A powerhouse restaurant group that has recently opened some of the North Shore’s most acclaimed dining establishments will soon be bringing scenes from an Italian restaurant to downtown Highland Park — alongside a sizable serving of grant funding from the city.
Highland Park’s City Council during its Monday, Jan. 29 meeting approved an economic incentive agreement with DeNucci’s Italian HP, a new eatery from the Ballyhoo Hospitality restaurant group that will be located at 1850 Second St.
The space, which is adjacent to the Wayfarer Theaters, was occupied by steakhouse Beelow’s Steakhouse from 2015-2020 and before then, Rosebud.
The council’s approval of the incentive agreement green lights a $1.5 million grant to the restaurant operator that will be used toward what city officials estimate as a total project cost of $2.3 million to bring the coveted business to downtown Highland Park.
In August of last year during a committee of the whole session, city officials recommended a new “boutique incentive” as a way “to attract highly desirable established restaurant groups with a proven track record of success, facilitate leases between businesses and property owners, and catalyze more restaurants and businesses to invest in Highland Park,” according to a village memo.
The boutique incentive tool includes both a grant and loan prorgrams. The approved incentive agreement with Ballyhoo does not feature a loan component, officials said.
According to village documents, the boutique incentive program is designed as a short-term initiative with a terminating date of the fiscal year 2027 or after three to five qualifying restaurants open in Highland Park.
“The city has a very comprehensive, thoughtful and action-oriented business development strategic plan and as part of that strategic plan, we identify opportunities and incentives to retain and attract businesses, to energize our tax base and to enhance the overall quality of life in Highland Park through specific business-related initiatives,” City Manager Ghida Neukirch told council members at the meeting.
Neukirch later added that the initiative is “consistent with the city’s commitment to economic development, which the council has identified as one of our top priorities.”
While all council members expressed support for Ballyhoo bringing one of its prized restaurants to Highland Park, the council did not fully agree that the end result justified the means.
The council ultimately was not fully united in its decision, voting 5-2 to approve the incentive agreement. Several board members detailed hesitations about providing taxpayer money to a private business.
“I’m in support of you and your organization and what you’re going to do for us as a city,” Councilmember Anthony Blumberg said. “My (no) vote has more to do with my feeling about the role of municipal government and what we should and shouldn’t be doing in terms of promoting business.
“I support business. I think there are certain things that we should do and do. This, for me, feels beyond that in terms of the scope. It has nothing to do with my feeling about your likely success, which I know is going to be great.”
Echoing the thoughts of Blumberg, board member Kim Stone stated she is “not in favor of providing taxpayer dollars of $1.5 million to a private business.”
“The city’s role is to make Highland Park an attractive place to do business and using taxpayer dollars to subsidize a for-profit business is not an appropriate use of public funds nor is it fair to our existing businesses or others seeking to locate here without a subsidy,” she said. “I think that it’s a slippery slope and I don’t know how we can say no to other businesses that request similar subsidies in the future.”
Although there was concern from a portion of the council, there was also plenty of support toward the agreement.
Councilmember Jeff Hoobler, the owner of local brewpub Ravinia Brewing Company, said approving the agreement is the City of Highland Park “keeping up with the Joneses effectively.” Hoobler noted a similar agreement that was reached between Ballyhoo and the nearby community of Glenview to bring one of the group’s restaurants to the village.
According to documents from the village of Glenview, a $1.75 million grant was provided to the company to help aid the development of a new restaurant in the village, which is planned to open later this year.
“The public needs to know that we as a city … are doing what we have to do,” Hoobler said.
He later added that Highland Park officials “took notice” of the agreement Glenview struck with the company.
“I think the people of Highland Park need to know that there’s a reason we’re doing this and it’s not because we’re just throwing money around,” he said. “This is what it takes to get a top-notch restaurant group to come to Highland Park and to get a space like this filled. So we’re taking the leap and we’re competing with other communities in the area and we’re making investments in our downtown. … If you want to bring back the businesses to Highland Park, you have to invest.”
Councilmembers Andrés Tapia, Yumi Ross, Annette Lidawer and Mayor Nancy Rotering also all cast their support for the agreement.
Tapia called the use of funds “exceptionally justified” while Ross applauded city staff and expressed her belief that the incentive agreement proposal is a “bold, innovative and smart move.”
Ballyhoo Hospitality was first established in 2018 and founded by restaurant industry veterans Ryan and Anna O’Donnell. After the group opened multiple restaurants in Chicago, the company’s first appearance on the North Shore came in 2020 with the debut of Sophia Steak in downtown Wilmette.
Ballyhoo Hospitality has since opened additional eateries: Buck Russell’s bakery and sandwich shop and Pizza by Sal (located in adjacent storefronts) in Wilmette, and Pomeroy, a French restaurant in neighboring Winnetka. A second location of the popular Sophia Steak opened in Lake Forest in 2022.
The restaurant group’s Highland Park venture will be its second to operate under the DeNucci’s brand. Ballyhoo opened the original DeNucci’s in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood in 2023.
City officials said at the meeting that the restaurant is slated to open in the fall of this year.
According to village documents, the restaurant concept “promises an inviting ambiance with old-school Italian charm and a fresh appeal. Guests who dine at DeNucci’s can experience an authentic, approachable, warm, and welcoming environment while enjoying classics like Artichoke Vesuvio, Mozzarella al Forno and Veal Marsala,” the group’s proposal reads.
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Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.