“I grew up in the kitchen. I didn’t walk in the front door of the restaurant, I walked in the kitchen door.”
Gabriela Littleton has a little more skin in the game as director of banquets and private dining at Chicago steakhouse staple the Erie Cafe. To be exact, she has four generations worth, having spent the past two years working in concert with her grandfather, father, uncle and sister at the Lenzi-family owned business.
Growing up in the restaurant world didn’t initially pave the way to Littleton’s current career. “We were really pushed NOT to be involved in the business,” she says. “My dad [owner of the eponymous E.J.’s Place in Skokie] would say, ‘It’s so hard, you don’t ever want to do it, you need to go do something else!’” Littleton wound up studying political science in Washington, D.C.; while her sister, Giovanna, who currently works in the office and out front at Erie and E.J.’s, majored in geography and lived in Italy for a short time. But after what Littleton describes as “a year of hundreds of no’s,” she yielded to the persistent requests of her grandfather, Ron Lenzi, to come on board at Erie. “I spent all of my free time cooking and Instagramming food anyway,” she laughs.
Although she is intent on honoring the culinary offerings that have earned the Erie Cafe its reputation, Littleton has worked to bring some modern ideas to the lunch menu. A chicken sandwich with avocado as well as fresh pasta are recent additions. “We try to take some more traditional Italian items on the menu and do them a little bit differently,” she says.
While she plans on continuing to tweak the lunch menu, she approaches dinner a little more conservatively. “I respect the clientele that doesn’t want a lot to change,” Littleton says. “When you’re the fourth generation of a restaurant family, there’s a burden you have to bear in terms of what people expect from you and I understand that.”
As a mother of two, Littleton works to make sure that not only she, but those who work with her, have time to devote to their loved ones. Spoken as one who knows better than most, Littleton adds, “It’s a hard business on families, but at least I knew what I was getting myself into.”
While learning to manage her own way, Littleton credits her father with more than just restaurant advice. “I learned about how you should behave and how you should treat other people from him. I even order like him.” One of her most enduring memories is of watching her father slip the maître d at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami a $100 tip, and the fluidness and confidence with which he navigates a restaurant that wasn’t his own.
As if to underscore the generational allure of the Lenzi family business, Littleton’s mother arrives near the end of the interview to join her daughter in sampling a restaurant that recently opened nearby. A family steeped in food, tradition and the best steaks in town: The Lenzi name is in good hands.