my kidney transplant surgery, I basically cold called Jennifer & Joe Bartolotta for advice on what to expect, for Joe had a kidney transplant 3 years prior. They invited me and my wife for dinner and conversation at Lake Park Bistro. Joe & Jennifer were so forthcoming and shared literally everything we would encounter during the process. It was extremely helpful to be so prepared for life after transplant. 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. We finished dinner and I said I would be in contact post surgery. Two days later, a motorized recliner was delivered to my house, compliments of  Joe Bartolotta.”


The Customer Experience.

About 20 years ago, I sold gift certificates for Bartolotta restaurants at Christmas time at a mall kiosk. His training program for this part time and seasonal set of employees was incredible. He hosted our team to a dine-around on which we were taken to each of his restaurants. He was a storyteller and wanted to make sure that each of us saw the locations and tasted the food so that we could talk with customers at the kiosk with our own personal experiences. The most impactful moment was when he took a moment at his flagship restaurant in the Village of Wauwatosa, Ristorante Bartolotta, to talk to us about the importance of the customer experience. His talk cemented in me a career-long understanding of the importance of going the extra mile to ensure a flawless customer experience. I’ll never forget when he sat in the middle of the restaurant and began to point out 10 or 15 very minor observations that he deemed could negatively impact a customer’s experience. He spoke about a chair that had an ever-slight tilt to it, a worn menu, and a fly circulating the room. After he spoke and we began to eat, I took note that he was circulating the room and fixing each of these infractions before the restaurant opened to the public.


 Tribute to Joe Bartolotta’s impact on the Milwaukee lakefront
Tribute to Joe Bartolotta’s impact on the Milwaukee lakefront

Make Milwaukee Better.

Thru and thru, it was evident that Joe loved Milwaukee. Last year we were honored when we were asked to appear in a video for VISIT Milwaukee talking about tourism in our favorite city. Our segment was to be taped immediately following Joe’s timeslot in the studio. They cautioned me not to arrive early because they were certain taping Joe’s segment would run long. Indeed, it did. Joe was an amazing storyteller, and if there was one story he loved telling, it was the story of why he loved being a part of Milwaukee. (You can watch that video HERE if you’d like – his segment begins about 3 minutes in with his words, “Milwaukee’s my home. I love this city.”) From his vision to grow his company, to heightening the dining options on the lakefront and all of downtown Milwaukee, to volunteering for a wide array of non-profits, to his most recent role in speaking on behalf of Milwaukee to the DNC 2020 selection committee, Milwaukee has always been at the heart of his work. In his passing, I regret that we will not be able to witness where that passion would have taken him, and Milwaukee, in the coming years. Together, we must each use our own love of Milwaukee to continue to make it the amazing place it is.   

Thank you, Joe Bartolotta. We are certain that the angels in heaven are enjoying the best pappardelle ever compliments of you tonight.

 Downtown Milwaukee preparing for Joe Bartolotta’s funeral at The Riverside Theatre.
Downtown Milwaukee preparing for Joe Bartolotta’s funeral at The Riverside Theatre.

Service Details

The funeral service for Joe Bartolotta will be held this Saturday, April 27, 2019, promptly at 10:00 am at The Riverside Theater (116 W. Wisconsin Ave). The service will be open to the public. 

In homage to Joe’s bright disposition that he brought every day, it is requested that if you attend, no black attire be worn to the service. Additionally, in lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to 

The Italian Community Center, Discovery World or the Wisconsin Humane Society.

In an effort to minimize distractions at the funeral, the family requests that no photography, videotaping or recording of any kind on any device (including cell phones) take place inside The Riverside Theater.

If you are unable to attend the celebration of life for Joe Bartolotta, the entire event will be live streamed through The Bartolotta Restaurants’ Facebook page:


Complimentary parking from Interstate Parking is being provided from 9am – 3pm at the following locations:

  • Surface Lot at Grand Avenue (enter under “Street Level Parking”)

  • Empire Lot

  • Gimbels Lot