Stefani’s to open on site of former Kow Kow restaurant
by SEAN KEENEHAN
The former Kow Kow restaurant property, 6755 N. Cicero Ave., has been purchased by the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group and will be redeveloped as a new restaurant.
Kow Kow was established in 1949 on Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park, and it moved to its Lincolnwood location at the southeast corner of Pratt and Cicero avenues in 1989. The restaurant, which earned a reputation for providing quality Chinese-American fare, closed on May 31, 2015, after owner Don Moy announced his retirement.
The Moy family received several offers from businesses and developers to sell the 31,822-square-foot property, including a proposal by the Grossinger Auto Group to use the site as a car dealership and a proposal by the Northfield Group to construct a mixed-use housing development with 3,600 square feet of commercial space and 24 residential units.
Kow Kow was in the B-2 general business district, and it was rezoned to the R-4 residential district in the late 1990s to allow townhouse developments. In 2014 the property was rezoned from R-4 back to B-2, which does not permit residential developments.
Last year the Lincolnwood Economic Development Commission identified the property as one of five key commercial development sites in the village. The property was sold in late December for a reported amount of $1,050,000.
"There really wasn’t a lot of proposals that were concrete in any way, just a lot of speculation," village community development director Steve McNellis said. "No proposals got passed, just initial discussions until we heard some initial interest in the fall from the Stefani Restaurant Group.
"We didn’t know if they were going to move forward, and then somewhere in the late fall we were told that they were close to a deal on the property and that they were planning to go ahead and purchase it."
McNellis called Kow Kow a "much loved" restaurant in the village and said that a restaurant called Trattoria Gallo operated on the site for about 40 years before Kow Kow opened.
"A restaurant is a perfect use in that location," McNellis said. "The access to the Edens Expressway is not even a half-mile away and it’s right off of Cicero and Pratt, a well known intersection of two well traveled regional roadways.
"From a village standpoint we’re certainly very lucky to have such a high-quality and well respected restaurateur coming to this property. Somebody like Phil Stefani putting a restaurant there, that name is going to get out there quickly, and it will draw from the region, not just Lincolnwood. It will be a great addition to the village."
Phil Stefani, a longtime Lincolnwood resident, opened his first restaurant, Stefani’s, in 1980 on Fullerton Avenue in Lincoln Park. Stefani expanded his business to a variety of restaurants and private event venues, a catering division and a retail line of pasta sauces and Italian specialty foods.
While the original Stefani’s restaurant closed in 2003, Stefani currently operates Tuscany locations in Chicago, Oak Brook, Wheeling and at O’Hare and Midway airports, Castaways Bar and Grill at North Avenue Beach, Tavern on Rush, Mad Social and Navy Pier locations that include Riva Crab House, the Miller Lite Beer Garden and the Crystal Gardens.
Stefani’s 32-year-old daughter, Gina Stefani, opened Mad Social last year and will run the new restaurant in Lincolnwood. Stefani said that she was "born into the restaurant business" and that she worked at Castaways and at various banquet locations during summer and winter breaks in high school and college.
“The day I opened Mad Social and even before that my father told me, ‘Don’t take for granted the customers that come into your restaurant. You want them to feel at home, you want them to be an extension of their home,’” Gina Stefani said. “One thing that has stuck with me and that I instill at Mad Social is that hospitality that I feel is so important. Welcoming in every person and taking the time to talk to each table and really get to know the neighbors and what they like. That’s what I feel the Kow Kow location will be, it will be a neighborhood feel.”
Prior to opening Mad Social, Gina partnered with her mother Karen Stefani in December 2014 to manage and rename the family’s catering division as Inspired Catering and Events by Karen and Gina Stefani. While her mother currently handles most of the day-to-day operations for Inspired, Gina applies her background in event planning to coordinate day-of logistics for weddings, corporate parties and more.
“To this day, I absolutely love when I get to do those big events,” Gina Stefani said.
While several Stefani restaurants are known for offering Italian cuisine, planning for the Lincolnwood restaurant is in the initial stages, and a name and a theme have not been determined. The size and capacity of the restaurant and whether the existing building will be completely or partially demolished also is being discussed.
Stefani said that she would like to open the new restaurant in the summer or the fall. Once a restaurant plan is decided on, the Stefani Group will meet with the village to determine what is needed to obtain a building permit.
"I’ve heard a number of different rumors, from keeping the building, to keeping one wall of the building, to demolishing it," McNellis said. "I know that they’re going to be coming in with plans that are going to be the kind of thing that we want to see here in Lincolnwood. We’re excited to have them here and look forward to moving forward quickly on this."
The Stefani family has a long history in Lincolnwood. Karen grew up in the village and moved away after she married Phil. Ten months after Gina was born, her parents moved back to the village.
“We all were in Lincolnwood at one point,” Gina Stefani said. “I ate at Kow Kow, the neighborhood all ate at Kow Kow. Now it’s taking it into the next generation and it’s exciting that I get to work with my family to do that. The neighborhood has grown and it’s just another factor of going in that direction of change and growing, and I think it’s all for the positive.
"Over the course of the next couple of months we’ll have new information and a better idea, but right now we’re just super excited to announce the location, that we are going into Lincolnwood and bringing that downtown restaurant that we’ve been doing forever closer to home."